You cannot practice law or call yourself an attorney without first meeting the professional requirements for becoming a lawyer. These are numerous and range from meeting educational standards and performing successfully in a bar exam, to clearing moral character and background checks. Below is a comprehensive list with descriptions of the standard prerequisites for the practice of law.
Understanding what is required of lawyers before they may legally practice law may help you find a qualified attorney (or decide whether or not to enter the legal profession yourself). See FindLaw's Guide to Hiring a Lawyer for related resources, including Researching Attorney Discipline and State Bar Associations.
1. Bachelor's Degree
Anyone who wants to pursue a law degree must first complete a bachelor's degree program (or its equivalent). The type of undergraduate degree is less important, but often reflects the practice area considered. For example, someone who wants to go into patent law might first pursue a bachelor's degree in engineering.
After completing your bachelor's degree, you will need to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which is one of several assessment tools used by law school admissions staff.
2. Law School
The next step is to graduate from or complete at least three years at a law school accredited by the American Bar Association, with slight variations from state to state. The California Bar Association, for example, requires graduation or the completion of at least four years of law school (non-accredited schools are included); four years of work in a judge's chambers program; or a study program combining those two educational methods. Vermont, Virginia, and Washington allow similar options, while New York requires at least one year of law school before completing an alternative form of legal education.
3. State Bar Exam
No matter how well you did in law school, you cannot legally practice law in a given state without passing that state's bar examination. Many attorneys have passed bar exams in several states, meaning they can practice law in each of those states.
Most bar exams take roughly 18 hours and are spread over three days, and are administered twice a year. The exam includes standardized questions and essays on a variety of areas of law used to assess an individual's understanding of the law and capacity for logical thought.
4. Character and Fitness Review
Since the practice of law is such a high stakes endeavor, involving the finances and in some cases the freedom of clients, each state bar requires applicants to undergo moral character and fitness reviews. This review includes question about academic conduct at law school; criminal history; social conduct in general; any applicable disciplinary actions while you were in college or law school; and other inquiries intended to gauge your ethical makeup.
Passage of this review is a requirement for obtaining your state law license.
Prospective attorneys must take a legally binding oath that they will uphold the codes and the Constitution of the United States, as well as the laws and constitution of the licensing state.
Completion of the above requirements typically results in the individual receiving his or her law license from their state's supreme court or high-court equivalent (the Court of Appeals is New York's highest court, for example). However, please check with your state's bar association for the specific requirements for a law license.
If you have additional questions about the professional requirements for becoming a lawyer, consider speaking with an attorney near you.