How to Become a Lawyer: The Complete Guide for Aspiring Law Students

20/06/202322 minute read
How to Become a Lawyer: The Complete Guide for Aspiring Law Students

Many high school students dream of careers in law. Some have strong feelings about social justice, others want to defend those who can’t protect themselves, and some just dream of working for a large law firm and making money. In any case, lawyers have the unique privilege of upholding the rule of law and championing the public good.

The path to a career in law can be complicated and confusing. This guide will help all aspiring lawyers better understand their career options and what it takes to become successful lawyers.

What do lawyers do?

Many people picture lawyers as tough defenders dressed in sharp suits, pacing a courtroom. They glamorize lawyers based on what they see on television. While lawyers who prosecute and defend criminals do exist, many are involved in everyday life events like buying homes, writing wills, counseling, advocating, and negotiating. Government agencies, law firms, private businesses, non-profit organizations, and academia all have lawyers. They help the general public interpret laws, rulings, and regulations related to their personal and professional lives.

Lawyers advise clients and represent them in both criminal and civil cases. Typically, they give advice, prepare documents, and advise clients on legal transactions before they even step foot in a courtroom. Once in the courtroom, they help select jurors, argue motions, question

Types of Law Careers

Law students typically choose a specific type of practice depending on whether they want to work in a corporate setting or help individual clients. Traditionally, solicitors and barristers make up the legal profession. A solicitor gives legal advice and can represent clients in courts. A barrister specializes in representing clients in courts.

Each type of lawyer has its own set of challenges, expectations, and perks. Here is just a sample of the many types of lawyers.

  • Corporate Lawyer
  • Contracts Lawyer
  • Bankruptcy Lawyer
  • General Practice Lawyer
  • Immigration Lawyer
  • Family Lawyer
  • Personal Injury Lawyer
  • Criminal Lawyer
  • Estate Lawyer

Why Study law?

Many students choose law because they want to help people, groups, organizations, or companies solve challenging problems and manage their legal issues. Here are some other reasons students choose to study law.

  1. Lawyers are in demand, and their jobs will not likely disappear anytime soon. Here are other jobs of the future.
  2. Law courses build a strong foundation for further or combined academic studies.
  3. A law degree opens up endless career opportunities. Graduates are desirable candidates for careers in media, academia, commerce, social work, politics, and more.
  4. Almost all lawyers are financially stable. While a law degree doesn’t guarantee a large salary and a successful career, it typically provides more than enough income and job security.
  5. Lawyers have the power to make a difference. Most students who pursue law have a strong sense of justice. They want to improve the system and the lives of those affected by the system. Lawyers can make significant changes to the legal system.
  6. Law is an honorable profession and graduating from law school is an empowering experience that builds self-confidence.

How much do lawyers make?

Junior lawyer/solicitor starting salary
Australia$118,474 USD a year
New Zealand$84,047 USD a year
UK$68,658 USD a year
US$127,990 USD a year

How long does it take to become a lawyer?

Regardless of where you go to law school, it takes approximately six or seven years to become a lawyer. Many countries have slightly different requirements, including shorter law schools, studying law as an undergraduate, and practical course requirements. For example, in the US, you only go to law school after finishing your bachelor's degree, and UK universities offer law as an undergraduate and a graduate degree.

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Steps to becoming a lawyer

Step 1: Study the right subjects

- High School Pathways

The road to becoming a lawyer starts in high school. If you’re willing to put in the work, you can set yourself up for a fast-tracked, successful law career before you even apply to a university.

Prerequisite subjects for studying law
  • Australia/NZ: English
  • UK: A level English
  • US: English
Highly recommended courses for future lawyers
  • Australia/NZ: history, writing, maths, psychology
  • UK: A Level writing, history, maths, psychology
  • US: AP English Literature/Language, AP US history/Comparative Government, AP psychology

- Undergraduate Pathways

Many university students, especially in the United States, choose to pursue law during or after receiving their undergraduate degrees. Since pre-law is not a major at US universities, it’s common to apply to law school with any major. It’s still essential to develop skills that translate to law school, including critical thinking, research, analytical skills, and strong writing ability. Ultimately, law schools will look at a student’s GPA, LSAT score, and extracurricular activities to determine if they are a good fit for their program.

Step 2: Enrol in Law School

It’s impossible to become a lawyer without a degree, so you’ll need to invest significant time learning about the law before you even see a case.

JD vs LLB vs LLM: The Law Degrees Explained

- Juris Doctor (JD):

To practice law in the United States, you need a JD degree. Considered the “first degree” in law, the JD is for anyone who wants to become a lawyer, become a law librarian, teach, or go into law consulting. It’s also helpful if you’re going to enter politics or work for an advocacy organization.

- Bachelor of Laws (LLB)

Universities in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand offer this 3-year undergraduate degree program. It’s a popular choice for students wishing to change careers.

- Master of Laws (LLM)

Students who choose the graduate-level LLM degree have the opportunity to study specific areas of law, expand their knowledge, advance their career, and earn international qualifications (if they received a law degree outside the US or Canada).

Studying law in Australia or New Zealand

In Australia, you’ll spend a minimum of four years studying to become a lawyer. You’ll pursue one of two degrees: a 4-year Bachelor of Law degree (LLB) or a combined LLB (5+ years). In New Zealand, an LLB takes four years to complete, and a combined LLB takes five.

Studying law in the United States

A law degree takes the longest in the United States. Before law school, students must complete a Bachelor’s degree in any subject (law isn’t an undergraduate degree), which takes four years. Then, students complete their Juris Doctor (JD) degree over the next three years. In total, law students in the United States are in school for at least seven years.

Studying law in the UK

Students can choose one of two paths to becoming a lawyer in the UK.

They can get a bachelor’s degree in any subject (three years) and then complete a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), which takes another two years. UK law students study for a total of five years. Designed to cover nearly the same content as an LLB degree in a shorter amount of time, the GDL allows non-law students to switch to law after university.

Alternatively, students can complete the typical LLB (3 years) or a combined LLB (5+ years).

There is a small loophole. While most lawyers do obtain a law degree in the UK, some do apprenticeships instead.

Through an apprenticeship program, students can qualify either as a solicitor (6-7 years), legal technician (2-3 years), or legal support (12-18 months). Additionally, an apprenticeship allows students to enter into law directly after high school.

What’s the easiest way to get a law degree?

You can get an LLB in the UK in three years. Studying in Australia/New Zealand takes at least four years to get a law degree. Finally, the US requires at least seven years of education to graduate with a law degree.

Bottom line, if you want to obtain a law degree as quickly as possible, get your degree in the UK.

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Where are the best universities for law?

It’s important to be strategic in university selection because it will make a difference in how fast you become a practicing lawyer. Since law is a competitive career, one of the best ways to get ahead is by going to a top international university.

Additionally, getting hired at a reputable firm is more about who you know, not what you know, especially in Australia and New Zealand, where many qualified lawyers never actually end up working in law. The best way to secure a job in Australia or New Zealand is to get excellent grades at a top university and find internships that connect you with influential people at respected law firms.

American law schools are internationally recognized as some of the best law schools in the world. Students with a US law degree are almost guaranteed a job after graduation. Even though studying in the US isn’t the quickest way to get your degree, it can save you years of job hunting.

Many US universities are considered Big Law “feeder schools.” That means the nation’s largest law firms (collectively nicknamed Big Law) recruit almost exclusively from these colleges. Attending one of them will “feed” you your dream job.

Here are a few examples of Big Law firms in the US:

  • Kirkland & Ellis was established in 1909 and is the world’s second-highest-grossing law firm with $2.65 billion (USD) in annual revenues. With more than 1,900 lawyers across 13 global offices, Kirkland is known for paying associates more than the market average, generously handing out performance-based bonuses. The starting salary for first-year associates is $180,000.
  • Jones Day was founded in 1893 and is the most prominent law firm in the US, with over 2,500 lawyers on its books and 44 offices scattered worldwide. They bring in $1.98 billion (USD) annually. A large percentage comes from the Fortune 500 companies Jones represents, including General Motors and Goldman Sachs.
  • DLA Piper has only been around since 2005 but brings in $2.48 billion (USD) in revenue each year. Headquartered in New York, DLA has 77 offices around the world and employs more than 3,700 lawyers.

Since many US universities have strong relationships with these firms, they can help you secure a position after graduation.

If you’d like to work in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, or the UK after law school, going to a university in the US will give you a massive edge on domestically educated students. Plus, most of these firms have offices in these countries or alliances with local firms.

Top 5 US Law Schools for Employment Opportunities
US Law SchoolsLocationLaw School Ranking 2023Percentage of students that go to a big law firm after graduation
Columbia Law SchoolNew York City, New YorkUS News Ranking: 8 QS World Ranking: 866%
Cornell Law SchoolIthaca, New YorkUS News Ranking: 13 QS World Ranking: 3464%
Northwestern University Pritzker School of LawEvanston, IllinoisUS News Ranking: 10 QS World Ranking: 6362%
University of Pennsylvania Carey Law SchoolPhiladelphia, PennsylvaniaUS News Ranking: 4 QS World Ranking: 2756%
University of Chicago Law SchoolChicago, IllinoisUS News Ranking: 3 QS World Ranking: 1056%
Top 5 UK Law Schools
UK Law SchoolsLocationQS Law School Ranking 2023Overall Score
University of CambridgeCambridge397.1
University of OxfordOxford298
The London School of Economics & Political ScienceLondon789.9
University College of LondonLondon1483.8
University of EdinburghEdinburgh1782.2
Top 5 Law Schools in Australia
Australia Law SchoolsLocationQS Law School Ranking 2023Overall Score
The University of MelbourneMelbourne, VIC1186.7
The Australian National UniversityCanberra, ACT2480.7
The University of New South WalesSydney, NSW1384.7
The University of SydneySydney, NSW1683.1
Monash UniversityMelbourne, VIC4076.8

Step 3: Get ahead in law school

It’s nearly impossible to become a lawyer without summer internships or clerkships. While studying your undergrad, you can get an internship almost anywhere, but you should find one related to law. Consider small local law firms, in-house legal departments, or even working for your local representative.

Your first internships often pave your future and may ultimately determine who hires you when you graduate. Start by applying to smaller law firms or even intern with a judge or professor. Get creative! After your second year of law school, use your experience and grades to get the best summer associate position possible. By year two, you should aim for a full-time job offer that begins after graduation.

The more practical skills you can develop through meaningful summer experiences, the more competitive you’ll be in the job market at graduation. To get ahead, you should aim to do something productive and law-related every summer you’re in law school.

Law school opportunities in Australia & New Zealand

The Australian Federal Court has a three-month volunteer program that allows you to gain practical experience in development projects.

In New Zealand, you may be able to find a summer internship in law before your final year. In your last summer before graduation, you can get a clerkship position that often leads to a full-time job.

Law school opportunities in the UK

If you’re studying in the UK, the best way to get a training contract and a job are by completing a vacation scheme.

Like New Zealand, vacation schemes are technically only available to students in their final year of law school. Still, there are many other ways you can gain experience in the summers leading up to your last year.

You can apply to smaller firms, ask your friends and family about job leads, and work for companies connected to your interests, such as the government or homeless shelters.

Law school opportunities in the US

The US has the most intensive summer requirements. Most students intern every summer during their undergraduate and graduate (law) school years. The best students often enter the job market with at least FIVE internships under their belt, if not more.

Extracurriculars for law School

To gain a prestigious summer position, you’ll need to go above and beyond the rest of your classmates. While a high GPA helps, you’ll need to fill the rest of your time with lots of relevant experience.

In most countries, you can watch court in session. You can also join networks of future lawyers, sign up to receive law news, join a mock trial, or even get your work published in a university law journal. The possibilities are endless!

Creative and out-of-the-box ideas get the attention of future employers. Think about what kind of law interests you and find extracurricular activities both in school and out of school that support your interests. Here are a few ideas:

  • Volunteer at a homeless shelter
  • Shadow government officials
  • Work for a not-for-profit that helps domestic abuse victims find jobs
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Step 4: Get Certified to practice law

Your journey to becoming a lawyer is almost complete! Now you need to get certified.

How to practice law in Australia?

If you want to become a lawyer in Australia, you need to complete the Practical Legal Training (PLT), which teaches you the practical skills you need to become a lawyer. There are three ways to complete the PLT.

  • Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice (GDLP): Consists of both a formal coursework component and a work experience component. The GDLP takes 6-12 months, but you can start before you graduate as long as you complete all your mandatory law courses.
  • Supervised Workplace Training: This is only available in Victoria and Queensland and lasts at least 12 months.
  • Clerkship: This is the least common way of completing the PLT. It takes at least 12 months and is usually for those who already have a legal job.

After you complete your PLT, you apply for a certificate of practice. The process takes about one to two years, depending on your route.

How to practice law in New Zealand?

In New Zealand, you must complete a Professional Legal Studies Course (PLSC) after you graduate. There are two different providers: the Institute of Professional Legal Studies (IPLS) and the College of Law New Zealand. The shortest programs are 13 weeks, and the longest is 18 weeks.

Like the PLT, these programs teach you the practical skills you need to become a lawyer.

After you finish your training, you need to obtain a certificate of completion from the New Zealand Council of Legal Education (NZCLE). Then you’ll need a certificate of character from the New Zealand Law Society (up to 3 months), be admitted to the bar(up to a month), and get a current practicing certificate (2-3 weeks).

The entire process should take about 10-12 months.

How to practice law in the UK?

In the UK, you need to complete a Legal Practice Course (LPC) to become a solicitor or a Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) to become a barrister.

The LPC usually takes two years to complete, plus another two-year training contract.

The BPTC takes about a year, plus another year of pupillage (apprenticeship).

How to practice law in the US?

After you graduate from law school in the US, you only need to take the bar exam. Usually, you sit the ethics portion of the exam before your final year of law school and then take the second portion (which includes the multi-state bar exam and a state-specific exam).

What Makes Crimson Different

Step 5: Secure a job as a lawyer

Congratulations, you’re a lawyer! If you’ve followed the steps above, you probably have a job, and you’re ready to begin your career.

What’s the fastest way to become a lawyer?

Becoming a lawyer takes time, effort, and lots of patience. Depending on the country, it will take anywhere from 4+ years to 7+ years to officially become a lawyer. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Australia - Five years
  • New Zealand - Four years, ten months
  • UK - Five years
  • United States - Seven years

Where’s the best place to become a lawyer?

While becoming a lawyer in New Zealand takes the least amount of time, the job market in Australia and New Zealand isn’t as healthy as it is in the US and the UK. Our best suggestion is to study in the area with the most jobs even if it takes a little longer to get through school.

Final Thoughts

It would be best if you took the time to learn the law, figure out what you’re interested in, and get relevant experience so that you can be the best lawyer possible.

Applying to universities can be daunting. Crimson Education is the world’s leading university admissions support company specializing in helping students gain entry to some of the world’s most competitive universities, including top law schools like Harvard, Oxford, Columbia, or Northwestern.