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How To Become a Lawyer in California (With Salary and FAQs)

Jobs in the legal field are essential to upholding the law and helping people protect their rights under local, state and federal legislation. Many people in this field pursue a career as a lawyer so they can advocate for their clients, help them navigate legal challenges and promote justice. If you’re interested in becoming a lawyer, exploring the steps in the process can help you get started on this career path.

In this article, we explain what a lawyer does, describe how to become a lawyer in California, review the average salary and job outlook for this role and share some frequently asked questions about becoming a lawyer.

Key takeaways:

  • To become a lawyer in California, complete a bachelor’s degree, take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and graduate law school to earn a Juris Doctor degree.

  • After graduating from law school, aspiring lawyers in California sit for the California Bar Examination, a two-day test administered twice annually in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Diego.

  • If you pass the bar exam, you can swear into the State Bar of California and practice law in the state.

What does a lawyer do?

A lawyer, also called an attorney, is a legal professional who helps people, companies and government agencies make important decisions about legal disputes by advising them on relevant laws and how they apply to the case. They may work in many areas of law and represent clients in criminal or civil cases. A criminal case refers to the government prosecution of a person accused of a crime, while a civil case involves a private dispute between two parties. Common duties of a lawyer include:

  • Using their knowledge of the law to advocate for clients

  • Developing strategies for defending clients and resolving legal disputes

  • Communicating with clients to determine their goals for the case

  • Updating clients about the progress of legal proceedings

  • Presenting arguments and documentation in court to support clients

  • Conducting research on laws and legal precedents to use as a guide

  • Explain each step of the process to clients to ensure their understanding

  • Collaborate with other legal professionals to serve clients and build cases

Related: A Day in the Life of a Lawyer: Daily Tasks and Duties

How to become a lawyer in California

The process for pursuing a career as a lawyer depends on your current education and professional goals. Here are the general steps you can take to become a lawyer in California:

1. Earn an undergraduate degree

The first step to becoming a lawyer is earning a bachelor’s degree. If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you can begin preparing for the next step. If you don’t, you might consider enrolling in a pre-law undergraduate program, which can help prepare you for law school. Pre-law is not a specific degree program but an educational path a student takes to learn foundational skills and knowledge for a law career. Examples of bachelor’s degrees pre-law students take include:

  • Political science

  • Criminal justice

  • Economics

  • History

  • Business

2. Take the Law School Admission Test

Almost all law schools require candidates to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) before applying to law school. Once you receive your bachelor’s degree, you’re eligible to take the LSAT. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC), a nonprofit educational organization, offers the test seven times per year at designated locations throughout California. Scores range between 120 and 180, and many candidates aim for a score of 160 or higher. The LSAT has approximately 100 multiple-choice questions and an essay, which you have three hours and 30 minutes to complete. Sections of the LSAT include:

  • Logical Reasoning (Arguments)

  • Analytical Reasoning (Logic Games)

  • Reading Comprehension

3. Apply to law school

After you take the LSAT, you can apply to law school. Official LSAT scores are one of the many documents law schools typically request from candidates, along with a completed law school application, application fee, undergraduate transcripts, a personal statement and a letter of recommendation. Remember to check with each school where you plan to apply so you can confirm their admission requirements.

Many firms only accept candidates who attended an American Bar Association-approved law school, so you may improve your chances of finding a job after graduation if you apply to one or more of the 18 California law schools with this credential. It often takes approximately six weeks to receive a response to your application, but this varies by the school and the number of applications it receives.

4. Earn your Juris Doctor degree

After you receive acceptance to one or more law schools, choose the one you want to attend. Law school typically takes three years to complete, and students receive a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree when they graduate. This degree qualifies you to take the state bar exam, which allows you to practice law in California. After your first year of law school, you can expect to take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE), a 60-question multiple-choice test about professional conduct. Each school has its own J.D. curriculum, but common law school topics include:

  • Legal theory

  • Practice of law

  • Constitutional law

  • Torts

  • Civil procedure

  • Criminal law

  • Constitutional law

  • Contracts

  • Legislation and regulation

  • Property

5. Take the California Bar Examination

Once you receive your J.D., you’re eligible to sit for the California Bar Examination. This test is required for admission to the State Bar of California, also called the California Bar, which provides you with a license to practice law. You can take the California Bar Exam in February or July in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento areas. The Bar takes two days to complete, so remember to plan for travel accommodations if you don’t live near a testing facility.

On the first day of the exam, candidates take the essay section in the morning and a performance exam in the afternoon. These sections allow candidates to use their practical skills to demonstrate how they might approach a case in real life. The second day focuses on the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), a 200-question test on legal principles and reasoning. The MBE focuses on using legal principles and reasoning to analyze facts.

7. Apply for admission to the State Bar of California

After passing the California Bar Examination, you have five years to apply for admission to the State Bar of California. To complete a candidate’s admission, the California Bar arranges a date and time for a swearing-in ceremony. During this ceremony, the candidate takes the oath of office, a pledge to uphold the U.S. and California Constitutions. Taking the oath makes you an official member of the California Bar and allows you to practice law legally in California.

Salary and job outlook for lawyers in California

The salary you may earn as a lawyer in California depends on several factors, such as your level of education, your experience in the legal field, your specialty and where you work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for a lawyer in California is $176,610 per year. The Employment Development Department of the State of California expects employment opportunities for lawyers throughout the state to increase by nearly 8% between now and 2028.

FAQs about becoming a lawyer

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about becoming a lawyer in California:

How long does it take to become a lawyer?

Earning an undergraduate degree typically takes four years, and you can complete law school in four years. After these seven years of education, candidates complete the bar examination and apply for admission. Depending on when you graduate and when you take the bar exam, this process may take several months. You can expect to complete the entire process of becoming a lawyer in California in approximately eight years.

Can you become a lawyer in California without going to law school?

Only four states allow candidates to sit for the bar exam without attending law school first, and California is one of them. Although the law allows it, admission to the California Bar without completing law school is rare because of the requirements for taking the exam without a J.D. Before taking the bar, the candidate takes the MPRE and First-Year Law Students’ Examination. Candidates typically complete these tests in law school. The law also requires a positive moral character determination to confirm the candidate is fit for the profession.

Instead of receiving an official education, candidates who want to become a lawyer without going to law school can complete a four-year apprenticeship. Many candidates find this requirement challenging, as law apprenticeships are uncommon. If you know a lawyer or can find one to mentor you, you may complete your training without going to law school. After your apprenticeship, you can take the California Bar Examination.

What are some reasons to consider becoming a lawyer?

You might choose to become a lawyer if you have some common traits that may help you succeed in the role. If you’re an assertive and compassionate person who relies on logic and reason to make important decisions and works well under pressure, you may find a job as a lawyer fulfilling. Benefits of working as a lawyer may include:

  • Occupational prestige

  • High earning potential

  • Career advancement options

  • Ability to influence change

  • Intellectual stimulation

  • Opportunity to help others

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