Law School Basics: From Juris Doctor to Attorney

So, you’re thinking about a career as an attorney. Perhaps you dream of standing before a judge and jury, passionately advocating on behalf of your client. Or, maybe you dream of making BigLaw money and closing deals as part of a Mergers and Acquisitions team. While different types of legal careers can vary widely in form and substance, they share one common starting place: law school.

What is a J.D.? 

In the United States, the most common path to working as an attorney begins with obtaining a postgraduate law degree, called a J.D., or Juris Doctor. Most states require a J.D. in order to obtain a legal license. Postgraduate degrees, including the J.D., are earned after a bachelor’s degree. So, to become an attorney, students must generally complete both a four year bachelor’s degree and a three year law degree. [1] 

People with undergraduate degrees in any major can go to law school and earn a J.D., so long as they take the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT, and submit an application that meets a law school’s admissions standards. The admissions standards for every law school are unique, so students should carefully research schools they are interested in sooner, rather than later.

Once students are accepted into a law school, they will study for three years to complete their J.D. The J.D. degree has pre-set educational requirements for law schools and law students. The Council and Accreditation Committee of the American Bar Association, or ABA, is the federally recognized accrediting agency which sets these requirements. As a part of earning ABA accreditation, law schools must comply with specific education standards, including certain legal subjects, number of credit hours, and other types of disclosures and guidelines. Although licensing rules for attorneys in the United States are governed by state law and may vary state-by-state, almost every jurisdiction nationwide now requires a J.D. degree from an ABA-accredited law school in order to apply for a license to practice law.  

What’s it like to earn a J.D.?

During the first year of a J.D. program (i.e., 1L), almost every ABA law school will assign students to a specific group, or section. Students in the same section will take their first year classes together. First year class schedules are typically set by the school, and will almost always include some variation of the same subjects: tort law, contract law, civil procedure, legal writing and research, property law, criminal law, and/or constitutional law. Occasionally, 1L students may have one or two electives, but the curriculum is mostly standardized.

During the second and third years of law school (i.e., 2L and 3L years), students will build individual class schedules, and can select elective courses that align with their future career goals. However, to qualify for a J.D. at the end of their third year, they will still have to complete several additional ABA-required courses, including a class in professional responsibility (i.e., legal ethics) and an upper-level writing requirement. Additionally, some law schools or specialty programs may require additional coursework that students will have to complete in order to graduate.  

What happens after you earn a J.D.?

Does earning a J.D. mean you’re an attorney? 

Unfortunately, no. The J.D. does not, by itself, make someone an attorney. There are a few additional steps that must be completed before you can practice law professionally. These next steps vary between states, and it is extremely important that you carefully review the exact requirements of your state to fully understand the process for obtaining a legal license. Here are a few common requirements:  

1. The MPRE 

The vast majority of states require students to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, which tests the rules of legal ethics. Some students take this examination before they receive their J.D., during their third year of law school, while others take the test after they have earned their J.D. Every state will have its own MPRE score requirements, so be sure to check well in advance what your state requires!

2. The Character and Fitness Investigation

Your state’s bar association will also investigate your character and fitness before allowing you to obtain a legal license. Some states will do their own investigations, while others will work with a third-party organization, such as the National Council of Bar Examiners. Character and fitness investigations will examine your personal and professional background, your criminal history, and certain moral qualities such as your tendency towards honesty. These investigations can be extremely detailed, and may take several weeks or even months, so be sure to know the deadlines and due dates for any paperwork you have to submit! 

3. The Bar Exam

Finally, you will have to pass your state’s bar examination. Every state’s bar examination is different, and tests your knowledge of the laws of that state. Bar examinations can take several days, and may require months of study and preparation. Passing the bar exam for your state can be one of the most difficult parts of becoming an attorney. 

When you finally earned your J.D., passed the professional responsibility exam, completed the character and fitness investigation, and passed the bar exam, you’re finally eligible to join the bar of your state and receive your license to practice law! Unfortunately, you aren’t licensed in the other 49 states by default. But, you will finally be an attorney. 

Is law school the right choice? 

So, is all this effort worth it? Is getting a J.D. right for you? Obtaining a J.D. can be a long and difficult process—not to mention expensive. How will you know whether life as an attorney will be worth it? The best thing you can do to educate yourself on whether law school is right for you is to talk to lawyers. 

Leg Up Legal is an online mentoring platform that can help connect you to real lawyers in the community. An attorney mentor can effectively and accurately teach you about the realities of law school, legal careers, and the extensive options and possibilities the legal field has to offer. Mentorship gives students, including first generation college and law students, the inside information and “leg up” needed to succeed in law school and the legal profession. Check out Leg Up Legal to learn more about how mentorship can help you discover everything you need to know about legal career paths, and more. 


About the Author: 

Laura Pasekoff is the Content Development Specialist at Leg Up Legal. Laura has worked as a corporate attorney, paralegal and legal assistant, and writing teacher. After graduating from the University of New Mexico with a writing degree, Laura attended law school at Duke University, obtaining a J.D., and an LL.M. in International and Comparative Law. In 2019, Laura joined the Leg Up Legal team with the hopes of helping prospective law students discover and pursue meaningful legal careers.  


[1] In countries other than the United States, universities and colleges may offer an LLB degree, which is an undergraduate law degree. Typically, international students who already have an LLB degree and want to study law in the United States will pursue a postgraduate LL.M degree, i.e. a master’s degree in law. Most U.S. jurisdictions do not accept the LLB alone for purposes of bar admissions. 


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