Steps to Becoming a Lawyer in California

It’s safe to say that there are about 270,000 lawyers in California, with about 190,000 of them being in active practice. That might make it seem as if the market is saturated, but with a population of about 40 million, there is no overabundance of lawyers in the state. Lawyer salaries in California typically start out at about $75,000, but with 10 years of experience, annual earnings are an average of about $125,000. Of course, the bottom, middle and top ends of lawyer salaries depend on where in the state a lawyer is located, the nature of it his or her practice. California’s lawyer licensing rules are different than those of every other state. If you’re interested in becoming a lawyer in the state, you’ll need to comply with the following requirements.

Undergraduate Studies

Like every other state, all candidates for a law license in California are required to take a bar exam. In California, that exam is administered by the state’s Committee of Bar Examiners. A candidate to become a lawyer in California must apply to the State Bar of California for their license to practice in the state. Upon approval, the State Bar provides its recommendation of the candidate to the California Supreme Court for ratification. It’s getting to the point of being recommended and being ratified that California deviates from other states in the requirements of sitting for the bar exam.

California’s Pre-Lawyer Education Requirement

Before law schools ever existed in the United States, people who wanted to become a lawyer would study the law under the tutelage of a licensed lawyer or a judge for a set period of time. The bar exam was oral, and it was given by a panel of judges who would decide whether a candidate was qualified to practice law. That’s how lawyers like Abraham Lincoln did it, and California still recognizes that path to becoming a lawyer. So, there are actually three ways that a person might become a licensed lawyer in California. Those follow:

  • Graduating from a law school that is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). There are 20 ABA accredited law schools in California and at least 35 unaccredited law schools. It should be noted that there are more than 200 ABA accredited law schools in the United States. Graduation from an accredited law school is strongly recommended. Prospective students shouldn’t limit themselves geographically. A bachelor’s degree is required to gain admission to all of them.
  • Attending and graduating from a law school in California that isn’t approved by the ABA, but is approved by the State Bar of California. A bachelor’s degree is required for this alternative.

Engaging in an approved course of study at a law firm or with a judge and passing the California bar exam. A college or university bachelor’s degree is not required for this road, so long as candidates have met the appropriate pre-legal educational requirements and passed the College Level Examination Program.

The Undergraduate Degree for Law School

None of the law schools that require a bachelor’s degree for admission are terribly concerned about what your undergraduate degree is in.  That’s because there is no such thing as a pre-law undergraduate degree. Law school admission committees are looking at an applicant’s grade point average, analytical abilities, communication skills and Law School Admission Test scores in making admission decisions.

The Law School Admission Test

Another step to obtaining admission to an ABA accredited law school in California is the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The test is given four times a year in sites scattered throughout the state. Anybody who takes this test needs to be acutely aware of the fact that he or she is competing for a seat in an ABA accredited California law school on a national level. They’re also competing against some of the future top lawyers in the country. The test needs to be taken seriously, especially because most people who take it have prepared for it through a commercial preparation company. Although it’s not required, preparation for this exam can’t be emphasized enough. Test preparation courses are available for law school candidates. Three different skills are tested in the LSAT, and none of them have anything to do with the practice of law. Those are:

  • Reading comprehension.
  • Analytical reasoning.
  • Logical thinking.

The LSAT is administered by the Law School Admissions Council, and the current registration cost for the LSAT is $215. It can be paid online. LSAT scores can range from a low of 120 to a high of 180. After taking the test, it takes about three weeks to get results. If a test taker is dissatisfied with their results, the LSAT can be taken again by registration and payment of another test fee.

Applying for Admission to an Accredited California Law School

Prospective law students can begin the application process as soon as they receive their LSAT scores. Application must be made through the LSAC Credential Assembly Service (CSA). The cost of this service is $215, and it can also be paid online. CSA will gather all necessary transcripts, letters of recommendation, online evaluations and other supplemental materials and forward them to the accredited law schools that a candidate for admission has applied to. Then it’s just a matter of awaiting admission decisions and selecting the law school that the candidate will attend.

Attending Law School

Once you begin law school, you’ll quickly learn that it’s a grind. You’ll notice that some students who you started with aren’t there anymore. They simply quit. For many law students, law school isn’t a race to finish at or near the top of their class. Their goal is simply graduating. ABA accredited law schools require their students to successfully complete a variety of required courses. There are no majors in law school, but if a law student wants to focus on a certain area of law, a wide variety of elective courses are available.

The Bar Exam

After completing the required course of study, the bar exam is the last obstacle in the way to a California law license. The exam is given twice a year in February and July over two consecutive days. It’s one of the most difficult bar exams in the country with one of the lowest pass rates, especially if a law student didn’t attend an ABA accredited law school. It consists of the following:

  • Day 1: Three essay questions in the morning. Two more essay questions in the afternoon, plus a 90-minute performance test.
  • Day 2: This consists of 100 multiple choice questions in the morning, and another 100 of such questions in the afternoon.

Candidates for admission to the California bar must also pass another test known as the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE). It’s a legal ethics exam, and a minimum passing score is 86 in California. Some states have lower passing scores.

Preparation for the California Bar Exam

Given the fact that the California bar exam perennially has the lowest pass rate in the nation, those who intend on taking the exam are strongly encouraged to prepare and review for it with all due diligence. Several privately owned companies exist for purposes of preparing California bar exam test takers for the exam. We’re not going to recommend any such company, but by the end of their third year in law school, those who intend on sitting for the California bar know which bar preparation company has the best results.

Applying to Take the California Bar Exam

Applications to sit for the next California bar exam are online at the website of the State Bar of California. Applications and exam fees are taken online. The cost is currently $677. Time is of the essence with submitting applications and payments.

Candidates for admission to the California bar are typically sworn in less than a month after being notified of having passed the bar exam. Upon being sworn in, they’re fully licensed to practice in all of California’s state courts.