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How to Become a Lawyer in California

August 25, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 05/09/23

If you’re planning on pursuing your legal career in the golden state, read on to learn more about how to become a lawyer in California!

California is a popular option for students hoping to start prosperous legal careers. Not only does it have some of the nation’s leading law schools, such as Stanford and UCLA, but it also offers unparalleled opportunity to law students.

Convinced California is an excellent place to kickstart your legal career? This guide will share all of the steps you need to take to become a lawyer in this state!

Steps to Becoming a Lawyer in California

Compared to other states, California has a few extra steps aspiring lawyers have to take before representing their first client. Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of what these steps entail:

Step One: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

Like in any other state, you’ll have to obtain an undergraduate degree to pursue a JD in California. There are no prerequisites for law school, so you have free rein over the courses you choose throughout your undergrad.

That being said, it’s important you still put some consideration into your courses. You should ultimately choose a major you have a genuine interest in and complete courses from various disciplines. This way your transcript will be diverse and demonstrate that your degree was academically challenging.

Law school is rigorous and demanding! Admissions committees need evidence of your ability to thrive in these kinds of curriculums, which is why having a varied and difficult undergrad can give you an advantage during the selection process!

Step Two: Prepare Your Resume

Throughout your undergrad, you’ll be expected to participate in meaningful extracurriculars, work, volunteer, and research experiences that can help prepare you for law school and a legal career. There are several competencies and skills required to be a successful lawyer, so honing them early is important to thrive in the legal field:

  • Oral advocacy
  • Research and writing skills
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership
  • Commitment to public service
  • Initiative
  • Organization
  • Intellectual ability

Since admissions committees are all about assurance, it's essential you pursue opportunities that demonstrate all of these traits. Do your best to stay involved in activities for long periods of time and avoid having significant gaps in your resume—these will undoubtedly be questioned by the committee!

Your resume should also include any honors, awards, papers, and certifications you received.

Step Three: Write the LSAT or GRE

As law schools aim to be more inclusive and accessible for students, they have begun accepting the GRE in lieu of the LSAT. The LSAT, which was originally considered the best way to predict students’ performance in law school, is no longer the only exam students can write to be considered for admission.

Admissions committees in many schools, including several in California, believe the GRE can provide a more holistic review of a candidate and open the door for a broader range of applicants.

Regardless of the exam you choose to write, ensure you develop a study schedule that you can commit to for several months. Both of these exams will require substantial preparation to master!

Step Four: Go to Law School

Once you’ve submitted your applications, the next step is to pick a law school that fits your needs and can best support your goals. California has several high-ranking options to choose from! 

Ensure you consider the experiential learning opportunities, journals, clinics, and courses your top choices offer to decide which law school to attend. If you know which legal specialty you’d like to eventually pursue, find a law school that offers a concentration in that speciality or significant courses and experiences in it. 

Your JD will take three years to complete and will require staunch dedication and focus. You can expect your JD to be far more extensive and challenging than your undergrad. Despite this, it’s important you still maintain a high GPA! Students with high GPAs are often given the most opportunity during and after their JD.

Step Five: Write the Baby Bar Exam

This is the first step that differs from other states. After your first year of law school, you may have to write the First-Year Law Student’s Examination (FYLSX). This examination is only written by the following groups of students:

  • Those that completed their first year of law school at an unaccredited school 
  • Those completing a law office study program
  • Those with less than two years of undergraduate experience 

This exam is also known as the baby bar exam because it’s considered to be of similar difficulty to the actual bar exam!

Step Six: Pass the MPRE

Passing the MPRE is required by all law students in California. This exam ensures legal students understand the ethical and professional standards lawyers must follow and that they can apply them to various scenarios.

Students can write this exam any time after their first year of law school is complete, and many choose to write it during the summer or their second or third year. There is a split verdict on the difficulty of this exam, while some students ace it with little preparation others require adequate preparation to pass it. 

Students often take professional responsibility courses to prepare for this exam, others rely on self-study, and some use both. Choose the method that works best for you!

Step Seven: Receive a Positive Moral Character Determination

Students must also submit a moral character application before they can begin practicing law. It is suggested students submit this application no later than the beginning of their third year of law school as it can take several months to process.

The purpose of this application is to determine whether you possess traits that indicate a good moral character, such as: 

  • Fairness
  • Honest
  • Candor
  • Trustworthiness
  • Respect for an obedience of the law
  • Respect of the rights of others and the judicial process

The board committee is mainly looking for any areas of misconduct that could demonstrate a weak moral character. While the misconduct itself will not disqualify you from receiving a positive determination, your rehabilitation actions, or lack of, can. 

Students with acts of academic, professional, or legal misconduct should ensure they demonstrate rehabilitation and improvement through candid accountability of the action, no further misconduct, initiation to make amends, participation in community service, and/or pursuance of continuing education courses. 

It’s important to note, the State Bar does not consider pro bono work, maintaining a steady job, or completing your JD to be significant indicators of rehabilitation. These actions are expected of lawyers.

Step Eight: Consider an LLM Degree

Lawyers typically specialize in one area of law during their practice. While many JD programs let students concentrate in their desired specialty, lawyers hoping to gain even more advanced training may pursue an LLM in the area of law they’re interested in. This program will take one year to complete.

Step Nine: Pass the California Bar Examination

The final steps students must complete before practicing as independent attorneys is passing the California Bar Exam. This exam will provide them with licensure and prove they have the necessary skills and knowledge to enter the legal field. 

Step Ten: Complete the MCLE Requirements Throughout Your Career

In order to maintain their licensure, lawyers in California must complete ongoing training throughout their careers. This training ensures they are up-to-date with the legal field and can provide their clients with the best representation. 

Lawyers must complete 25 hours of Minimum Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) every three years.

Alternative Ways to Becoming a Lawyer in California 

We’ve discussed how to become a lawyer in California by presenting you with the most common path students take. However, it’s not the only way to become an attorney in California.

Here are the other ways students can pursue a legal career in this state:

Correspondence or Distance Learning

In the age of technology, there are now an abundance of distance-learning options for students interested in pursuing a JD. Students that complete online JD programs may still be able to become lawyers in California if their school is approved by the California State Bar.

These students will have to write the baby bar exam to continue pursuing their legal education. 

Four Year of Study Under A State Attorney or Judge

Another way to pursue a legal career in California that does not involve law school is completing a law office program under the supervision of a state attorney or judge

Before your eyes light up with relief, and you think you can bypass law school to become a lawyer in California, you should know this path is extremely difficult to pursue. There are limited credible law office study programs and the few that exist are highly competitive.

Additionally, these programs still require a similar time commitment as law school. Students must spend at least 18 hours a week studying under a lawyer or judge.

While this is the minimum requirement, most students that pursue this path end up spending thousands of hours working under their mentors, which is more time-consuming than law school.

So, while there are obvious advantages to pursuing this path, such as saving on law school and avoiding the arduous application process, it is not a feasible option for most students. The small percentage of students that do pursue this option must also complete the baby bar exam as part of the licensing process.

Salary and Job Outlook for Lawyers in California

An essential element to discuss when exploring how to become a lawyer in California is their expected salary. 

California is one of the highest-paying states in the nation, with a median salary of $176,610 a year as opposed to the national average of $148,030

Here are the top-paying cities in California:

Metropolitan Area Annual Mean Salary
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara $231,200
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward $191,460
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim $177,550
San Diego-Carlsbad $165,480
Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura $163,560

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

This occupation is expected to grow by 10% within the next decade, which is faster than most jobs. Aspiring lawyers can expect this growth to be visible in California, as it consistently has the highest demand for lawyers and most opportunity.

FAQs: Becoming a Lawyer in California

This guide has covered the basics of how to become a lawyer in California and answered questions such as, “how long does it take to become a lawyer in California?”, “how much are lawyers in California paid?”, and “what is the demand for lawyers in California?”

For any remaining questions, here are the answers to other frequently asked questions about practicing law in this state.

1. How Long Does It Take to Become a Lawyer in California

There are several paths you can take to become a lawyer, which will influence your expected timeline to join this profession. However, the most common path takes at least seven years to complete: four years to complete an undergrad and three years to complete a JD. If you want to also pursue an LLM, it will take an additional year.

2. Is It Difficult to Become a Lawyer in California?

Considering there are a few more steps to take, the process to become a lawyer in California is more extensive than other states. Law school is also challenging, regardless of the state you’re in! High-ranking law California law schools will be even more competitive and rigorous.

The baby bar exam and actual bar exam are also known to be amongst the most difficult licensing exams.

3. Do You Need a Degree to Be a Lawyer in California?

No, you don’t need to pursue a JD to become a lawyer in California. You may alternatively complete a law office study program where you’ll be working under a state judge or attorney to learn the ins and outs of the field. 

This path is highly selective but can offer you more hands-on experience working on real cases.

4. Can You Take the California Bar Exam Without Going to Law School?

Yes, you can write the California Bar Exam even if you haven’t gone to law school. If you haven’t completed a JD from an accredited or unaccredited law school you could alternatively complete a four-year program under the mentorship of a law attorney or judge to prepare for a career in law. 

After completing this program and the other necessary exams you can sit for the bar.

5. Do I Have to Write the Baby Bar Exam in California?

You only have to write the baby bar exam if you:

  • Completed your first year of law school at an unaccredited school
  • Completed a law office study program instead of a traditional JD
  • Completed less than two years of undergraduate studies before pursuing a JD

Law students that do have to write the baby bar exam must do so after their first year of law school to ensure there are no delays with the progression of their legal education.

6. How Much Do Lawyers Make in California?

The average annual salary of lawyers in California is $176,610. Attorneys working in cities such as San Jose or Sunnyvale can expect to make even more! These lawyers have a median salary of $231,200.

Final Thoughts

There are several draws to becoming a lawyer in California. Aside from the beautiful weather and vibrant cities, it’s a legal, entertainment, and business hub that can offer you the career of your dreams! Follow the steps in this guide to ensure you have access to these extraordinary opportunities!

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