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How to Become an Appellate Lawyer

August 25, 2023


Reviewed by:

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

Reviewed: 05/19/23

If you’re still deciding what kind of legal specialty you want to pursue, read on to learn more about one of the most popular options—appellate law. 

Courtrooms and judges don’t always get it right. With the pressure of following dozens of rules and regulations that are constantly being modified, reviewing all evidence, and remaining as impartial as possible, the justice system can sometimes make a seemingly unjust decision.

Ironically, there are lawyers that can fight to fix these legal misjudgments. Appellate lawyers specialize in appealing court decisions. In other words, these lawyers push for cases to be reconsidered in hopes of reaching a different outcome.  

If this type of legal specialty sounds interesting to you, this guide will go over everything you need to know about how to become an appellate lawyer, what their daily duties involve, the skills required to succeed in this area of law, and their career outlook!

Steps to Becoming an Appellate Lawyer

You can expect to dedicate a lot of time, effort, and money to joining this field. Timewise alone, it’ll take at least seven years to become an appellate lawyer. Here’s what these seven years will involve:

Step One: Obtain an Undergrad

The very first step in your journey towards becoming an appellate lawyer will be to complete an undergraduate degree at an accredited university.

Many students believe they should pursue a major in legal studies or criminology to best prepare for law school, and have the highest chances of admission. However, experts argue these pre-professional degrees are actually considered less rigorous, and, therefore less appealing than other majors. 

If you’re set on choosing these majors, it’s essential you diversify your transcript and take electives in the liberal arts to make your undergrad appear more academically challenging. Some course recommendations include:

  • Mathematics
  • Psychology
  • History
  • Social sciences
  • Physical sciences
  • English or other writing-intensive courses

Regardless of the major you choose, it’s imperative that you maintain a high GPA to get into your dream law school. 

Step Two: Gain Experience

A strong academic record alone won’t impress the admissions committee enough to admit you into their programs. 

You should also seek various work, volunteer, and extracurricular activities throughout your undergrad to build a stellar law school resume

While legal experience can certainly strengthen your application, it’s not required or expected. Pursue experiences you have a genuine interest in and ensure you make a big impact in all of them! Demonstrate excellent leadership and collaborative skills, as these will help you have a successful legal career.

Step Three: Carefully Create Your List of Top Law Schools

As you near the mid to end of your undergrad, you’ll have to prepare your law school applications. Before doing this, it’s essential to create a realistic and practical list of law school choices

Since you want to specialize in appellate law, you should apply to law schools that offer a range of appellate courses, provide you with experience either working with appellate law faculty or in appellate clinics, and have strong legal writing programs.

One excellent school that can provide you with advanced training and experience in appellate law is Northwestern University. This school is the first to offer a federal appellate clinic, a Supreme Court clinic, and an appellate concentration open to all JD students.

Step Four: Write the LSAT

As you build your law school list, you must also research what LSAT score you’ll need to be considered competitive at each school.

Using these scores, figure out what your target score is, so you can create an effective study schedule to help you reach it. Ensure you give yourself enough time to retake the LSAT, especially if you’re hoping to score in the high 160s or the 170s. 

It’s recommended you give yourself around three to six months to adequately study for the LSAT.

Step Five: Attend Law School and be an Engaged Student

Once you’ve gotten into one of your top law schools, you’ll spend the next three years gaining a broad and potentially specialized education in law.

If you choose a program that allows you to concentrate in appellate law, you will spend your second and third year pursuing courses and experiential learning opportunities relating to this specialty. 

Ensure you’re an active and engaged student throughout your legal degree. Make strong connections with your professors and other mentors, and participate in useful extracurriculars, especially legal journals; strong legal writing skills are essential for a career in appellate law.

You should also maintain high grades throughout your JD. Students at the top of their class typically have the most opportunities post-graduation. 

Step Six: Pass the MPRE

You’ll have to write a series of exams throughout your legal journey to ensure you’re not only prepared to practice law but that you meet all the necessary standards to do so effectively. 

One exam you’ll have to pass is the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE). This exam ensures all law students understand and can follow the ethical and professional expectations of lawyers.

Step Seven: Consider an LLM in Appellate Advocacy

If you didn’t attend a law school that allowed you to concentrate in appellate law, or you just want to gain a more intricate level of training in the specialty, you have the option to complete a Masters of Law (LLM) in Appellate Law or Advocacy.

This step will take an additional year, but is not required to begin practicing appellate law as an independent attorney. 

The majority of appellate lawyers do not have LLMs, but this additional certification can provide you with more employment opportunities and a higher salary.

Step Eight: Pass the Bar Exam

As we stated, you’ll have to pass several exams to become an appellate lawyer. The final exam you’ll need to write is the bar exam

Once you’ve completed this step, you’ll officially be an attorney!

Step Nine: Consider Obtaining an Appellate Law Certification

Depending on where you’re located, you may have the option to pursue a certification in appellate law through your respective bar association. The following associations offer this certification:

  • The North Carolina State Bar
  • The Texas Board of Legal Specialization
  • The State Bar of California
  • The Florida Bar
  • The Louisiana State Bar Association

This certification can help you to practice law at higher levels but is not required.

What Does an Appellate Lawyer Do?

After learning how to become an appellate lawyer, your next question might be, “what does an appellate lawyer do exactly?”

The general responsibilities of appellate lawyers include:

  • Reviewing complete case files, including all motions, legal transcripts, witness testimonies, and evidence
  • Correcting or defending court trial decisions
  • Looking for errors in the law or procedure of the trial
  • Refuting alleged errors
  • Looking for conflicts of interest in the jury that could lead to impartial judgement
  • Changing or correcting the case law applied to trials
  • Reviewing previous appeal cases and decisions to find more ways to support clients
  • Creating persuasive appellate briefs for the court
  • Providing legal counsel and advice on whether to appeal a case

It’s important to note not all appellate cases go to the courtroom! Many of them are resolved using a brief, which is a written document asking for the case decision to be reconsidered based on certain grounds.

Additionally, appellate lawyers do not bring any new evidence or testimony to the case. They simply work with the existing case materials to prove the case was incorrectly handled. 

Appellate lawyers can either represent the appellant, the party appealing a case, or the respondent, the party responding to the appeal.

What Skills Do You Need to Become an Appellate Lawyer?

To be a successful appellate lawyer, you’ll need to be:

  • A strong writer: a large part of your job will involve writing appellate briefs
  • Persuasive: to convince courts of your side
  • A good team player: to work efficiently with a legal team to research, review, and develop cases
  • Attentive: to be able to find loopholes, gray areas, misinterpretations of the law, or potential bias in the courtroom
  • Objective: to bring a fresh perspective guided by impartiality to cases often deemed biased
  • Logical: to come to dispassionate conclusions based solely on law and evidence 

It’s essential you also have excellent people and teaching skills! You’ll be working with clients who likely have little knowledge of the law. You must share your expertise with them in a way that is easy to follow.

Appellate Lawyer Salary and Job Outlook

The final consideration to discuss when exploring how to become an appellate lawyer is their career outlook. 

Appellate lawyers will always be necessary because court decisions are ultimately made by humans, and humans are prone to bias, misinterpretation, and error. That being said, appellate law is typically very competitive. 

The average appellate lawyer salary is $124,405 a year. This salary can increase based on your experience and location.

FAQs: How to Become an Appellate Lawyer

For any remaining questions on how to become an appellate lawyer, read on to find your answers.

1. What Is the Difference Between an Appellate Lawyer and a Trial Lawyer?

Appellate lawyers come after trial lawyers. Trial lawyers are professionals that initially gather evidence and present a case to a courtroom. If this case has an unfavorable outcome, appellate lawyers appeal the decision.

2. What are the Education Requirements to Become an Appellate Lawyer?

You’ll need to complete a four-year undergrad, a three-year JD program, and potentially a one-year LLM or board certification to become an appellate lawyer. 

3. How Long Does it Take to Become an Appellate Lawyer?

It will take at least seven years of formal training to become an appellate lawyer. If you pursue more advanced training, you can add one more year to this timeline.

However, since this specialty is highly competitive and selective, it may take you a bit longer to find a full-time position at a large law firm.

4. What Experience Do I Need to Become an Appellate Lawyer?

You should have considerable legal writing experience to become an appellate lawyer. Participating in and publishing legal research and being part of a legal journal can help you gain this experience.

Additionally, you should have some experience working with appellate lawyers, either through internships, employment opportunities, or legal clinics at your law school. 

5. How Much Do Appellate Lawyers Make?

Appellate lawyers make an average of $124,405 a year.

6. Where Do Appellate Lawyers Work?

The majority of appellate lawyers work in private law firms or for state or federal government organizations.

Final Thoughts

Appellate lawyers play crucial roles in ensuring the justice system serves its purpose—to protect the innocent and convict the criminal. 

If you’re ready to begin the journey towards this career, ensure you bring your A game to each of the steps mentioned in this guide. While the process of becoming an appellate lawyer will be challenging, it will ultimately result in a highly rewarding, valued, and exciting career!

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