A gavel in front of the California state flag.

How to Become a Lawyer in California

August 9, 2022 | Purdue Global Law School

There is no shortage of opportunities for those looking to pursue a legal career in California. As of May 2021, there were over 90,000 lawyers employed in California, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Lawyers are responsible for representing and advising their clients in both criminal and civil cases. In California, the State Bar also allows attorneys to select a legal specialization such as bankruptcy law, family law, or immigration law.

From earning your undergraduate degree to becoming a licensed attorney, this guide explains how to become a lawyer in California. 

What Are the Requirements for Practicing Law in California?

To practice law in California, you must be admitted to the State Bar of California. Before this can happen, you need to meet certain education and testing requirements and pass a moral character review.

In most cases, the educational requirements are fulfilled by receiving a law degree from an accredited law school in California. Testing requirements include passing the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination and the California Bar exam.

Steps to Becoming a Lawyer in California

The steps below describe the typical path to becoming a lawyer in California. Keep in mind that if you would like to practice outside of California later in your career, you must follow that state’s requirements to obtain a license to practice in those other jurisdictions. Be sure to check with the state’s licensing board for specific requirements related to education and testing.

1. Earn Your Undergraduate Degree

Completing your undergraduate is the first step toward completing your legal education.

Typically, law schools do not have restrictions regarding the field of study of your bachelor’s degree, but you may have to meet a certain cumulative grade point average. Taking courses in areas such as legal studies, social sciences, and business can provide you with a good foundation for the topics you’ll learn in law school.

In narrow circumstances, unaccredited registered law schools may admit students who have only completed 2 years of their bachelor's degree program. In general, though, you should expect to complete your bachelor’s degree before gaining admission to a law school in California.

2. Apply to Law School(s)

Law school admissions requirements vary from school to school. In addition to earning an undergraduate degree, typical admissions requirements include:

  • Filling out an application: to be considered for law school admission, you need to fill out a formal application. This can usually be done online.

  • Passing an admissions test: the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a standardized test required by many law schools in the U.S. While it used to be ubiquitous, more and more schools are forgoing the LSAT in favor of proprietary admissions tests or the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). At Purdue Global Law School, LSAT scores are not required in most instances.

  • Submitting letters of recommendation and a personal statement: schools often require letters of recommendation or a personal statement. These documents are meant to showcase your academic achievements and moral character.

3. Pass the First-Year Law Students’ Examination (if Needed)

The First-Year Law Students’ Examination—also called the FYLSE or Baby Bar—is administered after your first year of law school. However, you’re only required to take this exam if you meet one of the following conditions:

  • You're pursuing your degree at an unaccredited registered law school.

  • You’re completing a law office study program.

  • You’re attending an accredited law school but have less than 2 years of undergraduate experience.

Students who have completed their undergraduate degree and attend either an American Bar Association-accredited or Committee of Bar Examiners-accredited law school in California do not need to take the FYLSE.

4. Complete Your Law Degree

In most cases, prospective lawyers complete a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. A full-time JD program usually takes about 3 years to complete, but some part-time and online programs—such as Purdue Global Law School’s Juris Doctor program—are structured as 4-year programs.

Law school is designed to teach you the knowledge and skills necessary for becoming a licensed attorney. You’ll learn about topics such as legal research, legal writing, professional responsibility, and civil procedure. In many cases, you can use your elective credits to explore specific areas of law, such as cybersecurity law or patent law.

5. Pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam

The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) must be completed before prospective lawyers can sit for the California Bar exam. This exam is administered by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, and it is required in almost every jurisdiction in the U.S.

The MPRE is offered three times a year at testing centers across the country. It consists of 60 multiple-choice questions that must be completed within 2 hours. The questions focus on the ethics of practicing law.

The MPRE can be taken any time after completing your first year of law school, and there are no time restrictions for when you pass your MPRE in relation to when you receive admission to the State Bar of California. That said, it’s a good idea to wait until after you’ve taken a class in professional responsibility. After taking the MPRE, you simply need to request that your scores be transferred to California.

6. Pass the State Bar of California’s Moral Character Screening

Every practicing lawyer in California needs to receive a positive moral character determination from the State Bar of California. During the review process, the State Bar looks for qualities such as candor, trustworthiness, and respect for the law.

When applying to the bar, do not conceal any criminal history. A history of minor criminal offenses is not necessarily disqualifying, especially if these offenses occurred years prior to you starting law school. In fact, the concealment of past offenses may be more concerning to the State Bar than the underlying incident itself. The State Bar is primarily concerned with how your record reflects on your ability to ethically and competently practice law going forward. 

It can take months for the State Bar of California to process your background check and complete your moral character determination, so you will want to start this process well before you take the bar exam. The State Bar of California recommends submitting your application no later than the beginning of your final year of law school.

7. Pass the California Bar Exam

Once you’ve met the educational requirements, you can sit for the California Bar exam.  This exam is administered over the course of 2 days and is offered twice a year.

On the first day of the exam, you’ll complete essay questions and a performance test. On the second day, you will complete the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). This portion of the California Bar exam is made up of 200 multiple-choice questions.

The bar exam covers a wide range of legal topics and is meant to measure your ability to understand key legal principles and theories. It takes months to study and prepare for the exam, so students should plan ahead. There are a variety of commercial bar exam preparation courses and materials that can get you ready for the exam.

8. Get Admitted to the State Bar of California

The final step toward becoming a lawyer in California is getting admitted to the State Bar. You can apply online through the State Bar’s admissions portal. After you are admitted to the bar, you can officially start practicing law in California.

To maintain your license, you will need to complete certain continuing education requirements. Currently, the State Bar requires 25 hours of continuing education credits every 3 years.

Alternative Paths to Becoming a Lawyer in California

You might be wondering if you have to go to law school to become a lawyer in California. While earning your JD degree is by far the most common option for meeting the State Bar of California’s education requirements, there is an alternative path available—completing 4 years of study under the supervision of a state judge or attorney.

If you decide to go this route, you need to file a form with the State Bar at the beginning of your law office study program. You will also need to complete the FYLSE before you can sit for the California Bar exam.

While bypassing law school may sound like an appealing option, apprenticeship programs at a law office or judge’s chamber are difficult to secure unless you have connections in the field. There are also strict requirements in regard to how many hours you need to spend studying and which lawyers and judges qualify for mentorship. The law office study program is a significant time commitment for both you and your supervising attorney or judge.

Earn Your JD Online with Purdue Global Law School

Purdue Global Law School’s Juris Doctor program prepares you to become a licensed attorney in California. We are accredited by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California and have designed our JD program to cover all of the subjects tested on the California Bar exam.

Our curriculum is as rigorous and interactive as on-campus law programs, but the online format makes it easier for you to fit your studies into your busy schedule. Reach out today to learn more about attending law school online with Purdue Global Law School.

About The Author

Purdue Global Law School

Established in 1998, Purdue Global Law School (formerly Concord Law School) is Purdue University's fully online law school for working adults.