Because attorneys assist the general public with complex and sensitive issues, the practice of law is heavily regulated. Through the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows state regulation of matters not specifically prohibited to them or reserved for the federal government, the practice of law is regulated by each individual state. Each state has a governing body, known as the state bar, which regulates the practice of law in the state.

An attorney must be licensed to practice law. Licensed attorneys may practice federal law and the law of the state where they are licensed, although admission to a federal court district is not automatic.  Attorneys cannot practice the law of another state unless they are also licensed to practice that state’s law, although some states (usually neighboring states/jurisdictions) do have “reciprocal” agreements with others allowing attorneys to practice in both.

Each state bar sets its own licensing requirements. Most states regulate the bar examination and require candidates to pass the state bar exam, pass an ethics exam, and undergo a comprehensive background check.

State bars may also regulate continuing education for attorneys, handle discipline for attorneys, maintain a directory of attorneys, publish attorney disciplinary actions, and publish a bar journal. Some states have mandatory bar association (requiring lawyers to belong and pay dues), and some do not, but regardless, the state bar regulates the issues mentioned above.

First Step: Get a Legal Education

Before prospective attorneys can take the bar exam, they usually graduate first with a bachelor’s degree from an undergraduate institution. Then, they must prepare for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which primarily tests logic and reasoning skills. The LSAT score will be taken into account when an individual applies for law school, along with the rest of their educational and other achievements.

The individual then must usually graduate from an accredited (by the American Bar Association) law school. Law school is typically a three-year program that teaches future lawyers the law, critical thinking, legal advocacy, persuasive writing, oral argument and their ethical responsibilities. There are schools that have part-time programs, which might extend the education period by a year or two. When students graduate from law school, they receive a degree, known as a juris doctorate.

There are some states who not require a law school degree in order to sit for the bar examination. In those cases, a certain amount of study under a lawyer or judge’s supervision is generally required.

Graduating from an accredited law school or otherwise completing a state’s legal education requirements enables candidates to take the state bar exam. Each state has its own bar exam, usually consisting of a test pertaining to state law and a Multistate test on points of law common in all jurisdictions. Most states also require a separate ethics examination called the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam.

Students who do not graduate from accredited law schools may have to satisfy additional requirements before they may take the bar exam.

Second Step: Take the Bar Exam

The bar exam is a rigorous two or three-day written test held twice a year. In most jurisdictions, it is comprised of multiple-choice questions for the Multistate exam portion, a state law portion consisting of some combination of essays, multiple choice and short answer, and legal skills assessment.

Candidates who do not perform to a certain standard must retake the test in full. Depending on the state, on average, 15-60 percent of test takers do not pass the exam. Successful bar candidates typically devote two or three months to prepare for the exam.

Some states have adopted a Uniform Bar Examination model for their state bar exam. It consists of the multiple choice Multistate Bar Examination, the Multistate Essay Examination and the Multistate Performance Test.

Step Three: Pass Your Ethics Exam and Background Check

In addition to passing the bar exam, prospective attorneys must pass a multiple choice ethics exam and complete a comprehensive background check, which assesses a candidate’s character and fitness to practice law.

It often requires other legal professionals or individuals who can vouch for your character. So not only do you need to pass a background check for any criminal record, but also need other people to be willing to speak on your behalf.

Be Ready to Continue Your Legal Education

Because the law is constantly evolving, a license is only the beginning. To ensure that they maintain their skills and state abreast of developments in the law, attorneys must complete continuing legal education courses every year to maintain their license.

Keep in Mind: Attorney Discipline

Once attorneys are admitted to the bar, they must follow strict rules of professional conduct. If a lawyer violates a rule or commits malpractice, he or she may have her law license revoked or suspended, and their licensure status published.

How To Find Qualified Attorneys

It can be daunting to try and find an attorney to handle your sensitive legal issue. One approach is to call around to other attorneys practicing in a related geographic area. However, this can be time-consuming or impractical when you are dealing with a pressing legal matter. In that case, a lawyer matching service, like LegalMatch, can be a smart way to go.