The road to becoming a criminal defense attorney in Utah is a long and hard one, but worth it, especially if you are passionate about our rights as citizens and have an interest in criminal law, but no desire to work in corrections or as a policeman.

Scales and GavelAdmission to law school in this state is not dependent on completing any specific pre-law courses –one must simply earn a bachelor’s degree from a school that is accredited by an agency recognized by the United States Department of Education.  However, choosing a major that is in line with the ultimate goal of becoming a criminal defense attorney is a great way to get a head start on learning about criminal law and procedure.  An obvious choice for an undergraduate degree would be to study criminal justice, a program which is offered at several Utah colleges.  For many, a degree in criminal justice is earned in pursuit of a career in policing the law rather than practicing it, but it can also be a good way to learn about the laws that govern our state and our country, as well as the rights we are afforded by our federal and state Constitutions.  Another, less obvious choice would be to major in sociology, which can also provide a good overview of criminal behavior, though from a different point-of-view.

Once a four-year bachelor’s degree is earned from an accredited school, the next step would be to take the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT.  The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) administers the LSAT four times annually – in February, June, October, and December – and it is proffered at several testing centers located at colleges throughout the state of Utah.  The LSAT is given as a standardized test that is necessary for admission to all LSAC member and ABA-approved law schools.  There are many ways to prepare for the LSAT, including utilizing the free study aids available on the web site of the LSAC, www.lsac.org, or signing up for one of many preparatory courses offered in the area.  Once the test is complete, results are sent by mail in about three weeks.  A score in the 160’s is typically necessary for entrance into one of the state’s two ABA-approved law schools: University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law and Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.

After the LSAT, the next step is gaining admission into an ABA-approved law school.  The Utah Bar doesn’t require that the school be in-state, so long as it is accredited.  There are over 200 such law schools throughout the country, but an obvious choice would be between red (the U of U) and blue (BYU).  All law school candidates must register with the LSAC’s Credential Assembly Service (CAS), which requires submission of all official college transcripts.  The CAS also assists in collecting all of the other necessary documents that law schools require of applicants, such as letters of recommendation, and compiles this data into a concise, yet thorough law school report, which is then sent to up to five schools of the applicant’s choice.  Once applications have been completed, the waiting game begins for the answer(s) in the mail.

Once a student has successfully garnered a spot in their chosen school of law, it is mandatory to complete all of the following Utah State Bar-required foundational law coursework:Legal Library

  • Constitutional Law

  • Civil Procedure and Law

  • Criminal Procedure and Law

  • Legal Ethics

  • Evidence

Most schools also require that some form of practical work experience is gained as part of law school curriculum.  This can be had by working as an intern at places such as a governmental agency or local law office, so long as the legal work is work that would be encountered by a real attorney on a normal workday.  If the ultimate goal is to practice criminal law, this will ideally be done with a local criminal defense attorney or firm, where one can begin to hone his/her criminal defense skills.  This practical work will likely be guided and graded by a law professor as well as by an on-site supervisor.

Graduating from law school is a huge accomplishment, and one that earns the recipient a Juris Doctor or JD degree.  Afterwards, there is one more huge hurdle to take on prior to practicing as a criminal defense attorney: the Utah Bar exam.  At least thirty days prior to the testing date, online registration with the Utah State Bar, along with a list of required documentation (such as your certificate of law school graduation) with your application, is necessary.  One other requirement, in the case of an overachiever, is that one be 21 years of age prior to sitting for the exam.  The Utah Bar exam is given over a two-day testing period.  Day One is devoted to the writing portion of the exam, while Day Two is reserved for a long series of multiple-choice questions.  Day Three begins the approximately eight-week period of nail-biting fun while the test results are being compiled.

Following passing of the Bar exam, a potential new lawyer must pass a review of the Character and Fitness Committee, which involves a multiple choice exam that is designed to judge ethics and morals.  Assuming all is well in those areas, the next step is to attend the bar admission ceremony, during which all newly-minted lawyers will take an oath and submit a signature on a roll that is sent to the United States Supreme Court.  Also, new members of the Utah State Bar must complete a mandatory New Lawyer Training Program (NLTP), which pairs new lawyers with more experienced lawyers for that extra bit of guidance into the world of practicing law.  Also, within two years of passing the bar exam, new attorneys must pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE).

It takes a lot of time, many sleepless nights, and rock-solid dedication to get the privilege of practicing as a criminal defense attorney in Utah, satisfying rewards are reaped by those who are dedicated to their clients and skilled at their craft.

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