Lawyers advise and represent individuals, businesses, or government agencies on legal issues or disputes.
Lawyers typically do the following:
- Advise and represent clients in courts, before government agencies, or in private legal matters
- Communicate with their clients and others
- Conduct research and analysis of legal problems
- Interpret laws, rulings, and regulations for individuals and businesses
- Present facts in writing or verbally to their clients or others and argue on their behalf
- Prepare and file legal documents, such as lawsuits, appeals, wills, contracts, and deeds
Lawyers, also called attorneys, act as both advocates and advisors.
As advocates, they represent one of the parties in criminal and civil trials by presenting evidence and arguing in court to support their client.
As advisors, lawyers counsel their clients about their legal rights and obligations and suggest courses of action in business and personal matters. All attorneys research the intent of laws and judicial decisions and apply the laws to the specific circumstances that their clients face.
To prepare for cases more efficiently, lawyers increasingly use the Internet, online legal databases, and virtual law libraries. Lawyers also often oversee the work of support staff, such as paralegals and legal assistants.
Lawyers may have different titles and different duties, depending on where they work.
Criminal law attorneys are also known as prosecutors or defense attorneys. Prosecutors work for the government to file a lawsuit, or charge, against an individual or corporation accused of violating the law.
Defense attorneys work for either individuals or the government (as public defenders) to represent, or defend, the accused.
Government counsels commonly work in government agencies. They write and interpret laws and regulations and set up procedures to enforce them. Government counsels also write legal reviews on agencies' decisions. They argue civil and criminal cases on behalf of the government.
Corporate counsels, also called in-house counsels, are lawyers who work for corporations. They advise a corporation's executives about legal issues related to the corporation's business activities. These issues might involve patents, government regulations, contracts with other companies, property interests, taxes, or collective-bargaining agreements with unions.
Legal aid lawyers work for private, nonprofit organizations for disadvantaged people. They generally handle civil cases, such as those about leases, job discrimination, and wage disputes, rather than criminal cases.
Lawyers often specialize in a particular area. The following are some examples of types of lawyers:
Environmental lawyers deal with issues and regulations that are related to the environment. They might represent advocacy groups, waste disposal companies, or government agencies to make sure they comply with the relevant laws.
Tax lawyers handle a variety of tax-related issues for individuals and corporations. Tax lawyers may help clients navigate complex tax regulations so that they pay the appropriate tax on income, profits, property, and so on. For example, they might advise a corporation on how much tax it needs to pay from profits made in different states to comply with the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) rules.
Intellectual property lawyers deal with the laws related to inventions, patents, trademarks, and creative works such as music, books, and movies. An intellectual property lawyer might advise a client about whether it is okay to use published material in the client’s forthcoming book.
Family lawyers handle a variety of legal issues that pertain to the family. They may advise clients regarding divorce, child custody, and adoption proceedings.
Securities lawyers work on legal issues arising from the buying and sell of stocks, ensuring that all disclosure requirements are met. They may advise corporations that are interested in listing in the stock exchange through an initial public offering (IPO) or buying shares in another corporation.
Litigation lawyers handle all lawsuits and disputes between parties. These could be contract disputes, personal injury disputes, or real estate and property disputes. Litigation lawyers may specialize in a certain area, such as personal injury law, or may be a general lawyer for all types of disputes and lawsuits.
Lawyers held about 728,200 jobs in 2010. A majority of lawyers work in private or corporate legal offices. Some are employed in local, state and federal governments. About 22 percent of lawyers were self-employed in 2010.
Lawyers work mostly in offices. However, some travel to attend meetings with clients at various locations, such as homes, hospitals, or prisons. Some lawyers gather evidence; others appear before courts. Lawyers who represent clients in courts may face heavy pressure during trials.
The majority of lawyers work full time, and many work long hours. Lawyers who are in private practice or those who work in large firms often work long hours conducting research and preparing or reviewing documents.
Education and Training:
Formal requirements to become a lawyer usually include a 4-year college degree, 3 years of law school, and passing a written bar examination. However, some requirements vary by state.
Becoming a lawyer usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school—4 years of undergraduate study followed by 3 years of law school. Most states and jurisdictions require future lawyers to complete a juris doctor (J.D.) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). ABA accreditation signifies that the law school—particularly its curricula and faculty—meets certain standards.
A bachelor’s degree is required for entry into most law schools, and courses in English, public speaking, government, history, economics, and mathematics are useful.
Many law schools, particularly those approved by the ABA, also require applicants to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), a test that measures applicants’ aptitude for the study of law.
As of August 2011, ABA had approved 200 law schools; others were approved by state authorities only. Admission to law schools—especially the most prestigious ones—is competitive because the number of applicants greatly exceeds the number that can be admitted each year.
A J.D. degree program includes courses such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing. Law students may choose specialized courses in areas such as tax, labor, or corporate law.
Law students often gain practical experience by participating in school-sponsored legal clinics, in a school’s moot court competitions, in practice trials under the supervision of experienced lawyers and judges, and through research and writing on legal issues for a school’s law journals.
Part-time or summer jobs in law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments also provide valuable experience. These experiences can help law students decide what kind of legal work they want to focus on in their careers. These experiences may also lead directly to a job after graduation.
Becoming licensed as a lawyer is called being "admitted to the bar" and licensing exams are called "bar exams."
To practice law in any state, a person must be admitted to its bar under rules established by the jurisdiction’s highest court. The requirements vary by individual states and jurisdictions.
Most states require that applicants graduate from an ABA-accredited law school, pass one or more written bar exams, and be found by an admitting board to have the character to represent and advise others. Lawyers who want to practice in more than one state must often take separate bar exams in each state.
After graduation, lawyers must keep informed about legal developments that affect their practices. In 2011, 45 states required lawyers to participate in continuing legal education either every year or every 3 years.
Many law schools and state and local bar associations provide continuing legal education courses that help lawyers stay current with recent developments. Courses vary by state and are generally related to the practice of law, such as legal ethics, taxes and tax fraud, and health care. Some states allow lawyers to take their continuing education credits through online courses.
Newly hired attorneys usually start as associates and work with more experienced lawyers or judges. After several years, some lawyers may be admitted to partnership and become partial owners of the firm they work for. Some lawyers go into practice for themselves or move to the legal department of a large corporation.
A few experienced lawyers may be nominated or elected to judgeships. Other lawyers may become full-time law school faculty or administrators.
Skills to Develop:
Analytical skills: Lawyers help their clients resolve problems or issues. As a result, they must be able to analyze large amounts of information, determine relevant facts, and propose viable solutions.
Interpersonal skills: Lawyers must win the respect and confidence of their clients by building a trusting relationship so that clients feel comfortable and share personal information related to their case.
Problem-solving skills: Lawyers must separate their emotions and prejudice from their clients’ problems and objectively evaluate the matter. Therefore, good problem-solving skills are important for lawyers to prepare the best defense or recommendation.
Research skills: Preparing legal advice or representation for a client commonly requires substantial research. All lawyers need to be able to find what applicable laws and regulations apply to a specific matter.
Speaking skills: Lawyers are hired by their clients to speak on their behalf. Lawyers must be able to clearly present and explain evidence to a judge and jury.
Writing skills: Lawyers need to be precise and specific when preparing documents, such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.
Employment of lawyers is expected to grow by 10 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Demand for legal work will continue as individuals, businesses, and all levels of government will need legal services in many areas.
However, growth in demand for lawyers will be constrained as businesses increasingly use large accounting firms and paralegals to do some of the same tasks that lawyers do. For example, accounting firms may provide employee-benefit counseling, process documents, or handle various other services that law firms previously handled.
Lawyers will continue to be needed in the federal government to prosecute or defend civil cases on behalf of the United States, prosecute criminal cases brought by the federal government, and collect money owed to the federal government. However, budgetary constraints at all levels of government, including federal, will moderate employment growth.
Competition should continue to be strong because more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available. As in the past, some recent law school graduates who have been unable to find permanent positions are turning to the growing number of temporary staffing firms that place attorneys in short-term jobs. This service allows companies to hire lawyers “as-needed” and permits beginning lawyers to develop practical skills.
Job opportunities are typically affected by cyclical swings in the economy. During recessions, demand declines for some discretionary legal services, such as planning estates, drafting wills, and handling real estate transactions. Also, corporations are less likely to litigate cases when declining sales and profits restrict their budgets. Some corporations and law firms may even cut staff to contain costs until business improves.
Because of the strong competition, a law graduate’s willingness to relocate and work experience are becoming more important. However, to be licensed in another state, a lawyer may have to take an additional state bar examination.
The median annual wage of lawyers was $112,760 in May 2010. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $54,130, and the top 10 percent earned more than $166,400.
Salaries of experienced lawyers vary widely according to the type, size, and location of their employer. Lawyers who own their own practices usually earn less than those who are partners in law firms.
The majority of lawyers work full time and many work long hours. Lawyers who are in private practice or those who work in large firms often work long hours conducting research and preparing or reviewing documents.
What is this job like?
Lawyers give people and companies advice and tell them what they can and can't do under the law. Sometimes, they hire lawyers to take their side in court against other people or companies, or against the government.
Lawyers spend a lot of time doing research. To be a good lawyer, a person must be good at finding facts in books, on computers, and in other places. Lawyers also interview people to get information.
After doing research, lawyers make arguments to show that the people they work for should win in court. Some lawyers speak in court, but many lawyers don't.
Lawyers also write legal documents like contracts and wills. They need to be very specific and well-written.
Lawyers do most of their work in offices, law libraries, and courtrooms. They sometimes meet in clients' homes or businesses. Some lawyers meet clients in hospitals or prisons. Lawyers often work long hours, especially during a trial in court.
How do you get ready?
All lawyers need a license from the State in which they want to work. To get a license, people need to get a college degree and then go to law school for 3 years. Finally, lawyers must pass a test called the bar examination.
Even after they start working, lawyers need to keep on learning about changes in the law. Most States make lawyers take classes from time to time.
To start getting ready for this job, students can take English classes to learn how to write, do research, and make presentations. Social studies classes teach about research and the law. People who want to be lawyers also need strong reading skills.
How much does this job pay?
The median annual wage of lawyers was $112,760 in May 2010.
How many jobs are there?
Lawyers held about 728,200 jobs in 2010. Most lawyers worked for themselves or in law firms. Some lawyers worked for other businesses or for government.
What about the future?
Employment of lawyers is expected to grow by 10 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Many people want to be lawyers, so there will be competition for good jobs.
Some information on this page has been provided by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.