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Attorneys do many different things. The challenge for you, as a student, is learning the different things they do and assessing how your skill sets line up with possible practice areas. Keep in mind; the debt load for law school could be very high so you should be sure it is the correct move for you. You do not need to know a practice area of law to start law school but the more you have thought about your interests and created opportunities for yourself in the work place that assist you in learning about different practice areas, the richer you will be in setting a professional path for yourself.
What You Can Do with a Law Degree
Lawyers work in a variety of settings, utilizing facets of their pre-law education, skills they developed in law school, and experience gained through practice. Not all legal employers are looking for the same skill sets. Lawyers counsel, strategize, solve problems, write, advocate, negotiate, and mediate.
- 75% of American lawyers are in private practice; of these:
- 62% work as solo practitioners or in offices of five or fewer lawyers,
- 18% work in offices of between six and 50 lawyers, and
- 20% work in firms of more than 50 lawyers.
- 7.5% of the profession work for government agencies.
- 8.5% work for private industries and associations as salaried lawyers or as managers.
- 1% work for legal aid or as public defenders.
- 1% work in legal education.
- 2.5% work in the judiciary.
- 4.4% are retired or inactive.
Areas of Practice
Private Practice and Life in Law Firms
The majority of lawyers work in private practice. Most work as solo practitioners (meaning they work for themselves) or for small firms consisting of 5 or fewer attorneys. Law firms come in a variety of sizes, geographic reach, and practice areas, such as corporate, real estate, civil rights, family, trusts and estates, bankruptcy, immigration, employment, environmental, entertainment, insurance, intellectual property, criminal, and tax. They can range in size from large (500+ attorneys), medium (several hundred attorneys) or small (two to 20 attorneys).
An attorney working for a law firm may have a clientele consisting of individuals or businesses who hire them to perform legal work either on retainer—performing legal work on a day-to-day basis–or on a single legal issue. In large firms, it is common for attorneys to work 60-80+ hour work weeks. In smaller firms, the hours may or may not be less. In general, most attorneys work long hours.
In most law firms, new attorneys are referred to as "associates." After a significant period of time and experience, an attorney is eligible to become a "partner" in the law firm. Generally speaking, partners have an ownership interest in the law firm and collectively act to manage the firm. The road to partnership is long and arduous, and some attorneys choose not to stay long enough for a partnership decision, or may find themselves passed up for promotion. As a result, some law firms now offer “non-equity partnerships” (a non-ownership interest in the firm) or promote a few attorneys to non-partnership “of counsel” or “special counsel” positions.
In-House Counsel and Life in Private Business
Lawyers working within a private business are known as in-house counsel. In-house counsel service a single client: the company; therefore, it is their job to become experts in the operations and needs of their single client. Their role is to provide business and legal advice within the business, draft and review contracts, negotiate business deals, develop business opportunities, provide risk assessment, work on investor relations, and supervise litigation being handled by outside firms. The size of an in-house legal department varies greatly, depending on the size of the company, and attorney specializations may be diverse.
Generally, recent law school graduates do not start in these positions because prior business and legal experience is required. It is more common for attorneys to move from private practice into an in-house position with client companies. In-house counsel often report that they enjoy greater control over their time than their law firm counterparts, who are beholden to billable hours.
Public Service and Life in Government
Lawyers work at every level of the government—local, state, and federal—performing a multitude of tasks, including public prosecution and defense, government administration, executive or legislative staff, and within the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) of the military branch.
Government attorneys also handle civil cases involving the government. Attorneys working for an administrative agency, or an office in the executive or legislative branches, draft documentation, perform legal research, and counsel on the enforcement of laws, rules, and regulations. Public defense attorneys are court-appointed counsel who represent clients accused of crimes, while their public counterparts are the prosecutors and district attorneys who represent the interests of the state in the prosecution of those accused of crimes. Both deal with fundamental issues of the law and personal liberty.
Public interest lawyers focus on a wide range of cases and causes significant to the general public. Often, they provide legal services to disadvantaged, low-income, or at-risk groups in society. They may work directly with clients, or on larger issues of public policy and impact litigation. Those working directly with individual clients may do so by providing criminal legal representation (e.g., public defense), or representation on civil issues such as housing, immigration, family, government benefits, discrimination, child advocacy, and violations of civil liberties or civil rights. Many public interest lawyers work for private nonprofit organizations that try to effect change in laws and our greater society. Their practice areas range from strengthening environmental laws, to protecting the rights of children in foster care; from human rights policy to advocating racial and religious tolerance. Public interest lawyers work across the spectrum of political affiliations on issues for which they have a passion.
Nonprofit organizations often struggle for funding, relying on donations and grants. As a result, many are open to providing (unpaid) internships to interested college students willing to volunteer. Public interest positions are not high paying but offer other rewards, and are often highly competitive. Attorneys working in the private sector are encouraged to pursue their passion for public interest work through pro bono projects (often coordinated through their employer) and other volunteer opportunities with public interest organizations and nonprofit entities. Pro bono work plays an important role in providing legal services to individuals and communities that lack the critical resources needed to address legal issues.
Many new law-school graduates clerk for a local, state, or federal judge. Work as a clerk can vary, but typically involves researching, reviewing, and summarizing legal issues in cases before the court; drafting orders, internal memoranda, and opinions; and observing various judicial proceedings. Clerkships generally last for one- or two-year terms, though occasionally permanent positions (often called "staff clerks") are available. Clerkship experience is highly valued by most legal employers, and is viewed as a springboard into private practice, government, or public interest work.
A very small percentage of lawyers work as judges. Judges can be either appointed or elected (depending on the jurisdiction), and attorneys typically are not afforded this opportunity until many years into their professional careers.
Lawyers in academia teach, counsel, and serve as administrators. Those wishing to teach will often need some practical legal experience before becoming a professor. Those working toward tenure-track professorship focus on research and writing scholarly articles and books; they impart practical skills through clinical teaching or serving as a legal research and writing instructors.
Many law-school faculty members are not career professors. Often instructors are career attorneys teaching in conjunction with their practice. Lawyers may also serve as program administrators, career counselors, or admissions professionals. A small number of lawyers practice law on behalf of universities in the university counsel's office. An attorney practicing education law may provide advice, counsel, and representation for a school district or other educational agency on matters pertinent to education policies and procedures.
Not every law-school graduate chooses to practice. Those with juris doctorate degrees utilize their training in a wide variety of non-legal settings. However, lawyers most often choose a non-traditional path after practicing law for at least a few years.
Lawyer vs. Attorney?
A lawyer is simply one who is trained in the law; they may or may not provide legal guidance to another. Anyone who has attended law school in the United States may consider themselves a lawyer; however, until they pass the bar exam in the jurisdiction in which they intend to practice, the method by which they use their skills is limited. For instance, a policy advisor or consultant to the government who attended law school is technically a lawyer and may utilize their knowledge and skill sets in the course of their work, but must not cross the fine line into providing legal guidance or representation. This violation is referred to as the “unauthorized practice of law.”
An attorney is a lawyer who is barred in a particular jurisdiction, and is licensed to practice law. They are authorized to go beyond the confines of lawyers by providing legal representation. This relationship is more than merely providing the factual state of the law and includes delving into the practice of providing strategy for the client’s needs in reference to the law. An attorney may also appear in court and other appropriate settings on behalf of their client.