Lawyers typically do the following:
Lawyers, also called attorneys, act as both advocates and advisors.
As advocates, they represent one of the parties in a criminal or civil trial by presenting evidence and arguing in support of 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.
Lawyers may have different titles and different duties, depending on where they work.
In law firms, lawyers, sometimes called associates, perform legal work for individuals or businesses. Those who represent and defend the accused may be called criminal law attorneys or defense attorneys.
Attorneys also work for federal, state, and local governments. Prosecutors typically work for the government to file a lawsuit, or charge, against an individual or corporation accused of violating the law. Some may also work as public defense attorneys, representing individuals who could not afford to hire their own private attorney.
Others may work as government counsels for administrative bodies and executive or legislative branches of government. They write and interpret laws and regulations and set up procedures to enforce them. Government counsels also write legal reviews of agency 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 may involve patents, government regulations, contracts with other companies, property interests, taxes, or collective-bargaining agreements with unions.
Public-interest lawyers work for private, nonprofit organizations that provide legal services to disadvantaged people or others who otherwise might not be able to afford legal representation. They generally handle civil cases, such as those having to do with leases, job discrimination, and wage disputes, rather than criminal cases.
In addition to working in different industries, lawyers may specialize in particular legal fields. Following are examples of types of lawyers in these fields:
Environmental lawyers deal with issues and regulations that are related to the environment. For example, they may work for advocacy groups, waste disposal companies, or government agencies to help ensure compliance with relevant laws.
Tax lawyers handle a variety of tax-related issues for individuals and corporations. They may help clients navigate complex tax regulations, so that clients pay the appropriate tax on items such as income, profits, and property. For example, tax lawyers may advise a corporation on how much tax it needs to pay from profits made in different states in order to comply with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules.
Intellectual property lawyers deal with the laws related to inventions, patents, trademarks, and creative works, such as music, books, and movies. For example, an intellectual property lawyer may 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 selling 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 in buying shares in another corporation.
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 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.
Almost all law schools, particularly those approved by the ABA, require applicants to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This test measures applicants’ aptitude for the study of law.
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, and corporate law.
Prospective lawyers take licensing exams called “bar exams.” Lawyers who receive a license to practice law are “admitted to the bar.”
To practice law in any state, a person must be admitted to the state’s bar under rules established by the jurisdiction’s highest court. The requirements vary by state and jurisdiction. For more details on individual state and jurisdiction requirements, visit the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
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. Prior felony convictions, academic misconduct, and a history of substance abuse are just some factors that may disqualify an applicant from being admitted to the bar.
Lawyers who want to practice in more than one state often must take the bar exam in each state.
After graduation, lawyers must keep informed about legal developments that affect their practices. Almost all states require 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 generally cover a subject within the practice of law, such as legal ethics, taxes and tax fraud, and healthcare. Some states allow lawyers to take continuing education credits through online courses.