The legal system affects nearly every
aspect of our society, from buying a home to crossing the street. Lawyers form
the backbone of this vital system, linking it to society in numerous ways. For
that reason, they hold positions of great responsibility and are obligated to
adhere to a strict code of ethics.
also called attorneys,
act as both advocates and advisors in our society. 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 concerning their legal rights and obligations and suggest particular
courses of action in business and personal matters. Whether acting as an
advocate or an advisor, all attorneys research the intent of laws and judicial
decisions and apply the law to the specific circumstances faced by their client.
The more detailed aspects of a lawyer’s
job depend upon his or her field of specialization and position. Although all
lawyers are licensed to represent parties in court, some appear in court more
frequently than others. Trial lawyers, who specialize in trial work, must be
able to think quickly and speak with ease and authority. In addition,
familiarity with courtroom rules and strategy is particularly important in trial
work. Still, trial lawyers spend the majority of their time outside the
courtroom, conducting research, interviewing clients and witnesses, and handling
other details in preparation for a trial.
Lawyers may specialize in a number of
areas, such as bankruptcy, probate, international, or elder law. Those
specializing in environmental law, for example, may represent interest groups,
waste disposal companies, or construction firms in their dealings with the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other Federal and State agencies.
These lawyers help clients prepare and file for licenses and applications for
approval before certain activities may occur. In addition, they represent
clients’ interests in administrative adjudications.
Some lawyers specialize in the growing
field of intellectual property, helping to protect clients’ claims to
copyrights, artwork under contract, product designs, and computer programs.
Still other lawyers advise insurance companies about the legality of insurance
transactions, guiding the company in writing insurance policies to conform with
the law and to protect the companies from unwarranted claims. When claims are
filed against insurance companies, these attorneys review the claims and
represent the companies in court.
Most lawyers are in private practice,
concentrating on criminal or civil law. In criminal law, lawyers represent
individuals who have been charged with crimes and argue their cases in courts of
law. Attorneys dealing with civil law assist clients with litigation, wills,
trusts, contracts, mortgages, titles, and leases. Other lawyers handle only
public-interest cases—civil or criminal—which may have an impact extending well
beyond the individual client.
Lawyers are sometimes employed full time
by a single client. If the client is a corporation, the lawyer
is known as “house counsel” and usually advises the company concerning legal
issues related to its business activities. These issues might involve patents,
government regulations, contracts with other companies, property interests, or
collective bargaining agreements with unions.
A significant number of attorneys are
employed at the various levels of government. Lawyers who work for State
attorneys general, prosecutors, public defenders, and courts play a key role in
the criminal justice system. At the Federal level, attorneys investigate cases
for the U.S. Department of Justice and other agencies. Government lawyers also
help develop programs, draft and interpret laws and legislation, establish
enforcement procedures, and argue civil and criminal cases on behalf of the
Other lawyers work for legal aid
societies—private, nonprofit organizations established to serve disadvantaged
people. These lawyers generally handle civil, rather than criminal, cases. A
relatively small number of trained attorneys work in law schools. Most are
faculty members who specialize in one or more subjects; however, some serve as
administrators. Others work full time in nonacademic settings and teach part
time. (For additional information, see the Handbook
section on teachers—postsecondary.)
Lawyers are increasingly using various
forms of technology to perform their varied tasks more efficiently. Although all
lawyers continue to use law libraries to prepare cases, some supplement
conventional printed sources with computer sources, such as the Internet and
legal databases. Software is used to search this legal literature automatically
and to identify legal texts relevant to a specific case. In litigation involving
many supporting documents, lawyers may use computers to organize and index
material. Lawyers also utilize electronic filing, videoconferencing, and
voice-recognition technology to share information more effectively with other
parties involved in a case.
Lawyers do most of their work in
offices, law libraries, and courtrooms. They sometimes meet in clients’ homes or
places of business and, when necessary, in hospitals or prisons. They may travel
to attend meetings, gather evidence, and appear before courts, legislative
bodies, and other authorities.
Salaried lawyers usually have structured
work schedules. Lawyers who are in private practice may work irregular hours
while conducting research, conferring with clients, or preparing briefs during
non office hours. Lawyers often work long hours, and of those who regularly work
full time, about half work 50 hours or more per week. They may face particularly
heavy pressure when a case is being tried. Preparation for court includes
keeping abreast of the latest laws and judicial decisions.
Although legal work generally is not
seasonal, the work of tax lawyers and other specialists may be an exception.
Because lawyers in private practice often can determine their own workload and
the point at which they will retire, many stay in practice well beyond the usual
To practice law in the courts of any
State or other jurisdiction, a person must be licensed, or admitted to its bar,
under rules established by the jurisdiction’s highest court. All States require
that applicants for admission to the bar pass a written bar examination; most
States also require applicants to pass a separate written ethics examination.
Lawyers who have been admitted to the bar in one State occasionally may be
admitted to the bar in another without taking an examination if they meet the
latter jurisdiction’s standards of good moral character and a specified period
of legal experience. In most cases, however, lawyers must pass the bar
examination in each State in which they plan to practice. Federal courts and
agencies set their own qualifications for those practicing before or in them.
To qualify for the bar examination in
most States, an applicant usually must earn a college degree and graduate from a
law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) or the proper State
authorities. ABA accreditation signifies that the law school—particularly its
library and faculty—meets certain standards developed to promote quality legal
education. As of 2005, there were 191 ABA-accredited law schools; others were
approved by State authorities only. With certain exceptions, graduates of
schools not approved by the ABA are restricted to taking the bar examination and
practicing in the State or other jurisdiction in which the school is located;
most of these schools are in California. In 2005, seven States—California,
Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming—accepted the study
of law in a law office as qualification for taking the bar examination; three
jurisdictions—California, the District of Columbia, and New Mexico—now accept
the study of law by correspondence. Several States require registration and
approval of students by the State Board of Law Examiners, either before the
students enter law school or during their early years of legal study.
Although there is no nationwide bar
examination, 48 States, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana
Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands require the 6-hour Multistate
Bar Examination (MBE)
as part of the overall bar examination; the MBE
is not required in Louisiana or Washington. The MBE
covers a broad range of issues, and sometimes a locally prepared State bar
examination is given in addition to it. The 3-hour Multistate
Essay Examination (MEE)
is used as part of the bar examination in several States. States vary in their
use of MBE
Many States also require Multistate
Performance Testing (MPT)
to test the practical skills of beginning lawyers. Requirements vary by State,
although the test usually is taken at the same time as the bar exam and is a
The required college and law school
education usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school—4 years of
undergraduate study, followed by 3 years of law school. Law school applicants
must have a bachelor’s degree to qualify for admission. To meet the needs of
students who can attend only part time, a number of law schools have night or
part-time divisions, which usually require 4 years of study; about 1 in 10
graduates from ABA-approved schools attended part time.
Although there is no recommended
“prelaw” major, prospective lawyers should develop proficiency in writing and
speaking, reading, researching, analyzing, and thinking logically—skills needed
to succeed both in law school and in the profession. Regardless of major, a
multidisciplinary background is recommended. Courses in English, foreign
languages, public speaking, government, philosophy, history, economics,
mathematics, and computer science, among others, are useful. Students interested
in a particular aspect of law may find related courses helpful. For example,
prospective patent lawyers need a strong background in engineering or science,
and future tax lawyers must have extensive knowledge of accounting.
Acceptance by most law schools depends
on the applicant’s ability to demonstrate an aptitude for the study of law,
usually through good undergraduate grades, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT),
the quality of the applicant’s undergraduate school, any prior work experience,
and sometimes, a personal interview. However, law schools vary in the weight
they place on each of these and other factors.
All law schools approved by the ABA
require applicants to take the
LSAT. Nearly all law schools
require applicants to have certified transcripts sent to the Law School Data
Assembly Service, which then submits the applicants’ LSAT
scores and their standardized records of college grades to the law schools of
their choice. Both this service and the LSAT
are administered by the Law School Admission Council. Competition for admission
to many law schools—especially the most prestigious ones—generally is intense,
with the number of applicants greatly exceeding the number that can be admitted.
During the first year or year and a half
of law school, students usually study core courses, such as constitutional law,
contracts, property law, torts, civil procedure, and legal writing. In the
remaining time, they may elect specialized courses in fields such as tax, labor,
or corporate law. Law students often acquire practical experience by
participating in school-sponsored legal clinic activities; in the school’s moot
court competitions, in which students conduct appellate arguments; in practice
trials under the supervision of experienced lawyers and judges; and through
research and writing on legal issues for the school’s law journal.
A number of law schools have clinical
programs in which students gain legal experience through practice trials and
projects under the supervision of practicing lawyers and law school faculty. Law
school clinical programs might include work in legal aid clinics, for example,
or on the staff of legislative committees. Part-time or summer clerkships in law
firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments also provide
valuable experience. Such training can lead directly to a job after graduation
and can help students decide what kind of practice best suits them. Clerkships
also may be an important source of financial aid.
In 2004, law school graduates in 52
jurisdictions were required to pass the Multistate
Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE),
which tests their knowledge of the ABA codes on professional responsibility and
judicial conduct. In some States, the MPRE
may be taken during law school, usually after completing a course on legal
Law school graduates receive the degree
of juris doctor
(J.D.) as the first professional degree. Advanced law degrees may be desirable
for those planning to specialize, research, or teach. Some law students pursue
joint degree programs, which usually require an additional semester or year of
study. Joint degree programs are offered in a number of areas, including law and
business administration or public administration.
After graduation, lawyers must keep
informed about legal and non legal developments that affect their practices.
Currently, 40 States and jurisdictions mandate continuing legal education (CLE).
Many law schools and State and local bar associations provide continuing
education courses that help lawyers stay abreast of recent developments. Some
States allow CLE credits to be obtained through participation in seminars on the
The practice of law involves a great
deal of responsibility. Individuals planning careers in law should like to work
with people and be able to win the respect and confidence of their clients,
associates, and the public. Perseverance, creativity, and reasoning ability also
are essential to lawyers, who often analyze complex cases and handle new and
unique legal problems.
Most beginning lawyers start in salaried
positions. Newly hired salaried attorneys usually start as associates and work
with more experienced lawyers or judges. After several years of gaining more
responsibilities, some lawyers are admitted to partnership in their firm or go
into practice for themselves. Some experienced lawyers are nominated or elected
to judgeships. (See the section on judges, magistrates, and other judicial
workers elsewhere in the
full-time law school faculty or administrators; a growing number of these
lawyers have advanced degrees in other fields as well.
Some attorneys use their legal training
in administrative or managerial positions in various departments of large
corporations. A transfer from a corporation’s legal department to another
department often is viewed as a way to gain administrative experience and rise
in the ranks of management.
Lawyers held about 735,000 jobs in 2004.
Approximately 3 out of 4 lawyers practiced privately, either as partners in law
firms or in solo practices. Most salaried lawyers held positions in government
or with corporations or nonprofit organizations. The greatest number of lawyers
working in government were employed at the local level. In the Federal
Government, lawyers work for many different agencies, but are concentrated in
the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and Defense. Many salaried lawyers working
outside of government are employed as house counsel by public utilities, banks,
insurance companies, real estate agencies, manufacturing firms, and other
business firms and nonprofit organizations. Some also have part-time independent
practices, while others work part time as lawyers and full time in another
Employment of lawyers is expected to
grow about as fast as average
for all occupations through 2014, primarily as a result of growth in the
population and in the general level of business activities. Job growth among
lawyers also will result from increasing demand for legal services in such areas
as health care, intellectual property, venture capital, energy, elder,
antitrust, and environmental law. In addition, the wider availability and
affordability of legal clinics should result in increased use of legal services
by middle-income people. However, growth in demand for lawyers will be limited
as businesses, in an effort to reduce costs, increasingly use large accounting
firms and paralegals to perform some of the same functions that lawyers do. For
example, accounting firms may provide employee-benefit counseling, process
documents, or handle various other services previously performed by a law firm.
Also, mediation and dispute resolution increasingly are being used as
alternatives to litigation.
Competition for job openings should
continue to be keen because of the large number of students graduating from law
school each year. Graduates with superior academic records from highly regarded
law schools will have the best job opportunities. Perhaps as a result of
competition for attorney positions, lawyers are increasingly finding work in
nontraditional areas for which legal training is an asset, but not normally a
requirement—for example, administrative, managerial, and business positions in
banks, insurance firms, real estate companies, government agencies, and other
organizations. Employment opportunities are expected to continue to arise in
these organizations at a growing rate.
As in the past, some graduates may have
to accept positions in areas outside of their field of interest or for which
they feel overqualified. 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 until they are able to
secure full-time positions. This service allows companies to hire lawyers on an
“as-needed” basis and permits beginning lawyers to develop practical skills
while looking for permanent positions.
Because of the keen competition for
jobs, a law graduate’s geographic mobility and work experience assume greater
importance. The willingness to relocate may be an advantage in getting a job,
but to be licensed in another State, a lawyer
may have to take an additional State bar examination. In addition, employers are
increasingly seeking graduates who have advanced law degrees and experience in a
specialty, such as tax, patent, or admiralty law.
Employment growth for lawyers will
continue to be concentrated in salaried jobs, as businesses and all levels of
government employ a growing number of staff attorneys and as employment in the
legal services industry grows. Most salaried positions are in urban areas where
government agencies, law firms, and big corporations are concentrated. The
number of self-employed lawyers is expected to decrease slowly, reflecting the
difficulty of establishing a profitable new practice in the face of competition
from larger, established law firms. Moreover, the growing complexity of law,
which encourages specialization, along with the cost of maintaining up-to-date
legal research materials, favors larger firms.
For lawyers who wish to work
independently, establishing a new practice will probably be easiest in small
towns and expanding suburban areas. In such communities, competition from
larger, established law firms is likely to be less keen than in big cities, and
new lawyers may find it easier to become
known to potential clients.
Some lawyers are adversely 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 result in budgetary
restrictions. Some corporations and law firms will not hire new attorneys until
business improves, and these establishments may even cut staff to contain costs.
Several factors, however, mitigate the overall impact of recessions on lawyers;
during recessions, for example, individuals and corporations face other legal
problems, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and divorces requiring legal
In May 2004, the median annual earnings
of all lawyers were $94,930. The middle half of the occupation earned between
$64,620 and $143,620. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the
largest numbers of lawyers in May 2004 were as follows:
Management of companies and
Median salaries of lawyers 9 months
after graduation from law school in 2004 varied by type of work, as indicated in
Table 1. Median salaries of lawyers 9
months after graduation, 2004
Type of work
Type of work
Judicial clerkship and government
Source: National Association of Law
Salaries of experienced attorneys 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. Lawyers starting their own practice may need to work part time in other
occupations to supplement their income until their practice is well established.
Most salaried lawyers are provided
health and life insurance, and contributions are made to retirement plans on
their behalf. Lawyers who practice independently are covered only if they
arrange and pay for such benefits themselves.
Information on obtaining positions as
occupational health and safety specialists and technicians with the Federal
Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USA
JOBS, the Federal Government’s official employment information system. This
resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through
the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov
or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or
(978) 461-8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result.
The requirements for admission to the
bar in a particular State or other jurisdiction also may be obtained at the
State capital, from the clerk of the Supreme Court, or from the administrator of
the State Board of Bar Examiners.