Duties of Lawyers
Lawyers typically do the following:
Advise and represent clients in courts, before government agencies, and in private legal matters
Communicate with their clients, colleagues, judges, and others involved in the case
Conduct research and analysis of legal problems
Interpret laws, rulings, and regulations for individuals and businesses
Present facts in writing and verbally to their clients or others, and argue on behalf of their clients
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 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 often oversee the work of support staff, such as paralegals and legal assistants and legal secretaries.
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.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Lawyers
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.
Advancement for Lawyers
Newly hired attorneys usually start as associates and work on teams with more experienced lawyers. After several years, some lawyers may advance to partnership in their firm, meaning that they become partial owners of the firm. Those who do not advance within their firm may be forced to leave, a practice commonly known as «up or out.»
After gaining a few years of work experience, some lawyers go into practice for themselves or move to the legal department of a large corporation. Very few in-house attorneys are hired directly out of law school.
Other Experience for Lawyers
Part-time jobs or summer internships in law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments provide valuable experience. Some smaller firms, government agencies, and public-interest organizations may hire students as summer associates after they have completed their first year at law school. Many larger firms’ summer associate programs are eligible only to law students who have completed their second year. All of these experiences can help law students decide what kind of legal work they want to focus on in their careers and may lead directly to a job after graduation.
Important Qualities for Lawyers
Analytical skills. Lawyers help their clients resolve problems and 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 enough to 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 relevant applicable information. Therefore, good problem-solving skills are important for lawyers, to prepare the best defense and recommendations for their clients.
Research skills. Lawyers need to be able to find those laws and regulations which apply to a specific matter, in order to provide the appropriate legal advice for their clients.
Speaking skills. Lawyers must be able to clearly present and explain their case to arbitrators, mediators, opposing parties, judges, or juries, because they are speaking on behalf of their clients.