All lawyers are not alike. Contrary to the images we see in movies and on television they are not all running to trial every week to try a case. Lawyers work in many capacities and often specialize in particular areas. Below, we address some traditional career paths of lawyers.
Many lawyers eventually specialize in a particular area.
Lawyers may specialize in trial law (civil or criminal), appellate law (helping clients who seek to reverse or to uphold lower court decisions), bankruptcy law, trusts and estates, tax law, corporate law, environmental law, intellectual property, communication law, elder law, employment and labor law, entertainment law, health care law, education law, international law, and more. The list of specializations is almost endless and is always changing in response to new laws and legal issues. Moreover, it is not uncommon to begin a career practicing one kind of law and wind up practicing a different kind..
Lawyers also work in a variety of settings. Learn more about the most common settings for legal work below.
The majority of lawyers work in private practice. Some work as solo practitioners, others in small or «boutique» law firms. Many work in firms that have several hundred lawyers in cities across the world. Lawyers usually join firms as associates and work toward becoming partners. The road to partnership is long and difficult. In recent years it has become increasingly common for associates to join a law firm with the expectation that they will gain experience for a number of years, but not stick around for a partnership decision. To retain more lawyers, some law firms now allow for non-equity partnerships or promote a few attorneys to non-partnership «of counsel» or «special counsel» positions. Life at a law firm, especially a large law firm, is influenced by billable hours. Each lawyer has a billable rate that is used to charge clients for time spent on client matters. In order to bill clients and to get credit for work performed, firm lawyers keep track of the activities they perform each day. Sometimes lawyers record their activities in increments of time as short as six minutes.
Other attorneys are employed by a single client and work «in-house» for that client, usually a large corporation. An in-house attorney advises the company on legal activities related to the company’s business. Large companies often have correspondingly large legal departments and a number of in-house attorneys who specialize in specific issues. For example, one might supervise litigation being handled by an outside firm, another might address the company’s employment issues, and a third might work as a lobbyist who monitors and tries to influence legislation related to the company’s business. Traditionally, many in-house attorneys obtain their positions when they are working in a law firm and are asked by a client to join the company. In-house lawyers often report that they enjoy greater control over their time than their law firm counterparts. Also, because in-house lawyers represent one client, they are not beholden to the billable hour.
Most government lawyers work at the local level, but state governments and the federal government also hire lawyers to perform a multitude of tasks. Government lawyers include prosecutors (district attorneys, state attorneys general, and federal prosecutors who work at the Department of Justice here in D.C. and at U.S. Attorney’s offices around the country) and public defenders (who represent those who cannot afford an attorney). Lawyers also work for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Homeland Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Patent and Trademark Office, and just about every other government agency there is. In addition, state legislative bodies and the United States Congress offer many opportunities for lawyers to develop and help pass legislation.
Judicial clerks are a subset of government lawyers, but warrant separate mention. Judicial clerks research and draft memoranda and opinions for judges. Often, these intellectually stimulating and prestigious positions are short term. Frequently, recent law graduates will spend a year or two clerking before embarking on their legal careers. There are, however, some permanent clerk positions that allow for long-term employment.
PUBLIC INTEREST LAW
Many public interest lawyers work for legal-aid societies, which are private, nonprofit agencies designed to serve disadvantaged people. These lawyers might seek medical benefits for AIDS patients, represent the poor in landlord-tenant disagreements, or negotiate child visitation rights for individuals who cannot afford private attorneys. Other public interest lawyers work for nonprofit organizations that seek to change the law. Lawyers might strive to strengthen environmental laws, to protect the rights of children in foster care, to promote civil rights of gays and lesbians, or to advocate for racial and religious tolerance.
Public interest lawyers work on both sides of the political aisle. Some work to abolish abortion, while others work to strengthen abortion rights. Some promote victim’s rights and advocate in favor of the death penalty, while others strive to abolish the death penalty. Nonprofit organizations often struggle for funding. As a result, many are willing to provide (non-paying) internships to interested college students. Even after law school, public interest legal positions do not pay well,, but because they offer other rewards, these positions are often very competitive.
Lawyers teach in law schools, colleges, and at other educational levels. Many lawyers who hope to become professors gain teaching experience by working as an adjunct professors and teaching one course while working elsewhere full time. Practicing lawyers who want to teach also often look for publishing opportunities.