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Lawyer, Attorney and Legal Careers, Jobs, and Training Information

Career and Job Highlights

  • A bachelor’s degree and 3-year law degree is required to pass the written bar examination to become a practicing attorney. Due to increased legal action in a variety of fields—including sexual harassment, international law, and intellectual property—demand for lawyers has increased dramatically. Admission to law school has become an increasingly difficult endeavor.

Lawyer, Attorney and Legal Career Overview

There are laws affecting practically every aspect of our lives, from making purchases online to changing lanes in a car. One of the important means by which we are linked to the legal system is the legal profession, namely lawyers and attorneys. Because of the important role lawyers play in connecting society to the rest of the legal system, they’re actions must be governed by a strict ethical code.

Lawyers and attorneys serve an important dual role, acting both as advocates and advisors. In whatever role they are filling, attorneys employ their time researching the written law, legal precedence, and apply both in their clients’ cases. As advisors, lawyers may suggest courses of action and advise their clients as to their legal rights. By representing their clients in court and arguing on their behalf, lawyers fill their role as advocates.

Lawyers’ individual job descriptions vary greatly based on their expertise, training, and position in a firm. When a lawyer passes the bar exam in a state, they are authorized to represent clients in court; however, some lawyers practice in court more often than others. Those who can speak quickly and convincingly often become trial attorneys who specialize in trial work. Another skill important to trial work is being confidently familiar with court processes, rules, and strategies. While trial attorneys spend more time in court than the majority of tier counterparts, they still spend the majority of their time outside the courtroom, preparing witnesses, evidence, and legal research for the trial.

In addition to trial work, lawyers may specialize in a number of other fields, including intellectual property, business finance, mergers, or bankruptcy. Environmental law specialists may represent environmental groups or construction companies in their dealings with federal and state agencies. They advise such groups in filing applications and seeking approval for projects as well as representing them in administrative issues or complaints.

An intricate web of laws in this country protects individual creative endeavors and compositions. Intellectual property lawyers help their clients protect their claims to copyrights, patents, designs, and other licensed properties. Lawyers working with insurance companies oversee the legality of their proceedings and protect the company from frivolous claims. Other lawyers review insurance policies and transactions to ensure their legality.

The majority of lawyers practice in the private sector in either criminal or civil court. Civil court cases include disputes over trusts, breeches of contracts, torts, leases, or mortgages. Criminal attorneys represent persons charged with committing some crime. Still other lawyers argue only so-called public-interest cases where the decision made in court has legal or social implications beyond just that case.

Some corporations have deal with enough legal matters to justify employing an attorney or group of attorneys full time. Such attorneys are called “in-house” or corporate attorneys, and deal with issues from patents and contracts to mergers and negotiations with labor unions.

There is a large proportion of attorneys who are employed with the government at the local, state, or federal level. States employ prosecutors and public defenders who perform a vital role in providing fairness and equity for all in the court system. The Federal government employs lawyers to investigate cases involving federal law. Other government lawyers help draft legislation, develop programs, or argue cases on behalf of the government.

Legal-aid organizations, which exist to serve disadvantaged persons, employ attorneys to represent clients in civil court. Some lawyers are employed as teachers or professors at law schools, though in proportion to the whole number of attorneys, their numbers are few. Fewer still are the attorneys employed as administrators at law schools. Some choose to work full-time and teach on the side.

Lawyers are taking advantage of technological advances to assist them in performing many job functions. They supplement traditional law library research with online searches of legal databases. Some programs can find automatically cases and commentary relevant to a case a lawyer is researching. Additionally, lawyers may use advances in communications technology to communicate with others via videoconferencing and voice recognition software. Lawyers stay organized by using electronic filing systems that allow them to organize and track research related to complicated proceedings on which they are working.

The majority of work done by attorneys is done at his or her office, in a legal library, or in court. However, some field work is required, and may take a lawyer to his or her clients’ homes and businesses, or in some cases, to a prison or hospital. Travel may be required to perform investigations, interviews, attend meetings, court appointments, and legislative proceedings.

Work load and structure vary according to the type of employment—lawyers who practice privately may work during non-business hours in order to conduct interviews and do research. Attorneys employed by a firm typically work a more structured schedule, though most lawyers work long hours. Half of all lawyers who work full time work 50 hours or more a week. Current job pressures, like a case being tried in court, affect the time and stress level a lawyer must undergo. Demands to stay current on new laws and legal opinions add to an attorney’s workload.

Many lawyers are self-employed, and therefore determine their own schedules, including when to retire. Many work beyond the average retirement age. Some specialized lawyers, like tax attorneys, may find their work increasing during peak times of the year.

Lawyer, Attorney and Legal Training and Job Qualifications

Requirements to practice law in any given jurisdiction are determined by the courts ruling over them. The highest State courts establish the rules governing the licensing of attorneys. In every state, one must pass a written bar examination before being able to legally practice law in that state; some states require an additional test on ethics practices. Occasionally a lawyer may be granted the right to practice law in a State without taking the written bar examination if he or she meets moral and ethical standards and has met other prerequisites regarding legal experience. At the Federal level, individual courts and agencies determine the licensing requirements for lawyers practicing before them.

Graduation from an American Bar Association (ABA) approved law school and holding a college degree are requirements to take the bar examination in most states. The ABA examines all aspects of a law school—especially its faculty and library—before giving its accreditation to ensure the school can provide a quality legal education. There are currently 188 ABA-accredited law schools, with a number of others, mostly in California, who receive accreditation only from State authorities. Some authorities—namely California, the District of Columbia, and New Mexico—accept distance-learning legal educations. A graduate from a non-ABA-accredited school is typically restricted to practicing law in the State where their school is located, though certain exceptions do exist. In several states, students are required to register with and gain approval from the State Board of Law Examiners during the first couple years of law school.
There is no national bar examination; however, the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) is a six-hour test required by the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and every state except Washington and Louisiana. The MBE covers legal areas of general interest and is often administered in addition to examinations prepared locally. Many states also make use of the three-hour Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), and states vary in their use of both the MBE and MEE.

One testing practice that has begun to gain popularity among states is the Multistate Performance Testing (MPT), which is designed to test the skills of new lawyers. The MPT is typically a one-time requirement that is take concurrent with the bar examination. States MPT requirements vary, though more and more States are expected to make the practical skills test part of their bar examination.

To enter law school, an applicant must have a four-year college degree. A three-year law degree is required on top of that to qualify for the bar examination, making the total required time of post-secondary education 7 years. Some law schools have created night or part-time law degree programs to accommodate those with scheduling needs. These programs typically take four years to complete, and 1 in 10 graduates from an ABA-approved law school graduated from either a night or part-time program.

Skills essential to success in law school and the legal profession include logical reasoning, reading, and writing; researching; and public speaking. There is no recommended prelaw course of study, though a cross-disciplinary education will aid a student in law. Foreign languages, economics, business finance, mathematics, engineering, and computer science can all be valuable. Additionally, prelaw students interested in a specialized area of law may find other courses helpful. A student interested in tax law will want to have a solid educational foundation in accounting.

Law schools vary in the amount of emphasis they place on a given part of a potential student’s application. All schools attempt to evaluate a student’s propensity for success in law school by examining the undergraduate GPA, Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) score, letters of recommendation, previous work experience, graduate study, and difficulty of the degree program or school. Occasionally law schools require personal interviews as part of the application process.

The Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS) collects undergraduate transcripts and LSAT scores of law school applicants and reports them in a standardized way to law schools. Most law schools require prospective students to use the LSDAS, and all ABA-approved law schools but those in Puerto Rico require students to take the LSAT. Both the LSAT and the LSDAS are administered by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). Because of the number of applicants each year, admission to law school is very competitive, especially for prestigious schools. The number of students who are accepted to law school is only a portion of the total number of applicants.

Students receive a foundational legal education in areas like constitutional law, torts, contracts, legal writing, and the legal process during the two or three semesters. The final year or two of law school, the student may take elective courses in a number of legal areas. Practical experience is also available as law schools offer legal clinics; appellate court simulations; professionally-supervised practice trials; and student-edited and produced legal journals.

Several law schools provide clinical programs for students to gain hands-on experience. Mock trials and other projects are supervised by professional lawyers and law faculty from the school. Students also gain on-the-job experience while working part-time or during the summer as clerks in legal departments, Federal and State agencies, and law firms. These jobs allow students to discover what area of legal practice most suits them, and students may end up working full-time with a firm or agency they interned with. Part-time or summer clerkships also form an important part of students’ financing their legal educations.
The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) was required in fifty-two jurisdictions in 2001. In the MPRE law students are tested on their knowledge of the ABA codes dealing with judicial conduct and professional responsibility. The MPRE may be taken by current law students in some States; however, students usually must have completed a legal ethics class first.

Law students wishing to specialize or become teachers or researchers may pursue advanced degrees after law school; however, all law school graduates earn a juris doctor (J.D.) degree. A group of law students pursue joint degrees in a number of fields of study. Credits are shared between the J.D. and other program of study, allowing a student to graduate with both degrees with only one more semester or year of study than what it takes to earn the J.D. alone. Areas like business or public administration are popular joint degrees courses of study.

Some 40 jurisdictions nationwide require lawyers to stay abreast of developments that relate to their practice by taking continuing legal education (CLE) courses. Credits may be earned by taking courses offered through the local law school or bar association, or in some States, may even be earned via online seminars.

Because of the complexity of the cases they must handle, and the evolving, dynamic problems they will have to face, lawyers must be responsible, creative, ambitious, and diligent. They must be able to work effectively with people and exude confidence when dealing with the press, public, their clients, and in legal proceedings.

While other options are available, the majority of new lawyers begin work in salaried positions where they are placed in groups with more experienced attorneys. Following years of on-the-job training and grooming by the firm, some may be accepted as partners in the firm; others may move on to a different firm or start their own practice. More experienced lawyers may eventually be elected or appointed as judges. Still others, many of whom have advanced degrees in a specialty field, choose to teach full-time at a law school or become administration of such schools.

Large corporations employ attorneys who make use of their legal knowledge in managerial positions or as department administrators. Corporate lawyers gain valuable experience by transferring out of the company’s legal department and into other departments’ management teams.

Lawyer, Attorney and Legal Job and Employment Opportunities

Due to the high volume of business activity and population growth, opportunities for lawyers are expected to grow at an average rate through 2012. Specific areas of law—such as intellectual-property, environmental, and antitrust—are expected to create additional employment opportunities. People in the middle-income bracket will make more use of legal services due to prepaid legal service plans and cheaper, more available law clinics. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) may help mitigate this job growth as more and more businesses and private parties seek to avoid costly court litigation. Likewise, in an effort to cut costs, businesses are shifting their use of lawyers to accounting firms and paralegals, employing their services in areas typically handled by lawyers. For example, accounting firms might counsel businesses about benefits programs or process business documentation.

Due to the increasing number of law school graduates, job openings are becoming increasingly competitive. Students who graduate near the top of their class from schools with solid reputations will likely find the most opportunities. Attorneys are increasingly working in peripheral areas to the law where their legal expertise is not essential, but helpful. Banks, State and Federal agencies, insurance companies, and other businesses employ lawyers in administrative and managerial positions. Nontraditional positions for lawyers in fields like those just mentioned are expected to increase in the future.

Also due to the number of law school graduates, some beginning lawyers find themselves in jobs for which they are overqualified, or practicing in areas that are not their primary interest. Temporary staffing firms are increasingly placing lawyers in temporary jobs where they may practice and hone their skills while continuing to look for full-time employment. Companies benefit from these temporary staffing solutions because they can hire lawyers only when needed.
Work experience and an ability to relocate are gaining importance in legal job hunting. Geographic mobility can be an asset in securing a job, though it is important to remember that to practice law in a different state, one must usually pass that State’s bar examination. Graduates with advanced degrees or work experience in legal specialties, such as intellectual-property or tax law, are increasingly being sought after by employers.

Most of the job growth for lawyers will be in salaried jobs with law firms, businesses, and government agencies. These groups will continue to increase their size and number of staff attorneys. The majority of the growth will occur in urban areas because of the concentration of large businesses, law firms, and governmental agencies located in those areas. Just as the number of attorneys employed with large law firms is expected to increase, self-employed attorneys or lawyers in private practice are expected to decrease in numbers. This is due to both the difficulty of creating a new private practice that can compete with larger firms and the increasing need for specialization, something that a private practice finds logistically difficult.

Those wishing to start their own practice will find it easier to do away from urban centers in small towns and suburban areas. Away from the larger firms located in the city, a new lawyer will find less competition and an increased ability to attract new clients.

Swings in the national economy can affect some attorneys negatively. Demand for non-essential legal services like estate planning and will drafting decrease during recessions. Just as individuals avoid discretionary legal aid, so do corporations avoid expensive litigation when profits and budgets are shrinking. Companies may cut existing attorneys or decline to hire new staff to curb costs and wait until the economic outlook is brighter. Other areas of legal practice may actually increase during economic recessions, namely individual and corporate bankruptcy, divorce and family cases, and foreclosures.

Historical Earnings Information

$90,290 was the median annual earnings of all attorneys in 2002. The highest paid 10 percent made more than $145,600 while the lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,490. The middle quartiles earned from $61,060 to $136,810. The following table presents the median dollars earned in the types of practice that employed the most lawyers in 2002.

  • Management of companies and enterprises – $131,970
  • Federal government – $98,790
  • Legal services – $93,970
  • Local government – $69,710
  • State government – $67,910

Employer type, group size, and location all influenced the salaries of practiced attorneys. Partners in law firms typically earn more than their peers who own their own practice. Often lawyers who begin their own firms must work part time in other industries until their practice is more stable and successful.

Independent lawyers must typically pay for their own health and life insurance if they wish to obtain such coverage. Attorneys employed full time by agencies or law firms usually are provided such insurance.