Lawyers serve as both advocates and advisers. As advocates, they speak for their clients in court by presenting supportive evidence. As advisers, they counsel their clients on their legal rights and obligations. Lawyers—also called attorneys and counselors—can interpret laws, apply laws to specific situations, and draft new laws.
Much of their work involves researching precedents, which are earlier interpretations of laws and the history of judicial decisions based on that law. Lawyers use precedents to support their cases in court. Many resources—from law libraries and public documents to computer databases and the Internet—are available to lawyers for research.
A lawyer consults with his client
Many lawyers specialize. Criminal lawyers, for example, are hired by people facing prosecution for crimes. Public defenders are employed by the government to represent people who cannot afford to pay lawyers.
Some lawyers handle only civil cases, which do not involve criminal misconduct. For example, divorce and damage suits fall under civil law. Labor law concerns disputes between management and unionized workers, while patent law concerns disputes over the rights to inventions. Real estate law controls the purchase, sale, rental, and development of land and buildings. Some attorneys specialize in international law, the system of treaties and informal agreements between nations.
A trial lawyer persuades the jury
Some lawyers practice corporate law. They advise corporations on their rights, responsibilities, and obligations in business transactions. They may also represent the companies in government investigations and hearings.
Most lawyers have private practices that handle many kinds of legal problems. Some work for larger law firms, corporations, and government agencies. Others teach law. Some lawyers become district attorneys or judges, while many enter politics.
In addition to representing clients in a court of law, lawyers draw up legal documents and handle out-of-court settlements. They spend much of their time preparing arguments and researching precedents.
Education and Training Requirements
Most lawyers obtain bachelor's degrees and law school degrees. Helpful college courses include English, history, political science, economics, and social science. Those who want to be patent attorneys often major in engineering, while future tax lawyers get accounting degrees.
Occasionally, students are offered early admission to law school after two or three years of college. But most students complete college before going on to three years of law school. Good scores on the Law School Aptitude Test are required for admission. Law school courses include classes in contracts, property law, criminal law, and constitutional law. In the last two years of law school, students specialize in the areas of law in which they hope to work.
Law graduates must be admitted to the bar, or organization of lawyers, in the states in which they want to practice. In most states admission to the bar requires graduating from law school and passing bar examinations. In some states candidates are permitted to take bar examinations if they have substituted legal work experience for formal training. Those who do not attend law school must study law on their own to prepare for the examinations. In certain states graduates of "preferential" law schools may be admitted to the bar without taking the examinations. Some state bars have cooperative arrangements that allow lawyers who are members of the bar in one state to practice in another state without taking that state's bar exam.
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Getting the Job
Law school placement offices usually help graduates find jobs. Many law firms and corporations send representatives to law schools to recruit graduating students. Part-time or summer jobs during law school sometimes lead to permanent jobs after graduation. Students with good grades and students who have worked on the law reviews published by each law school have the best chances to be hired by top law firms.
Job seekers who are interested in working for the government should take civil service tests. Many corporations, including insurance companies, banks, accounting firms, and manufacturers, employ lawyers. Newspaper classified ads and job banks on the Internet may provide other employment leads.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Most beginning lawyers start in salaried positions as associates in law firms or as research assistants or law clerks to experienced lawyers or judges. After several years of experience, they may become partners in their firms or set up their own practices. Some lawyers go into politics or become judges. Some become prosecutors or district attorneys.
About seven hundred and thirty-five thousand lawyers practice nationwide. The demand for lawyers is expected to grow as fast as the average for all jobs through 2014. However, many people are entering the profession, so competition for available jobs may be stiff. Lawyers who want to work for law firms will find the best opportunities in big cities, while those who are interested in setting up their own practices will find more opportunities in small towns or suburban areas.
Lawyers often work long hours while preparing for court cases. Those in private practice can schedule their own workloads, while lawyers who work for law firms are assigned cases and must often work overtime to prepare for appearances in court or to draw up legal documents. All lawyers must spend some time keeping up with new laws and court decisions in their areas of interest.
Earnings and Benefits
In 2004 the median salary for all lawyers was $94,930 per year. The median earnings of all state and local government lawyers ranged from $70,280 to $73,410 per year, while the median for federal government lawyers was $108,070 per year. Those who entered practice in large law firms started with salaries ranging from $34,000 to $80,000 per year.
Lawyers who start their own practices right after graduating from law school generally earn very little for the first few years. As their businesses grow, however, they can do quite well. The most experienced lawyers can earn between $130,000 and $1 million per year. Associates in law firms are paid salaries and receive raises as they take on more responsibilities. After some years of experience, they may become partners in their firms and receive percentages of the firms' profits.
Where to Go for More Information
American Bar Association
321 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60610
Association of Trial Lawyers of America
1050 Thirty-first St. NW
Washington, DC 20007
National Association of Women Lawyers
American Bar Center
321 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60610
Lawyers generally receive health and life insurance and pension plans. Those in private practice must make their own insurance and retirement arrangements.
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