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Attorney Career Guide

What is an attorney?

An attorney, often referred to as a lawyer in many jurisdictions, is a professional trained and licensed to practice law. They represent and advise clients on legal matters, upholding their rights and guiding them through complex legal systems. These professionals play a pivotal role in upholding the rule of law, ensuring justice is served and that individuals and entities can navigate legal challenges with expert guidance.

Their expertise spans various areas of law, ranging from criminal defense to corporate mergers, and their influence is felt in courtrooms, boardrooms, and community centers. Their primary purpose is to provide legal counsel, advocate on behalf of their clients, and ensure that legal processes are adhered to correctly and justly.

Duties and responsibilities

The duties of an attorney can vary widely based on their area of specialization. However, some fundamental responsibilities remain consistent across the board. They research legal issues, interpret laws, and advise clients on their rights and obligations. When representing clients in legal proceedings, they present evidence, argue cases, and negotiate settlements.

Drafting, reviewing, and filing legal documents, such as contracts, deeds, and wills, are also common tasks. They are expected to maintain client confidentiality and uphold ethical standards. In addition to litigation, many of these professionals offer mediation services, providing a more collaborative approach to resolving disputes outside the courtroom.

Work environment

Attorneys can be found in a variety of settings. Many work in private law firms, ranging from boutique establishments to large international entities. Others serve in governmental roles as district attorneys, public defenders, or legal advisers in various agencies.

Some work in-house for corporations, handling their legal matters, while others might be engaged in the public interest or nonprofit sectors, advocating for specific causes or communities. Courtrooms, meeting rooms, and offices are typical environments, though their work might also take them to diverse locations, such as businesses during mergers or crime scenes for investigations.

Typical work hours

While the standard workweek for many professionals is 40 hours, attorneys often exceed this, especially during significant cases or as deadlines approach. Late nights, weekends, and early mornings can be common, particularly for those in litigation, where court appearances, depositions, and preparations can consume considerable time.

In corporate or transactional law, peak periods around deal closures or end-of-quarter activities might also result in extended hours. However, some professionals, especially those in public service or part-time roles, might have more predictable or flexible schedules.

How to become an attorney

This career guide section outlines how to become an attorney. This process requires extensive education, passing several examinations, and meeting state-specific requirements.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

The first step is to obtain a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university. While there isn’t a specific pre-law major, students often choose subjects such as political science, history, or philosophy. These study areas develop skills valuable in the legal profession, like critical thinking and argumentation.

Step 2: Pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

Before applying to law school, you must take and pass the LSAT. This exam assesses the candidate’s verbal reasoning and logical thinking abilities. Most law schools consider LSAT scores heavily in their admissions processes.

Step 3: Complete law school

After passing the LSAT, you can apply to law school. A Juris Doctor (J.D.) program typically takes three years to complete and involves coursework in contract law, constitutional law, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing. In the later years, you can choose elective courses based on your preferred legal specialty.

Step 4: Participate in an internship

During or after law school, it is beneficial to gain practical experience through an internship, which can often lead to job offers upon graduation. Internships can also help you network within the legal community and gain a better understanding of different areas of law practice.

Step 5: Pass the bar examination

The next step is to pass the bar examination in the state where you plan to practice. This exam, usually held over two days, tests knowledge in all areas of law. Passing the bar is a requirement for licensure and the ability to practice law legally.

Step 6: Complete a character and fitness review

Before becoming licensed, applicants must pass a character and fitness review. This assessment examines personal attributes and past behavior to determine if a person has the moral character required to practice law. Factors considered include criminal history, academic disciplinary records, and mental health history.

Step 7: Become licensed and begin practicing

Once you pass the bar exam and the character and fitness review, you must then become licensed in the state where you plan to practice. After becoming licensed, you can begin your career as an attorney. It can be helpful to continue building your professional network as you seek out job opportunities and begin practicing law.

How much do attorneys make?

Attorney salaries greatly differ depending on factors such as experience, industry, geographical location, educational attainments, and the size of the organization where they’re employed. In the legal field, the level of specialization, seniority, size of the law firm or corporate law department, and track record of cases handled can significantly influence how much they make.

Highest paying states

  • California – $167,130
  • New York – $167,110
  • Massachusetts – $165,610
  • Connecticut – $153,640
  • Illinois – $152,980

Browse attorney salary data by market

Types of attorneys

This career guide section highlights the various career types and areas of specialization for attorneys. Below, we explore the unique attributes and responsibilities of each job title.

Corporate attorney

These attorneys often work for businesses, advising and representing their interests in many legal concerns. This can range from helping to understand the regulations for starting a business to handling any lawsuits the business may face.

Criminal defense attorney

When individuals or companies are accused of crimes, they might turn to a criminal defense attorney. These legal professionals prepare and present defense strategies and work to protect the rights of their clients throughout criminal proceedings.

Environmental attorney

This specialization focuses on laws and regulations related to the environment and natural resources. Environmental attorneys may represent clients like nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups, or companies to ensure compliant practices or resolve disputes involving environmental impact.

Family attorney

Family attorneys deal with legal matters related to family relationships, such as divorce, child custody, and adoption. They can represent clients in family court proceedings or negotiation processes.

Personal injury attorney

A personal injury attorney provides legal representation to individuals who claim to have been physically or psychologically injured due to the negligence of another person, company, government agency, or any other entity. They help their clients secure compensation for those injuries.

Real estate attorney

Real estate attorneys assist clients with property-related transactions, such as purchases, sales, and transfers. They ensure that all the legalities are followed, and they provide guidance in cases of disputes around property.

Top skills for attorneys

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as an attorney, including a wide range of interpersonal, intellectual, and ethical capabilities.

Understanding and applying the law

To be an effective attorney, one needs a deep and comprehensive understanding of the law. This proficiency allows them to analyze the legal aspect of any situation and apply the necessary statutory regulations accurately. Mastery in areas such as legal research and legal writing is also required.

Critical thinking and problem solving

These professionals should have well-refined critical thinking abilities to analyze and dissect complex legal problems. Likewise, exceptional problem-solving skills are paramount for creating workable solutions and strategies to manage legal situations effectively.

Communication skills

Solid communication skills are vital in law practice. They must articulate their thoughts clearly, persuasively, and concisely, both in writing and verbally. This not only aids in client communication but in court proceedings, negotiations, and all aspects of legal practice.

Interpersonal skills

Having excellent interpersonal skills helps build good professional relationships with clients, colleagues, and other legal professionals. Empathy, understanding, patience, and the ability to handle stressful situations gracefully are crucial elements of successful interpersonal interaction in this role.

Ethical responsibility

An essential characteristic of any attorney is adherence to a strong ethical code. Upholding integrity, honesty, and confidentiality are expected to maintain trust between attorney and client and uphold the respectability of the legal profession itself.

Career path options

Progressing in the field of law as an attorney involves several stages and breathtaking opportunities. The journey usually begins in junior positions like associate attorneys in law firms, whose focus is primarily on building a portfolio of cases with a successful verdict. Developing strong analytical skills and a reputation for winning cases sets the foundation for progression.

With time, commitment, and proven skills, an associate can become a law firm partner. Partners share in the profits, decision-making, and liability of the firm. In this role, they have an opportunity to influence the strategic direction of the firm. In large law firms, there’s scope to advance further to managing partner, which involves overseeing operations and acting as a figurehead for the organization.

In addition to partnerships, these professionals have the potential to transition into specialized roles based on their interest areas and expertise. These include roles like family law attorney, tax attorney, and intellectual property attorney. Each of these roles brings unique challenges and rewarding experiences.

It is often the ultimate goal of an attorney’s career to reach the judicial bench. Serving as a judge, whether in a local or federal capacity, signifies a high degree of professionalism, community respect, and a wealth of experience. This position demands not only legal expertise but also a high level of patience, the ability to be impartial and interpret the law, and an in-depth understanding of societal values.

Finally, after years of practicing law, some professionals may consider the route of legal education and become law professors. Sharing knowledge and experiences with the next generation of lawyers is a rewarding way to contribute to the legal profession’s future.

As technology advances, the law field sees consistent shifts and transformations. One trend relates to the digitization of practice, with attorneys increasingly incorporating high-tech solutions from virtual collaboration tools to machine learning for data analysis. Digitization doesn’t just enhance operations; it can also change the way these professionals encounter and approach case materials, opening doors to more efficient and effective legal research.

Specialization is also gaining prominence within the legal realm. Those focusing on specific sub-fields such as intellectual property, bankruptcy, or environmental law are more sought after, providing a substantial competitive edge. Additionally, increased globalization stirs up matters of international law, creating unique opportunities for professionals with knowledge and skills in this area.

Another worthwhile trend is a shift toward alternative dispute resolution methods instead of traditional court procedures. Negotiation, mediation, and arbitration skills are becoming essential, driven by a desire to expedite resolutions and mitigate litigation costs. Attorneys skilled in these methods may find themselves in high demand.

Employment projections for attorneys

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for attorneys is projected to grow 10 percent through 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. Competition for jobs over the next decade is expected to be strong because more students graduate from law school each year than jobs are available.

Attorney career tips

Stay updated with legal rulings

Part of being an attorney is understanding and applying existing law, which evolves through new court rulings. Staying updated with the latest legal rulings is a must to excel in this profession. Being well-versed in these decisions can help you make stronger arguments and improve your chances of winning cases.

Specialize in a particular law field

Within law, there is a wide range of specialties. While being a generalist can offer its own advantages, specialization can open the door to more advanced career opportunities. Specialized attorneys are usually more sought-after and can demand higher fees due to their proficiency and knowledge in a particular law field.

Enhance your public speaking and presentation skills

Public speaking is an integral part of their routine. Whether it’s pleading a case in court, negotiating a settlement, or delivering a presentation, it’s beneficial to communicate persuasively and clearly. Develop your oratory skills by attending public speaking workshops or joining clubs such as Toastmasters, which can provide constructive practice and feedback.

Build a professional network

Networking is another essential tactic for an attorney to build their career. Cultivating relationships with other professionals can contribute to your professional growth and lead to referrals, partnerships, and even job opportunities. Consider joining legal associations and societies relevant to your line of practice to connect with fellow professionals.

  • American Bar Association (ABA)
  • National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL)
  • National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL)
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Pursue continuous learning

In a dynamic field like law, continuous learning plays a key role in career growth. Being versed in the latest legal theories, techniques, and tools can give you an edge. Consider enrolling in professional development courses, attending legal seminars, or earning advanced certifications.

  • Online courses on legal research and writing
  • “Fundamentals of Law Practice” course offered by the American Bar Association
  • Advanced learning programs on negotiation techniques
  • Certification programs in specialized law fields such as corporate law, criminal law, or environmental law

Where the jobs are


  • Baker McKenzie
  • Dentons
  • DLA Piper
  • Clifford Chance
  • White & Case


  • New York
  • California
  • Texas
  • Illinois
  • Florida

job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Lawjobs.com
  • SimplyHired


What skills are required to become an attorney?

Attorneys must have excellent verbal communication, negotiation, and persuasive skills. They should be good at problem-solving and need to possess a strong ethical compass. Research and analytical skills are also essential, as they must research and analyze vast amounts of information and construct a compelling legal argument.

What are the mental demands of being an attorney?

Attorneys often deal with high-pressure and stressful situations. They need to manage multiple cases, tight deadlines, and demanding clients. They have to constantly update their knowledge to stay compatible with ever-changing laws. Resilience, patience, and the ability to endure pressure are key mental demands for an attorney. Also, they must stay motivated despite the intense workload and unpredictability of cases.

What are some daily responsibilities of an attorney?

Attorneys spend most of their day researching laws and regulations, drafting potential legal arguments or documents, including contracts, wills, and lawsuits. They also meet with clients, family members, and other professionals to discuss cases and provide legal advice. Representing clients in court or in front of government agencies is also a significant part of their role. These responsibilities can vary based on their areas of specialization, such as corporate law, criminal law, and family law.

What are the physical demands of being an attorney?

While the attorney role is primarily a desk job, it can also be physically demanding. Long hours spent sitting and reading can be strenuous on the eyes and back. Some might also need to travel frequently if their work involves meeting with clients or appearing in courts, often in distant cities. Good physical stamina and the ability to manage stress are pertinent.

Do attorneys always work in courtrooms?

Not all attorneys work in courtrooms. While litigation attorneys appear in court cases, many work behind the scenes in offices that provide legal advice, write contracts, review legal documents, and handle other legal work. Corporate attorneys, for instance, often work in office settings advising businesses on their legal rights and responsibilities.

What tools and technology do attorneys commonly use?

Attorneys often use legal research software for researching case precedents and staying updated with regulations and rulings. They often use word processors to draft documents. Other common tools include document management systems to keep track of files, billing software for managing client billings, and case management systems for scheduling and tracking case progress. They are also using video conferencing tools for virtual client meetings and court hearings.

What are some typical challenges that attorneys face?

Attorneys often face challenges such as high workload, long working hours, and stress related to the high-stakes nature of their work. They may also face difficulties in finding a balance between the demand of the clients and offering reliable legal advice, especially when dealing with clients with unreasonable expectations. Also, keeping up with the changing laws and regulations can be a constant challenge.

What personal characteristics are beneficial for an attorney?

Some beneficial personal characteristics for attorneys include analytical ability, problem-solving skills, creativity, and good judgment. They should be detail-oriented, able to concentrate for long periods, and possess excellent organizational skills to manage caseloads efficiently. Being patient, capable of dealing with stress, persistent, and possessing a high level of integrity are other effective characteristics.

Is work-life balance possible for an attorney?

While long hours and high-stress situations are common in an attorney’s life, work-life balance is achievable. Many law firms now understand the importance of work-life balance and offer policies such as flexible scheduling and remote work options. The key to achieving work-life balance is effective time management, setting boundaries, and taking time off when needed.