What is a lawyer?
A lawyer, also known as an attorney, is a professional who practices law and provides legal advice and representation to clients. They act as advocates and advisors for individuals, businesses, and organizations, navigating complex legal systems to uphold justice, protect rights, and resolve disputes.
As intermediaries between parties, law professionals are key to maintaining civil society, upholding social order, and forming the basis for commerce and private affairs. Lawyers play an important role in enforcing laws, ensuring fairness and equality, and maintaining societal harmony. They provide value to their clients by guiding them through the intricacies of the legal landscape and by advocating on their behalf in negotiations and court proceedings.
Duties and responsibilities
A lawyer is responsible for a variety of tasks that help achieve justice and solve legal matters. They interpret laws, rulings, and regulations for individuals and businesses. These professionals research and analyze legal problems, presenting facts in writing and verbally to their clients or others and arguing on their behalf.
They also prepare and file legal documents, such as lawsuits, appeals, wills, contracts, and deeds. In litigation cases, they represent their clients in court, presenting evidence and making legal arguments to promote their clients’ interests. Attorneys also advise their clients about their rights and obligations and suggest particular courses of action in business or personal matters.
Lawyers typically operate in offices, law libraries, and courtrooms. Their work environment ranges from private practice to corporate settings, non-profit organizations, and governmental agencies. They often meet with clients and other professionals in various locations and may travel to represent their clients wherever required.
Due to the nature of some cases, they can face challenging, high-pressure situations. Deadlines, demanding clients, complex cases, and long hours characterize their daily tasks. While the work can be stressful, it offers intellectual challenges and personal satisfaction when they successfully help clients achieve their legal goals.
Typical work hours
Lawyers generally work full-time, and many work more than 40 hours weekly. The profession often requires long, irregular hours, and the work schedule can extend beyond the typical nine-to-five job. Depending on the demands of their cases, they may need to work evenings, weekends, and even during holidays.
Those who own private practices or partners in law firms may have more flexible working hours. However, they often work long hours, meeting with clients or preparing for trials. Additionally, attorneys working on ongoing trials or negotiations might have to work extra hours to prepare for their cases.
How to become a lawyer
This career guide section outlines how to become a lawyer. Navigating through this vocational route involves acquiring a substantial education, passing the bar exam, and initiating a legal career aligned with your interests.
Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree
Prospective lawyers start by earning a bachelor’s degree. The field of study is not a significant concern for law schools, as they accept students from almost all areas. However, focusing on political science, history, or finance can provide a helpful background for the legal profession.
Step 2: Pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
This standardized test measures your reading comprehension, logical, and analytical skills, and it’s a critical component of the law school admission process. Preparing thoroughly for the LSAT can significantly impact your chances of being admitted to the law school of your choice.
Step 3: Attend law school and earn a Juris Doctorate (JD)
Once admitted to a law school, you will spend the next three years studying law. During this rigorous program, you will study legal writing, constitutional law, civil procedure, contracts, and more. In the final years of your JD program, you can specialize in a specific area of law that interests you.
Step 4: Complete an internship
A legal internship, ideally done while still in law school, gives you on-the-job experience and an inside look at the legal profession. Many law schools can set up internships or clerkships for students with local law firms, governmental institutions, or corporate legal departments.
Step 5: Pass the bar examination
With your JD degree, the next big challenge is passing the bar exam. The bar exam is a state-specific test that helps determine whether a law school graduate is competent to practice law. The bar is known for its difficulty, and preparation usually includes a dedicated study period post-JD graduation.
Step 6: Launch your legal career
Successfully passing the bar exam allows you to practice law in your respective state. While some new lawyers will have job offers from the firms where they interned, others will need to start the job search. Entry-clerical positions, law firms, corporate legal departments, and public interest entities are all common starting points.
How much do lawyers make?
Lawyer salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Additionally, specializations within law, such as corporate, criminal, or intellectual property law, can significantly impact earnings.
Highest paying industries
- Petroleum and Coal Products Manufacturing – $215,760
- Securities and Commodity Contracts Intermediation – $204,120
- Computer and Peripheral Equipment Manufacturing – $200,920
- Motor Vehicle Manufacturing – $199,510
- Cable and Other Subscription Programming – $198,440
Highest paying states
- California – $173,970
- New York – $167,020
- Massachusetts – $165,610
- Connecticut – $153,640
- Illinois – $152,980
Types of lawyers
This career guide section highlights the various career types and areas of specialization for lawyers. Below, we highlight the unique attributes and responsibilities of each job title.
Corporate or business lawyers primarily serve business entities ranging from startups to multinational corporations. They can specialize in various fields, such as mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property rights, or corporate governance. Their core responsibilities include drafting legal documents, negotiating contracts, and advising on regulatory compliance.
Criminal defense lawyer
Defending clients charged with criminal offenses is the primary role of a criminal defense lawyer. They spend considerable time collecting and analyzing evidence, planning defense strategies, and representing clients in court. Their work is often challenging, requiring a comprehensive understanding of criminal law and procedure.
Civil rights lawyer
Civil rights lawyers fight to protect and expand individuals’ rights and liberties. Their work often involves cases related to discrimination, freedom of speech, and due process violations. These attorneys may argue cases in court or work on public policy related to civil rights.
Family lawyers handle legal matters relating to familial relations. These can include divorce proceedings, child custody and support, and adoption processes. Emotionally taxing at times, this branch of the law requires exceptional interpersonal skills and sensitivity to the often vulnerable situations of clients.
Specializing in immigration law, these practitioners help clients navigate complex immigration processes. They handle various matters, from visa applications and citizenship tests to deportation cases. Their work often requires them to collaborate with international clients and understand the intricacies of different countries’ immigration policies.
Personal injury lawyer
Personal injury lawyers represent clients who’ve suffered physical or psychological harm due to another party’s negligence or intentional conduct. Aside from accidents and injuries, they can handle medical malpractice or defamation cases. These legal professionals often work on a contingency basis, taking a portion of the client’s compensation as their fee.
Top skills for lawyers
This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a lawyer. Critical understanding of legal practices, exceptional verbal and written communication skills, strong analytical ability, and high ethical standards are some major competencies for this profession.
Understanding of law and legal practices
Having a profound understanding of law and legal practices is paramount. Lawyers should have knowledge of statutes, judicial decisions, legal codes, and regulations. They then use this legal information to represent their clients effectively.
Strong communication skills
Professional attorneys need to excel in verbal and written communication. They must articulate effectively in court while negotiating with other parties and their clients. Writing clear, persuasive, and concise legal documents is also vital.
The capability to analyze and evaluate complex legal documents is vital. They are often required to solve complex and challenging cases; hence, the ability to critically evaluate a situation and derive sensible conclusions is an essential trait.
Commitment to high standards of ethics and integrity can’t be overstated. Attorneys must be trustworthy and uphold ethical conduct as they represent clients and protect client confidence. They must always remain honest, uphold their duty to clients, and stick to the legal profession’s ethical guidelines.
Lawyer career path options
For lawyers, the career path extends far beyond the initial role, providing a variety of potential advancements. An entry-level attorney often starts in an associate role, learning the ropes under the guidance of experienced colleagues. With time and experience, they can rise to higher roles within the same organization or sidestep into different aspects of law.
One of the significant possible steps forward is the position of a partner in a law firm. Partnership signifies a higher level of responsibility, compensation, and notoriety in the legal community. It is the ultimate aim for many in the legal profession. In large law firms, there are typically two types of partnerships: non-equity and equity partnerships.
Outside of firms, tenure as a lawyer also opens routes to roles in the judiciary. After a satisfactory practice period, they can consider applying for roles such as judge or magistrate in both local and federal courts. These positions are highly respected, come with a significant degree of responsibility, and are often seen as the pinnacle of the legal profession.
Beyond the judiciary, attorneys frequently transition into fields such as academia, politics, or corporate advisory roles. They hold faculty positions in law schools, serve as legal consultants for corporations, run for political office, or move into public service roles. These options tap into the professional expertise and analytical skills that they acquire during their careers.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook for lawyers
The field of law is a dynamic one, molded by societal changes, governmental regulations, and evolving client needs. Over the past few years, the legal profession has experienced significant shifts that affect how lawyers practice and their prospective career paths. Digital technology and innovation are becoming integral to legal practice, transforming traditional legal services and requiring these legal professionals to embrace new skills and tools. Advanced tech tools help streamline legal processes, digitalize contracts, and leverage data. Attorneys who adapt well to these technological changes and innovations are more likely to remain competitive and successfully meet their clients’ evolving demands.
Another noticeable trend is the growing awareness and understanding of global laws. As business horizons broaden, globalization becomes more prevalent, necessitating a deeper understanding of international laws and regulations. Expanding their knowledge beyond domestic law opens opportunities for lawyers in multinational corporations, international organizations, and global dispute resolution. Specializations in certain fields of law, such as intellectual property rights, environmental law, and cybersecurity law, have also gained importance due to societal and economic changes.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for lawyers is projected to grow 8 percent through 2032, faster than the average for all occupations. Growth in the population and economy will lead to more demand for legal services. Competition for jobs over the next ten years is expected to be strong because more students graduate from law school each year than jobs are available.
Lawyer career tips
Sharpen your legal skills
Being a competent attorney is about more than just knowing the law. Honing your legal skills through continuous study, workshops, and practical experience is paramount to success. This could involve deepening your understanding of your field of expertise, familiarizing yourself with leading court cases, and understanding the intricacies of legislative changes and legal procedures.
Build a professional network
Joining dedicated legal associations or networks provides opportunities to connect with a range of legal professionals, attend topical workshops, and gain access to resources that can accelerate your career growth. This could mean connecting with potential mentors or allies who can guide your professional journey.
- American Bar Association (ABA)
- National Bar Association
- American Association for Justice
- National Lawyers Association
Practice public speaking
Your career success doesn’t only hinge on your legal acumen but also your oral advocacy skills. Regular practicing and honing your public speaking abilities can help you deliver succinct and persuasive arguments in court. Consider joining public speaking groups or opt for specific speech and debate training where possible.
Pursue continuous learning
Beyond the legal degrees and passing the bar exam, successful lawyers need to commit to lifelong learning. Strive to stay updated with new laws, recent court decisions, and innovative legal strategies. Here are some suggestions for continual development:
- Attend legal workshops and seminars
- Taking law courses covering new legal fields
- Reading law journals and industry publications
Given the vastness of the law, consider specializing in a specific area, such as corporate law, criminal law, or environmental law. Specializing can make you more competitive in your field and provide more opportunities for advancement. Earning a certification in your chosen area of focus can also give you a considerable professional edge.
Where the lawyer jobs are
- Kirkland & Ellis LLP
- Latham & Watkins LLP
- Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP
- Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP
- Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP
- New York
Top job sites
What type of person might enjoy being a lawyer?
Individuals who enjoy analysis, problem-solving, and have a passion for justice might enjoy being a lawyer. This career often appeals to persuasive, detail-oriented people who enjoy researching various topics. Lawyers also need to be resilient and confident to argue cases in court.
What steps does it take to become a lawyer?
Becoming a lawyer requires an extended study period and passing exams. Normally, it involves completing a bachelor’s degree and three years of law school to obtain a JD degree. After law school, prospective attorneys must pass the bar exam in the state where they want to practice.
What does a typical day look like for a lawyer?
A typical day for a lawyer may include researching case law, drafting legal documents, meeting with clients, and appearing in court. Attorneys in a litigation practice might spend a significant time preparing for and attending trials. In contrast, corporate lawyers might spend much of their day in meetings or drafting contracts.
What skills are essential for a lawyer to possess?
Lawyers need excellent communication and interpersonal skills to articulate legal strategies to clients and argue cases before a judge. Superior research abilities are often necessary to learn about previous cases and laws related to their current case. They must also have good organizational skills to manage large quantities of information.
What are some challenges that a lawyer might face?
Being a lawyer can be stressful due to high expectations and tight deadlines. They often have heavy workloads and long hours, especially when trials are approaching or during a major business transaction. The necessity of continually updating their knowledge with the latest laws and regulations can also be challenging.
Is it a requirement for a lawyer to specialize in a certain area of law?
While it’s not a requirement to specialize, many lawyers choose to focus on a specific area of law such as family, criminal, corporate, or environmental law. Specialization allows them to gain expertise and makes them more attractive to certain clients or cases.
Can a lawyer practice in multiple states?
A lawyer can practice in multiple states but must pass the bar exam in each state where they want to practice. Some states have reciprocity agreements, allowing an attorney licensed in one state to practice in another without sitting for an additional bar exam.
What’s the difference between a lawyer and an attorney?
While these terms are often used interchangeably in the United States, there is a slight difference. A lawyer is anyone who has completed law school and possesses a legal degree. Conversely, an attorney is a lawyer who has passed the bar exam and is qualified to represent clients in court.
What’s the role of a lawyer in a society?
Lawyers play an important role in society by representing individuals, businesses, and governments in legal matters. They act as both advocates and advisers, helping clients understand their legal rights and responsibilities and guiding them through the complexities of the legal system. They also contribute to the rule of law, ensuring fairness in legal proceedings and upholding justice.