Lawyers, often referred to as attorneys, serve as the backbone of the entire legal system. They play two key roles in society: the role of an advocate and that of an advisor. In the role of advocate, they represent individuals or parties in criminal or civil trials. They present evidence and argue the case of their client in a court of law. In the role of advisor, they provide guidance and counsel to their clients regarding legal rights and obligations, and they give advice concerning various courses of action that could be taken by their clients. Most of a lawyer’s work revolves around researching and applying the law to the particular circumstances of their client.
The specific type of work a lawyer does is largely dependent on their specialization, and there are many types of specializations. Trial lawyers focus on criminal and civil trials, have special knowledge of the intricacies of a courtroom, and are excellent, authoritative speakers. Even trial lawyers spend a majority of their time outside the courtroom interviewing witnesses, preparing paperwork, and researching the law. Some lawyers specialize in bankruptcy, probate, international, elder, or environmental law. An increasing number specialize in the field of intellectual property rights, assisting their clients in claiming copyrights to artwork, product designs, and computer programs. Others advise insurance companies or work for the government.
Lawyers hold a great deal of responsibility and those seeking a career in the occupation should be ethical and responsible individuals. They need to have the ability to earn the confidence and trust of their clients, associates, and the public. Lawyers should also have perseverance, creativity, and reasoning ability.
In 2002, lawyers earned a median annual salary of $90,290. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $44,490, to the highest 10%, who earned more than $145,600. The following shows the median annual salaries in the industries employing the highest numbers of lawyers:
- Management of companies and enterprises — $131,970
- Federal government — $98,790
- Legal services — $93,970
- Local government — $69,710
- State government — $67,910
Training and Education
To practice law, lawyers must be admitted to a State’s bar by passing that State’s bar examination, which includes a written section and a section on ethics. To qualify to take the State bar examination, applicants must hold a college degree and a degree from an accredited law school. An entire law education usually lasts 7 years, including 4 years of undergraduate school and 3 years of law school. In order to qualify for admission to law school, applicants must have a bachelor’s degree. A multidisciplinary undergraduate background is preferred, as opposed to a specific major. Courses may include English, foreign languages, public speaking, government, philosophy, history, economics, mathematics, and computer science. Admission to law school is competitive and may be determined by the applicant’s grades, prior work experience, and sometimes a personal interview.
Lawyers must complete continuing legal education through law schools and many State and local bar associations. These courses help lawyers stay in touch with the latest developments in the field. Newly hired lawyers usually begin as associates with more experienced lawyers serving as mentors. After a few years, they may begin to receive more responsibilities, and may eventually be admitted to partnership in their firm or develop their own independent practice. Some lawyers with significant experience are elected or nominated to judgeships.
In 2002, lawyers held about 695,000 jobs. 75% operated a private practice, either a partnership or a solo practice.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of lawyers is expected to increase about as fast as the average. This will be due to population growth as well as growth in the general level of business activities. Growth will be highest in such specializations as elder, antitrust, environmental, and intellectual-property law. Due to the growing number of students graduating from law school each year, competition for jobs will remain high.
To learn more about becoming a lawyer, please visit our section on schools offering Legal Training for more information.