We are all familiar with the idea of lawyers, who are often depicted on television and in movies. But what is the life of a lawyer really like? What are the available career options for lawyers? And what, realistically, does an individual need to do to become a lawyer?
This article gives you an explanation of what it actually means to be a lawyer: the job description, necessary education and other requirements, 10-year employment outlook, and expected yearly earnings.
The duties, daily activities, and responsibilities of a lawyer vary greatly depending on the lawyer’s specialty. Here is a list of common specialties and a brief description of each:
- Criminal Law: Lawyers working in cases of criminal justice act either as defense or prosecuting attorneys. For example, a lawyer may act as defense attorney for an individual accused of larceny, or may work for the government to prosecute the accused individual.
- Civil Law: Lawyers practicing civil law might work on cases involving divorce or civil disputes over money or property. A civil attorney would act on behalf of a client filing for divorce or determining child custody with the other parent, for example.
- Environmental Law: Lawyers advocating for environmental law are often hired by nonprofit organizations to act in cases where environmental concerns are involved. For example, a nonprofit company supporting wetland wildlife may sue a large corporation that is dumping dangerous chemicals into a waterway that feeds into that wetland. The attorney would present the nonprofit’s case to the court and argue the reasonable grounds for the company to pay for damages caused.
- Government: Lawyers working for the government are responsible for acting on behalf of the government in legal cases. For instance, if a private citizen sues the government for false imprisonment, a government-employed attorney would argue the government’s due cause for that imprisonment.
- Private Business: Lawyers working for private businesses are primarily responsible for mediating and presiding over any litigation filed by or against that company. They are responsible for ensuring that a business’s practices are conducted legally, and they act as a resource for company officials to consult on legal questions. Lawyers working for private businesses may be full-time employees or contracted only for specific cases.
These are just some of the major types of lawyers, but many other kinds and specialties exist. For just about every aspect of the law, there is a type of lawyer who specializes in it.
Lawyers often do not work the usual 40-hour work week. Lawyers working for private businesses tend to have more regular hours, but other types of lawyers, especially those working in criminal law, may have greatly varying work schedules. In addition to researching laws and facts to support their clients’ cases, lawyers have many meetings with clients both in and outside of their offices. Travel is sometimes necessary for research and meetings.
Education and Other Requirements
Earning a bachelor’s degree, completing law school, and passing the bar exam are all necessary steps to becoming a lawyer. There are also some additional skills that are critical to success in law school and the working world:
- effective writing and speaking
- thinking logically
Education and Training
The first step in becoming a lawyer is to complete undergraduate studies. Courses in English, foreign languages, public speaking, government, philosophy, history, economics, mathematics, and computer science are all helpful, but a student should also choose a bachelor’s degree area of study based on what kind of lawyer he or she would prefer to be. For example, a student wishing to work in environmental law would benefit from taking courses in environmental science and biology, or an individual wishing to become a criminal lawyer might enter a criminal justice program for his or her undergraduate work.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, the next step is to apply to law school. Some law schools are accredited by a bar association, and degrees from those schools are preferable to employers, but not always necessary.
Undergraduate grades, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), related work experience, and, sometimes, a personal interview are all considered as part of a student’s application to law school.
Competition for admittance to law school is always very high, so students are encouraged to prepare well in advance for their application. All law schools approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) require applicants to take the LSAT. Certain courses and materials are available solely to help students prepare to take the LSAT.
Accreditation and Licensure
When a student reaches the end of law school, he or she must take the bar exam before being legally able to practice law. To qualify for the bar, an applicant must first earn a bachelor’s degree and graduate from either an ABA-accredited law school or another school approved by the state. Most states also require that applicants pass a written ethics examination in addition to the bar exam.
Requirements for practicing law and maintaining accreditation vary from state to state, so it is recommended that future lawyers research the rules and regulations for the state in which they wish to work.
10-Year Employment Outlook
Employment growth for lawyers is expected to increase at the average rate for all professions over the next 10 years. Competition for job openings always remains high because of the number of law school graduates entering the field each year. However, recent graduates who have chosen a specialty area of law will have an increased chance of finding work in their desired field. For example, individuals who have studied information technology will have an advantage when applying for positions with technology and data-sharing companies.
There are about 760,000 lawyers working in the country right now. About one-fourth of those lawyers are self-employed, working as a partner in a law firm, or in a solo practice. Most salaried lawyers work for the government, and most of those work at the local level.
Many salaried lawyers not working for the government work for public utilities, banks, insurance companies, real-estate agencies, manufacturing firms, and other business firms and nonprofit organizations.
More jobs for attorneys are expected to be generated because of the growing population and increased business activity. More lawyers are expected to be needed in the areas of healthcare, intellectual property, bankruptcy, corporate and security litigation, antitrust law, and environmental law.
However, economic difficulty may cause many businesses to hire consultants and legal aides rather than full-time staff lawyers, as a means to cut costs.
The yearly income for a lawyer varies greatly depending on the lawyer’s area of expertise and on whether he or she works for a private company, is self-employed, or works for the government. Here is a general breakdown of yearly earnings for lawyers in various settings:
The average annual wages for all lawyers is about $110,000. The middle 50% ranges from $75,000 to $164,000.
Average annual wages for lawyers working for companies and businesses: $146,000.
Average annual wages for lawyers working in government:
- Federal government, executive branch: $126,000
- Legal services: $116,000
- Local government: $82,000
- State government: $78,000
A lawyer’s income will change over the course of his or her career, as the lawyer gains experience and possibly changes roles. For example, a staff attorney at a law firm who moves to the level of partner will have more responsibilities and thus earn significantly more money.