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Laws affect every aspect of our society. They regulate the entire spectrum of relationships among individuals, groups, careeres, and governments. They define rights as well as restrictions, covering such diverse activities as judging and punishing criminals, granting patents, drawing up career contracts, paying taxes, settling labor disputes, constructing buildings, and administering wills.

Because social needs and attitudes are continually changing, the legal system that regulates our social, political, and economic relationships also changes. Lawyers, also called attorneys, link the legal system and society. To perform this role, they must understand the world around them and be sensitive to the numerous aspects of society that the law touches. They must comprehend not only the words of a particular statute, but the human circumstances it addresses as well.

As our laws grow more complex, the work of lawyers takes on broader significance. Laws affect our lives in new ways as the legal system takes on regulatory tasks in areas such as transportation, energy conservation, consumer protection, the environment, and social welfare. Lawyers interpret these laws, rulings, and regulations for individuals and careeres.

Nature of the Work

In our society, lawyers act as both advocates and advisors. As advocates, they represent one of the opposing parties in criminal and civil trials by presenting arguments that support the client in a court of law. As advisors, lawyers counsel their clients as to their legal rights and obligations and suggest particular courses of action in career and personal matters.

Whether acting as advocates or advisors, nearly all attorneys have certain activities in common. Probably the most fundamental activities are the interpretation of the law and its application to a specific situation. This requires in-depth research into the purposes behind the applicable laws and into judicial decisions that have applied those laws to circumstances similar to those currently faced by the client. Based on this research, the attorney helps clients decide what actions would best serve their interests.

A growing number of lawyers are using computers in legal research. While all lawyers continue to employ law libraries to prepare cases, some supplement their search of the conventional printed sources with computer software packages that automatically search the legal literature and identify legal texts that may be relevant to a specific subject. In litigation that involves many supporting documents, lawyers may also use computers to organize and index the material. Tax lawyers are also increasingly using computers to make tax computations and explore alternative tax strategies for clients.

Lawyers must deal with people in a courteous, efficient manner and not disclose matters discussed in confidence with clients. They hold positions of great responsibility, and are obligated to adhere to strict rules of ethics.

Finally, most lawyers write reports or briefs which must communicate clearly and precisely. The more detailed aspects of a lawyer's job depend upon his or her field and position.

While all licensed attorneys are allowed to represent parties in court, some appear in court more frequently than others. A few lawyers specialize in trial work. These lawyers need an exceptional ability to think quickly and speak with ease and authority, and must be thoroughly familiar with courtroom rules and strategy. Trial lawyers still spend most of their time outside the courtroom conducting research, interviewing clients and witnesses, and handling other details in preparation for trial.

Although most lawyers deal with many different areas of the law, a significant number concentrate on one branch of law, such as admiralty, probate, or international law. Communications lawyers, for example, may represent radio and televisions stations in court and in their dealings with the Federal Communications Commission. They help established stations prepare and file license renewal applications, employment reports, and other documents required by the FCC on a regular basis. They also keep their clients informed of changes in FCC regulations. Communications lawyers help individuals or corporations buy or sell a station or establish a new one.

Lawyers who represent public utilities before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other Federal and State regulatory agencies handle matters involving utility rates. They develop strategy, arguments, and testimony; prepare cases for presentation; and argue the case. These lawyers also inform clients about changes in regulations and give advice about the legality of their actions.

Still other lawyers advise insurance companies about the legality of insurance transactions. They write insurance policies to conform with the law and to protect companies from unwarranted claims. They review claims filed against insurance companies and represent companies in court.

Lawyers in private practice may concentrate on areas such as litigation, wills, trusts, contracts, mortgages, titles, and leases. Some manage a person's property as trustee, or, as executor, see that provisions of a client's will are carried out. Others handle only public interest cases--civil or criminal--which have a potential impact extending well beyond the individual client. Attorneys hope to use these cases as a vehicle for legal and social reform.

A lawyer may be employed full time by a single client. If the client is a corporation, the lawyer is known as house counsel and usually advises a company about legal questions that arise from its career activities. These questions might involve patents, government regulations, a career contract with another company, a property interest, or a collective bargaining agreement with a union.

Attorneys employed at the various levels of government constitute still another category. Criminal lawyers may work for a State attorney general, a prosecutor or public defender, or a court. At the Federal level, attorneys may investigate cases for the Department of Justice or other agencies. Lawyers at every government level help develop laws and programs, draft and interpret legislation, establish enforcement procedures, and argue cases.

Other lawyers work for legal aid societies--private, nonprofit corporations established to serve poor people in particular areas. These lawyers generally handle civil rather than criminal cases.

A relatively small number of trained attorneys work in law schools. Most are faculty members who specialize in one or more subjects, while others serve as administrators. Some work full time in nonacademic settings and teach part time.

Working Conditions

Lawyers do most of their work in offices, law libraries, and courtrooms. They sometimes meet in clients' homes or places of career and, when necessary, in hospitals or prisons. They frequently travel to attend meetings; to gather evidence; and to appear before courts, legislative bodies, and other authorities.

Salaried lawyers in government and private corporations generally have structured work schedules. Lawyers in private practice may work irregular hours while conducting research, conferring with clients, or preparing briefs during nonoffice hours. Lawyers generally work long hours and are under particularly heavy pressure when a case is being tried. Preparation for court includes keeping abreast of the latest laws and judicial decisions.

Although work generally is not seasonal, the work of tax lawyers and other specialists may be an exception. Since lawyers in private practice can determine their own workload, many stay in practice well beyond the usual retirement age.


Lawyers and judges held about 654,000 jobs in 1990. About four-fifth of the 654,000 lawyers practiced privately, either in law firms or in solo practice. Most of the remaining lawyers held positions in government, the majority at the local level. In the Federal Government, lawyers are concentrated in the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and Defense, but they work for other Federal agencies as well. Others are employed as house counsel by public utilities, transportation firms, banks, insurance companies, real estate agencies, manufacturing firms, welfare and religious organizations, and other career firms and nonprofit organizations. Some salaried lawyers also have independent practices; others work as lawyers part time while in another occupation.

Many people trained as attorneys are not employed as lawyers or judges; the work as law clerks, law school professors, and managers and administrators and in a variety of other occupations.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

To practice law in the courts of any State, a person must be licensed, or admitted to its bar, under rules established by the State's supreme court. Applicants for admission to the bar must pass a written bar examination; however, Wisconsin and West Virginia drop this requirement for graduates of their own law schools. Most States also require applicants to pass a separate written ethics examination. Lawyers who have been admitted to the bar in one State occasionally may be admitted in another State without taking an examination if they meet that State's standards of good moral character and have a specified period of legal experience. Federal courts and agencies set their own qualifications for those practicing before them.

To qualify for the bar examination in most States, an applicant must complete at least 3 years of college and graduate from a law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) or the proper State authorities. (ABA approval signifies that the law school--particularly its library or faculty--meets certain standards developed by the association to promote quality legal education.) In 1984, the American Bar Association approved 174 law schools. Other were approved by State authorities only. With certain exceptions, graduates of schools not approved by the ABA generally are restricted to taking the bar examination and practicing in the State in which the school is located; most of these schools, are in California. Seven States accept the study of law in a law office or in combination with study in a law school; only California accepts the study of law by correspondence as qualification for taking the bar examination. Several States require registration and approval of students by the State Board of Law Examiners, either before they enter law school or during the early years of legal study.

Although there is no nationwide bar examination, 46 States and the District of Columbia require the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) as part of the State bar examination. The MBE, covering issues of broad interest, is given in addition to a locally prepared part of the State bar examination. States vary in their treatment of MBE scores.

The required college and law school education usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school--4 years of undergraduate study followed by 3 years in law school. Although some law schools accept a very small number of students after 3 years of college, most require applicants to have a bachelor's degree. To meet the needs of students who can attend only part time, a number of law schools have night or part-time divisions which usually require 4 years of study.

Preparation for a career as a lawyer really begins in college. Although there is no recommended "prelaw" major, the choice of an undergraduate program is important. Certain courses and activities are desirable because they give the student the skills needed to succeed both in law school and in the profession. Essential skills--the ability to write, to read and analyze, to think logically, and to communicate verbally--are learned during high school and college. An undergraduate program that cultivates these skills while broadening the student's view of the world is good. Majors in the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities all are suitable, although a student should not specialize too narrowly. Regardless of one's major, courses in English, a foreign language, public speaking, government, philosophy, history, economics, mathematics, and computer science, among others, are useful.

Students interested in a particular aspect of law may find related courses helpful; for example, engineering and science courses for the prospective patent attorney, and accounting for the future tax lawyer. In addition, typing is advisable simply for convenience in law school and beyond, and because it facilitates use of computers.

Acceptance by most law schools depends on the applicant's ability to demonstrate an aptitude for the study of law, usually through good undergraduate grades, the college admission test, and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), administered by the Law School Admissions Service. The quality of the applicant's undergraduate school, any prior work experience, and sometimes a personal interview are also taken into consideration.

Competition for admission to many law schools is intense. Enrollments rose very rapidly during the early 1970's, with applicants far outnumbering available seats. Since then, law school enrollments have increased slowly, but applicants to many law schools still greatly exceed the number that can be admitted. Competition for admission to the more prestigious law schools will remain stiff.

During the first year or year and a half of law school, students generally study fundamental courses such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, torts, judicial procedures, and legal writing. In the remaining time, they may elect specialized courses in fields such as tax, labor, or corporation law. Practical experience often is acquired by participation in school-sponsored legal aid or legal clinic activities, in the school's moot court competitions in which students conduct appellate arguments, in practice trials under the supervision of experienced lawyers and judges, and through research and writing on legal issues for the school's law journals.

A number of law schools have clinical programs where students gain legal experience through practice trials and law school projects under the supervision of practicing lawyers and law school faculty. Law school clinical programs might include work in legal aid clinics, for example, or on the staff of legislative committees. Part-time or summer clerkships in law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments also provide experience that can be extremely valuable later on. Such training can provide references or lead directly to a job after graduation, and can help students decide what kind of practice best suits them. Clerkships also may be an important source of financial aid.

Graduates receive the degree of juris doctor (J.D.) or bachelor of law (LL.B.) as the first professional degree. Advanced law degrees are desirable for those planning to specialize, do research, or teach. Some law students pursue joint degree programs, which generally require an additional year. Joint degree programs are offered in a number of areas, including law and career administration and law and public administration.

After graduation, lawyers must keep informed about legal and nonlegal developments that affect their practice. An attorney representing electronics manufacturers, for example, must follow trade journals and the latest federal regulations. Attorneys in the Department of State must remain well versed in current events and international law, while divorce lawyers read about the changing role of the family in modern society. Many law schools and State and local bar associations provide continuing education courses that help lawyers stay abreast of recent developments.

The practice of law involves a great deal of responsibility. Persons planning careers in law should like to work with people and be able to win the respect and confidence of their clients, associates, and the public. Integrity and honesty are vital personal qualities. Perseverance and reasoning ability are essential to analyze complex cases and reach sound conclusions. At time, lawyers need creativity when handling new and unique legal problems.

Most beginning lawyers start in salaried positions. Newly hired salaried attorneys usually act as research assistants to experienced lawyers or judges. After several years of progressively responsible salaried employment, many lawyers are admitted to partnership in their firm, or go into practice for themselves. Some lawyers, after years of practice, become judges, or full-time law school faculty or administrators; a growing number have advanced degrees in other fields as well.

Some persons use their legal training in administrative or managerial positions in various departments of large corporations. A transfer from a corporation's legal department to another department often is viewed as a way to gain administrative experience and rise in the ranks of management.

Job Outlook

Persons seeking positions as lawyers or judges should encounter competition through the year 2000, although the degree of competition for lawyer positions is expected to gradually ease.

Employment of lawyers grew very rapidly during the last decade. Much faster-than- average growth is expected to continue through the year 2000 as increased population and career activity help sustain the strong demand for attorneys. This demand also will be spurred by growth of legal action in such areas as consumer protection, the environment, and safety, and an anticipated increase in the use of legal services by middle-income groups through legal clinics and prepaid legal service programs. Employment growth will continue to be concentrated in private salaried jobs. The number of self-employed lawyers is expected to grow slowly as it becomes increasingly difficult to establish a profitable small practice, due to the growing complexity of law, which encourages specialization, and the cost of maintaining up-to-date legal research materials.

Turnover of jobs in this occupation is low because its members are well paid and enjoy considerable social status, and a substantial educational investment is required for entry. Nevertheless, most job openings will stem from the need to replace lawyers who transfer to other occupations, retire, or stop working for other reasons.

Employers will continue to be selective in hiring new lawyers. Graduates of prestigious law schools and those who rank high in their classes should find salaried positions with law firms, on the legal staffs of corporations and government agencies, or as law clerks for judges. Graduates of less prominent schools and those with lower scholastic ratings may experience some difficulty in finding salaried jobs. Some graduates may be forced to accept positions for which they are overqualified or in areas outside their field of interest. An increasing proportion will enter fields where legal training is an asset but not normally a requirement. For example, banks, insurance firms, real estate companies, government agencies, and other organizations seek law graduates to fill many administrative, managerial, and career positions.

Due to the competition for jobs, a law graduate's geographic mobility and experience assume greater importance. The willingness to relocate may be an advantage in getting a job, but to be licensed in a new State a lawyer may have to take an additional bar examination. In addition, employers increasingly seek graduates who have advanced law degrees and experience in a particular field such as tax, patent, or admiralty law.

Establishing a new practice probably will continue to be best in small towns and expanding suburban areas, as long as an active market for legal services already exists. In such communities, competition is likely to be less than in big cities, and new lawyers may find it easier to become known to potential clients; also, rent and other career costs are somewhat lower. Nevertheless, starting a new practice will remain an expensive and risky undertaking that should be weighed carefully. Most salaried positions will remain in urban areas where government agencies, law firms, and big corporations are concentrated.

Some lawyers are adversely affected by cyclical swings in the economy. During recessions, the demand for some discretionary legal services, such as planning estates, drafting wills, and handling real estate transactions, declines. Also, corporations are less likely to litigate cases when declining sales and profits result in budgetary restrictions. Although few lawyers actually lose their jobs during these times, earnings may decline for many. Some corporations and law firms will not hire new attorneys until career improves. Several factors, however, mitigate the overall impact of recessions on lawyers. During recessions, individuals and corporations face other legal problems, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and divorces, that require legal actions. Furthermore, the continuous emergence of new laws and legal interpretations will create new opportunities for lawyers.


Annual salaries of beginning lawyers in private industry averaged about $36,050 in 1990, but top graduates from the Nation's best law schools started in some cases at over $84,800 a year.

Salaries of experienced attorneys also vary widely according to the type, size, and location of the employers. The average salary of the most experienced lawyers in private industry in 1990 was nearly $116,600. General attorneys in the Federal Government averaged around $51,400 a year in 1990; the relatively small number of patent attorneys in the Federal Government averaged around $60,000.

Lawyers starting their own practice may need to work part time in other occupations during the first years to supplement their income. Lawyers on salary receive increases as they assume greater responsibility. Income of lawyers in practice usually grow as their practice develop. Lawyers who are partners in law firms generally earn more than those who practice alone.

Related Occupations

Legal training is useful in many other occupations. Some of these are legal assistant, arbitrator, hearing examiner, journalist, patent agent, title examiner, legislative assistant, lobbyist, FBI special agent, political office holder, and corporate executive.

Sources of Additional Information

The Prelaw Handbook, published by Law School Admission Services, Box 2000, Newtown, Pa. 18940, provides information on prelaw study and applying to law schools. Copies may be available in public or school libraries. Information on law schools, financial aid for law students, and law as a career is available from:

Information Services, American Bar Association, 750 North Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, Ill. 60611.

For information on the placement of law graduates and the legal profession in general, contact:

National Association for Law Placement, Administrative Office, 440 First St. NW., Suite 302, Washington, D.C. 20001.

Information on Legal education is available from:

Association of American Law Schools, 1 Dupont Circle NW., Suite 370, Washington, D.C. 20036.

The specific requirements for admission to the bar in a particular State may be obtained at the State capital from the clerk of the Supreme Court or the Secretary of the Board of Bar Examiners.


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