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Law-Related Career Center

The Practice of Law


Lawyers, or attorneys, are legal professionals who have a state license to practice law. Their responsibilities include representing clients in court, advising clients of their legal rights and responsibilities, researching laws and cases, and filing official documents with the court. Lawyers help people make informed decisions about their legal matters and advocate best possible solutions.

Lawyers work in a wide variety of settings. Many work in private law firms, both large and small, that serve multiple clients. Others work in government agencies at the local, state, and federal level. Still others work as in-house attorneys, representing a single corporation rather than multiple clients. Lawyers might also work in public interest or non-profit agencies for a particular cause, charity, or advocacy interest.

A student who wants to be a lawyer must first earn a bachelor’s degree in college (any undergraduate major will suffice), graduate from law school after college, pass a state professional responsibility exam, and pass a state bar exam. In California, the bar exam takes three days to complete. Students are tested on 13 different subjects, including criminal law, constitutional law, property law, torts, contracts, and evidence. Each year in California, a handful of people opt to become lawyers through apprenticeship rather than law school, but this is a difficult and rarely used method of becoming a lawyer.

To apply for law school, college graduates are first required to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Law school takes three years to complete, though some law schools offer night programs that take four years.

Students who graduate from law school take their state’s written bar examination. Every state has its own bar exam, run by the state’s bar association. Thus, to practice law in a state, a person must pass the state’s bar exam. Some states might accept certain exam results from another state.

In May 2010, the median annual pay of lawyers was $112,760, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries of experienced attorneys vary widely according to the type, size, and location of their employer. Lawyers who own their own practices usually earn less than those who are partners in law firms. Also, lawyers who are beginning to practice often earn far less than the median annual pay.


Major Areas of Law

Corporate Law
Corporate law relates to business practices. Some areas of corporate law include corporate structure, finance, taxation, insurance, real estate transactions, mergers, acquisitions.

Criminal Law
Criminal law pertains to violations of laws that could result in punishment for offenders, whether imprisonment or fines. People suspected of violating the law and who are apprehended by the police are defendants. All criminal defendants have a right to a trial and to a lawyer under the Constitution, and the government has the sole responsibility of prosecuting these defendants. The government’s attorneys are called prosecutors. Defendants may hire a defense attorney privately or accept an attorney appointed by the court, known as a public defender. See separate section on Prosecutors and Public Defenders.

Labor/Employment Law
Employment law governs employment practices and the employer-employee relationship. For example, employment law sets forth the legal rights and responsibilities of employers and employees with regards to employment contracts. Labor law comprises state and federal statutes that give employees and employers rights and responsibilities when negotiating contracts, especially with regard to collective bargaining (labor unions). Labor law also sets standard pay and hours, establishes health and safety protections, and safeguards against discrimination.

Entertainment Law/Sports Law
Entertainment law usually pertains to contracts and intellectual property of professionals and businesses in the entertainment industry. The entertainment industry includes theater, film, fine art, music, publishing, television, the Internet, and radio. People in these fields who provide creative works or services frequently require lawyers who specialize in this type of law.

Environmental Law
Environmental law includes state and federal statutes that regulate air pollution, water pollution, hazardous waste, the wilderness, and endangered animals. Environmental law can apply to almost all aspects of daily life. For example, drinking water must meet state and federal quality standards before it may be consumed by the public. Car manufacturers must comply with emissions standards to protect air quality. State and federal regulations govern the manufacture, storage, transportation, and disposal of hazardous chemicals, such as pesticides and household products.

Family Law
Family law governs family relationships, rights, duties, and finances. It includes divorce, foster care, child custody, child support, adoption, and alimony. Family law has expanded in recent years to include issues such as same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships.

Immigration Law
Immigration law is a set of federal statutes that regulate the right to enter the United States, naturalization, and migrant labor. Immigration law governs the granting of visas for work, tourism, and education.

Public Interest
Public interest law pertains to a variety of issues affecting either a certain group or the public at large. Examples of public interest issues include civil rights, social reform, criminal justice reform, and environmental rights. Public interest law is usually carried out by a non-profit organization.

Intellectual Property Law
Intellectual property law focuses on the property rights of individuals’ creative work, invention, or design. Intellectual property is classified into three fields: copyright, patent, and trademark. Copyright law protects an individual’s creative expression (e.g., books, songs, poems, and art). Patent law protects an individual’s scientific invention. Lastly, trademark law protects an individual’s design (e.g., logos, slogans, and other corporate images).

Military Law
In the United States, military law includes statutes enacted by Congress and policies issued by the president, by the Department of Defense, or by individual branches of the military (Army, Air force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines). Lawyers working within the military are known as judge advocates general, or JAG. Anyone with military status is governed by military law.

Probate focuses on protecting and distributing the property and interests of the deceased, particularly as expressed in deceased persons’ trusts and wills. The term also refers broadly to the process of administering an estate by an executor and overseeing the guardianship of minors or other dependent persons.

Paralegal/Legal Assistants

Paralegals, or legal assistants, assist lawyers in preparation for meetings, court proceedings, and other related legal services. Their responsibilities include drafting letters and legal documents, maintaining computer databases, arranging lawyers’ calendars, and researching cases. Depending on the law firm and area of legal practice, paralegals might perform some tasks similar to those of lawyers. For example, they might maintain records of correspondence from clients. They cannot, however, represent clients in disputes or advise clients on the law.

A person can become a paralegal in one of several ways. Some paralegals learn through experience, receiving on-the-job training. Others obtain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. Finally, there are paralegal certification programs.

A paralegal’s salary largely depends on the education, experience, employer, and geographic location of the job. In general, paralegals who work for large law firms or in major city areas earn more than those who work for smaller firms or in less populated regions. In May 2010, the median annual wage for full-time paralegals and legal assistants was $46,680, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Photo: Mark Ide