Lawyers are central figures in the life of a democratic country. They may deal with major courtroom cases or minor traffic disputes, complex corporate mergers or straightforward real estate transactions. Lawyers may work for giant industries, small businesses, government agencies, international organizations, public interest groups, legal aid offices, and universities—or they may work for themselves. They represent both the impoverished and the wealthy, the helpless and the powerful. Lawyers may work solo, in a small group, or in a large law firm.
According to the American Bar Foundation’s 2005 Lawyer Statistical Report (updated in January 2012), pp. 7–8:
- 75 percent of American lawyers are in private practice; of these
- 62 percent work as solo practitioners or in offices of 5 or fewer lawyers,
- 18 percent work in offices of between 6 and 50 lawyers, and
- 20 percent work in firms of more than 50 lawyers.
- 7.5 percent of the profession work for government agencies.
- 8.5 percent work for private industries and associations as salaried lawyers or as managers.
- 1 percent work for legal aid or as public defenders.
- 1 percent work in legal education.
- 2.5 percent work in the judiciary.
- 4.4 percent are retired or inactive.
Many lawyers develop expertise in a particular field of law. Large law firms that provide a full range of legal services tend to employ more specialists. The solo practitioner, who must handle a variety of problems alone, may have greater opportunity to work in several areas. Of course, there are lawyers in large firms who maintain general practices, and lawyers in one-person offices who concentrate on a particular legal issue. Both specialized and general practice can be rewarding. One offers the satisfaction of mastering a particular legal discipline, and the other the challenge of exploring new fields. Following are brief descriptions of selected areas of specialization, though there are many areas of the law that can rightly fall into more than one category.
Lawyers and Their Skills
Law practice is so diverse that it is not possible to describe the so-called typical lawyer. Each lawyer works with different clients and different legal problems. Ordinarily, certain basic legal skills are required of all lawyers. Along with being adept at both reading and listening, they must know how to
- analyze legal issues in light of the existing state of the law, the direction in which the law is headed, and relevant policy considerations;
- synthesize material in light of the fact that many issues are multifaceted and require the combination of diverse elements into a coherent whole;
- advocate the views of groups and individuals within the context of the legal system;
- give intelligent counsel on the law’s requirements;
- write and speak clearly; and
- negotiate effectively.
A legal education is also excellent preparation for many other careers, because the course of study provides a framework for organizing knowledge and teaches an analytical approach to problems. Any or all of the skills described here are useful for those law school graduates who choose not to practice law, but to go into another field. Professions such as banking, insurance, real estate, public relations, human resources, government, education, and international trade are significant areas of employment for law school graduates. The fields of health care, media, and publishing have also attracted law school graduates to their ranks. Law school does not train you for any particular kind of law, but rather acts as a springboard into various professional opportunities. Among the skills learned in law school that are basic to a variety of nonlegal positions are ease in dealing with legal terminology and concepts, ability to analyze facts, and facility in persuading others.
After Law School
A job search strategy requires careful self-assessment in much the same way as a school search strategy does. A legal career should meet the interests, abilities, capacities, and priorities of the individual lawyer. Career satisfaction is a result of doing what you like to do and being continually challenged by it. It is up to you to determine what skills you are comfortable using and to discern which skills are required in the specialties or types of practice you are considering.
Take advantage of any programs and workshops offered by the career services office at your law school. Place your name on file in the office, and be sure to maintain contact with the staff even after you leave school. NALP: The Association for Legal Career Professionals is an important source of information. Both employers and students are guided in the employment process by NALP’s Principles and Standards for Law Placement and Recruitment Activities. These guidelines are promulgated to ensure that students have an adequate opportunity to make decisions about offers of employment without undue pressure and that employers will receive responses from students in a timely manner.
There are numerous accounts of being a lawyer or planning a law career in our selected reading list (PDF).