Center for High Achievement & Scholarly Engagement
Pre-Graduate and Pre-Professional Advising

Life as a Lawyer

A lot of advice warns students that a legal career is different to how it is portrayed on television. Such advice is probably more patronizing than useful. However, it is worth taking into account that most of us have very little actual experience of law that can inform our perceptions. In order to make a well considered decision on whether a legal career is right for you, a good deal of time and thought should be dedicated to what life as a lawyer really entails.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to give a true sense of what life as a lawyer is really like in a few paragraphs. This is partly because a legal career is such a broad ranging profession. A great way to gain an insight is to spend some time with a lawyer. If possible, use any contacts you have with family or friends to do so. The Office of Pre-Graduate & Pre-Professional Advising can also be used to connect students with lawyers. Keep in mind however, that many lawyers have greatly varying careers and lifestyles. The work of one particular lawyer may be atypical.

Lawyers act both as advocates and advisors. As advocates, they represent parties in a civil or criminal case by presenting evidence, examining and cross-examining witnesses and presenting arguments in favor of their client. As advisors, lawyers counsel their client concerning their legal rights and obligations, suggesting the possible courses of action that may be taken within the law. For many lawyers, the majority of their work is out of court advising. The essence of a lawyer's work is researching laws and judicial decisions and applying it to the particular circumstances faced by their client.

The more detailed aspects of a lawyer's job will depend upon their level of experience and field of work. Trial lawyers, those who specialize in advocacy, spend slightly more time in the courtroom. They must be able to think on their feet under pressure, and present oral argument authoritatively. Even trial lawyers however will spend much of their time away from the courtroom, interviewing clients or witnesses, conducting research, or dealing with other details related to the case. Corporate lawyers will spend very little time in court. In fact, many cases are settled with out of court negotiations.

The nature of the work will depend greatly on the setting in which the lawyer practices. Many lawyers work in large private firms which may have over 300 attorneys, and may also have international offices. In such large firms, lawyers are usually separated into practice areas such as litigation, real estate, intellectual property and so on. Much of an attorneys work will be to supply background research to more senior members, or to write the more simple legal documents. Associates also spend a lot of time overseeing the mechanical aspects of legal documentation. Some of the cases will have millions of dollars at stake and may take several years to resolve. The financial rewards of working in such a firm can be great, but the work can be extremely demanding.

Many firms are much smaller and have a more local practice. Such firms routinely deal with family matters such as investments, wills and domestic relations. Lawyers starting in small firms are not likely to earn as much as those in a large firms, but will often practice more generally and will take on responsibility for their own cases much sooner.

A significant number of attorneys are employed at various levels of government and play an important role in the criminal justice system, working as prosecutors or public defenders. The two largest government employers of lawyers are the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense. Government lawyers also draft legislation and argue civil or criminal cases on behalf of the government. At the local level, government lawyers will be involved with civil work relating to areas such as planning and utilities law.

Lawyer's wages

Lawyers have an exaggerated reputation for being rich. While some lawyers do earn very high salaries, many young lawyers struggle with average salaries to pay off student debt. The National Association of Law Placement reported that, in May 2004, the median annual earnings of all lawyers was $94,930 and the middle half of the occupation earned between $64,000 and $143,620. The median salary of lawyers nine months after graduation was $55,000, although this varied considerably with the type of work. Students who had entered private practice were earning an average of $80,000 after nine months. The median salaries of those in government or a judicial clerkship was $44,700 Salaries of experienced attorneys vary widely according to the type of work, and the size and location of the employer. While it is possible to earn six figure salaries, the majority of such large earnings are found in large, corporate firms.

A few fields of practice

Business law - involves a range of different but related areas of practice. Business lawyers will frequently deal with insurance, construction and banking. Some specialize in corporate law, performing a number of functions including incorporation (partnership agreements etc), securities (stocks and bonds) and mergers and acquisitions.

Criminal Law - the reality of criminal law is much different to its portrayal in films and television programs. Very few cases actually proceed to trial and those that do have high conviction rates. Many cases are disposed of by plea bargaining - a process by which the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge at an early point in proceedings in order to seek a less severe sentence than would normally be given if the case went to trial. Criminal defense lawyers include both public defenders and private practitioners. Prosecuting attorneys work for the local, state or federal government.

Family law - at the heart of family law is divorce law. Divorce work frequently involves out of court negotiations and drafting legal documents such as separation agreements. Lawyers also deal with issues such as property settlement and child custody. Closely linked with family law is juvenile law. Juvenile law protects the rights of children and may involve acting as counsel for the child in a marital dispute, acting as a trustee for a child's funds, or protecting children from abuse which gives rise to issues including shelter, foster care and health.

Labor law - usually involves contract negotiations or resolving employee grievances. Many labor law issues use arbitration to settle disputes out of court. Arbitration uses an impartial mediator to listen to both sides of the dispute and make a decision that both parties will accept.

Property Law - a significant amount of property law is concerned with the selling and buying of property in both residential and commercial acquisitions. It is also concerned with zoning (the right to use a piece of land in a certain way), and wills and trusts.

Intellectual Property - regulates copyrights, patents and trademarks. It is one of the most complex areas of law.