What Is A Lawyer
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What Is A Lawyer

Lawyers interpret the law through actions and words for the protection of an individual, a business concern or an idea. They must be widely versed in a great many areas: the law, economics, history, human motivation and behavior, and the practicalities of day to day living. The education of lawyers never ends because they must constantly be abreast of information which may be of use to the client.

As our society grows in complexity, the lawyer's role grows as well. No longer is it possible for one single lawyer to handle every aspect of every client's legal needs. Although well informed as to the tax implications of stock market transactions, a lawyer may not know enough to cover adequately the client's requirements for divorce proceedings, for instance. For this reason, the vast majority of today's lawyers are specifying the types of clients and cases which they will serve. It is important to understand, however, that even though the legal profession itself is specializing, the law school and prelegal education remain general in nature. Any specialization you choose to follow must take place after you graduate from law school, pass the bar examination, and enter the professional world. The type you choose to practice may depend upon employment conditions when you begin, your personal interest and background, the amount of money you want to earn, the area of the country in which you want to live, etc. If you enjoy working with numbers or have a great concern for the welfare of society, you're a natural for some particular legal specialties; see descriptions below.

So how can you know if you'll like being a lawyer? The practice of law includes so many alternatives that it is difficult to generalize at all. Many lawyers in large corporate firms concentrate their efforts in mastering one particular area of specialization within the law, e.g. the intricacies of tax law. These attorneys often serve primarily as advisors to corporate clients, rarely being involved with taking a case to court. Litigation lawyers, on the other hand, prepare and present cases in court or negotiate to settle the case before the scheduled court appearance. Practicing law in a small town or with a small community-based firm often means taking whatever cases walk through the door. This kind of practice tends to focus more on the daily legal needs of individuals - drawing up wills or deeds, filing for divorces, getting someone out of jail on bond, settling personal damage suits in court - rather than the more technical and specialized needs of corporate clients. Success is often due more to the quality of your personal interactions and persuasiveness than to your intellectual capabilities.

Although various kinds of legal practice are different in many ways, there are some common links. First of all, clients come to lawyers with a certain set of facts - the specific details of their experience. They come seeking a remedy. Your task as the attorney is to use your skills and understanding of the law to support their cases. Clients tend not to concern themselves with theory although you may think cases pose some interesting issues. They want you to take the facts - their facts - and weave the details into a case to support their position. Your success as a lawyer is determined by the extent to which you serve the best interests of your clients. Your satisfaction in a legal career is also in part determined by the extent to which you like the interests and clients you serve.

It is impossible to list and explain all of the various types of law practiced in the United States today. The following descriptions cover the legal fields most widely known and available to beginning lawyers. Most law schools have very sophisticated methods with which to assist you in finding appropriate employment opportunities. Your law school placement office will be able to give you more complete information when you need it. The following descriptions are presented only to give you an idea of what some types of lawyers do. You should also be aware that some of the descriptions given here may fit other titles as it is often difficult to differentiate between types of law which may overlap a great deal, i.e. what is entitled comparative law here may be considered international law by some. You must also realize that the descriptions are only brief summaries and do not cover everything that the lawyer working in that specialty does.

Comparative Law A lawyer who chooses this specialty must have a good working knowledge of the laws, society, and government of at least one country other than the United States. This usually means that the lawyer has attended both college and law school in the United States as well as a formal educational institution in the foreign country with whose affairs s/he will eventually work. The comparative lawyer works with international relations in trade and commerce, travel, government business, and many other areas depending upon the breadth of his/her knowledge and the needs of his/her employer. The field of comparative law is one in which there is a great deal of opportunity for advancement and challenging work. Comparative lawyers may find their employment with business firms, with government organizations, or with any person or group which deals with countries other than the United States.

Environmental Law One of the newest entries in the legal world, environmental law requires a concern for the nation's resources, knowledge of where the resources are, what they are used for, how and why they may be endangered or exploited, and whose job it is to protect them. Environmental lawyers may work alone or in and for groups whose job it is to prosecute offenders and remedy the offending situation. On the other side of the coin, environmental lawyers may represent the "offenders" to prove why the exploitation is not bad or is not what it seems to be. Finally, they may mediate between concerned groups and help generate arrangements which will benefit the country, the consumers, and the corporation.

Patent Law Patent Law is the only legal specialty officially recognized by the American Bar Association. It is also one of the few areas of legal practice which requires a specific educational background usually in the natural sciences, mathematics, or engineering. This background is required because the work a patent lawyer does is to see that no one has already patented a client's idea and that no one "borrows" the client's idea after it has been patented. To do this the lawyer must thoroughly understand the client's idea and be able to ascertain whether differences occur in similar ideas or if, indeed, the idea has already been used or is being "borrowed". Patent lawyers are usually employed by large firms whose research teams may constantly be coming up with new ideas to be protected, or by large law firms where they handle individual clients and companies who seek the advice of the lawyer. Sometimes patent lawyers enter private practice and work as representatives to individuals and companies.

Poverty Law and Legal Services A general title for a great number of legal opportunities, poverty law and legal services offers a lawyer the chance to represent and protect those in our society who may not have the money or the knowledge to help themselves. Many law schools are now offering third year students and occasionally second year students the option of working with poverty law clients as part of an internship or clinical program. If your law school offers this as an elective, it is not only an excellent method of acquainting yourself with the real "meat" of this particular type of law practice, it is also a fine introduction into the legal world itself as it shows the student the kind of knowledge s/he will be called upon to utilize every day. In addition, it serves as a respite from what may become academic tedium during the later years of law school.  Poverty law and legal services encompass positions such as the district attorney and public defenders in city governments, legal aid work, and government groups such as VISTA and the Peace Corps which have recently introduced legal work into their programs of assistance. If you are considering this type of law, do not expect to make a lot of money, expect to be very busy, and realize that your services will be sought by many and may be appreciated by only a few. For the vast majority of the lawyers who enter this type of law, the clients' appreciation when it occurs is the finest reward.

Tax Law A tax lawyer assists people or businesses in the computation and payment of taxes of all kinds: income, property, estate, etc. A good background in statistics, mathematics and/or business as well as a genuine enjoyment of working with numbers are basic necessities for the tax lawyer. LLM degrees (the Master of Law Letters degree which follows the JD or LLB degree) can be received in tax law in a number of law school graduate divisions around the country. This is one of the specific areas in which the LLM degree is most frequently pursued. Tax law is a growing field because of the increasing complexity of the financial status of the United States and its private citizens. If you satisfy the requirements of the field, your work in private practice or as a corporation tax lawyer can be a lucrative career.

Corporate Law The corporate lawyer deals with the entirety of a corporation's activities from settling tax, employment, or labor problems, to setting up mergers between and among corporations and arranging stock options. Generally, a corporate lawyer is one of a team of lawyers, each handling or assisting in the handling of only one of the activities areas. A corporate lawyer, therefore, may be any one of the preceding types of lawyers and also be a corporate lawyer. For instance, an environmental lawyer may be employed by Kodak and still retain both titles of environmental and corporate lawyer; one does not preclude the other. Corporate law opportunities are unlimited and offer continually broadening horizons commensurate with the growth of the corporation.

Criminal Law Criminal Law involves just what the label implies: persons accused of crimes. Lawyers who specialize in criminal law may work on either side of the adversary process -- defense or prosecution. Those who defend the accused may work in private practice or in a public defender's office. Those who work for the prosecution side will generally be employed by the government, e.g. in District Attorneys' offices, etc. At the higher levels of government (e.g. the Federal Justice Department), criminal lawyers will often find themselves defending the accused, because their role will be to argue cases that are being appealed on constitutional grounds.

As previously stated, there are many more types of law from which to choose; what you choose will depend upon your present interests and your interests as they develop in law school. There is no reason to make your decision now as to what type of law you will practice; the legal profession changes constantly and you may find your own interests changing as you become exposed to more and more information.

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This page was last updated on 01/11/99