There are 1,315,561 licensed lawyers in the United States in 2016, according to the American Bar Association. These attorneys practice in a variety of legal areas, including trial and litigation work, corporate and finance work, international arbitration, project finance, real estate, securities, intellectual property, healthcare, maritime, aviation, education, employment, environmental, tax, criminal, civil rights, and human rights law, among many other important areas of law.
Diverse Practice Settings
These attorneys practice in an array of settings. Some work in large firms of thousands of attorneys and staff. These attorneys work out of glossy offices on the highest floors of skyscrapers in major cities. Others practice in smaller or mid-sized firms in cities and towns, housed in more modest office buildings. There also are “sole practitioners,” who work alone or perhaps with a secretary or paralegal for assistance. Some sole practitioners work out of “home offices” or share office space with other “solos.”
Attorneys who are “corporate counsel” (also known as “in-house” attorneys) work for companies, both large and small, and focus their practices on the laws that pertain to the particular industry in which the counsel’s company operates. For example, an in-house attorney for an automobile manufacturer would work in the legal department of the manufacturer and provide advice on legal issues related to automobiles. Meanwhile, a corporate counsel for a hospital chain would work in the legal department of that company and provide advice on healthcare law.
In addition to attorneys practicing in law firms, other attorneys work in federal and state courthouses—both civil and criminal, and at the trial and appellate levels—across the country. These attorneys consist of judges, commissioners, and law clerks.
Finally, many attorneys devote their legal careers to public service and/or public interest work. They work for the government in all sorts of capacities, including as district attorneys prosecuting people accused of crimes and as public defenders helping ensure people accused of crimes get fair trials. Other government lawyers help cities, states, and the federal government function in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.
Public interest lawyers generally work for not-for profit organizations designed to help people who are poor and underprivileged or who are being denied fundamental constitutional or human rights. A public interest lawyer might help a homeless person secure food or housing vouchers, help a foster child access the kinds of services to which he or she is entitled, or assist a domestic violence victim in securing a restraining order against his or her abuser. Some public interest lawyers target big picture “issues” through impact litigation and other measures, such as the abolishment of capital punishment or the eradication of sex trafficking.
The Legal Profession Includes More Than Attorneys
Working alongside these attorneys are a host of other legal professionals—such as paralegals, legal assistants, secretaries, clerks, and court reporters—who assist with legal proceedings but do not actually practice law. Together, all these lawyers and other legal professionals constitute the legal profession in the United States.
The Legal Profession Continues to Expand
The legal profession is expected to keep growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that by 2024 the economy will add 43,800 new lawyer jobs and 21,200 new paralegal jobs. Here are a few of the types of diverse and interesting jobs that BLS places within the “lawyer” category:
- Associate Attorney
- Attorney General
- Brief Writer
- City Attorney
- County Attorney
- Defense Attorney
- District Attorney
- General Counsel
- Environmental Attorney
- Insurance Attorney
- Probate Lawyer
- Public Defender
- Real Estate Attorney
- Sports Attorney
- Tax Attorney
- Trial Attorney
For a list of different kinds of attorneys and jobs available in various areas of law, please visit the following LawCrossing page:
Please also see LawCrossing’s many articles on Attorney Career Choices:
Rankings of Legal Professions
When it comes to the ranking of lawyers in various categories by U.S. News & World Report, lawyers came in at No. 4 of Best Social Services Jobs, No. 15 of Best Paying Jobs, and No. 71 of the 100 Best Jobs. Paralegal jobs were ranked No. 15 of Best Social Service Jobs.
Legal Profession Salaries
Salaries within the legal profession can vary widely, with lawyers at the top of the pyramid earning millions of dollars a year in salary, partnership profits, and other types of compensation. Typically lawyers who earn such high salaries are partners in large, prestigious law firms or general counsel (head lawyer) for Fortune 500 companies.
According to U.S. News, the median salary for lawyers is $114,970 and the median salary for paralegals is $48,350.
There are many variables affecting salaries within the legal profession, including type of law firm, practice area, and geographic region of practice. Payscale reports the median salary for attorneys at $78,242. But that median salary increases to $117,017 in San Francisco. Median salaries for other major cities are: $96,182 in New York, $86,647 in Denver, and $74,646 in Miami.
- See 2016 Law Firm Salary Chart – What Firms Are Giving Raises? for more information about current attorney salaries.
For paralegals, Payscale reports a median salary of $44,579.
A Noble Profession
Practicing law can be a very noble profession. Many of the country’s founding fathers were lawyers, including Alexander Hamilton, William Patterson, and Gouverneur Morris. Attorneys also have served as our nation’s presidents, including John Adams, James Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln.
Becoming an attorney requires a significant commitment. You must do well in high school and college, get a solid score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), excel in law school, and pass the bar exam in the state in which you want to practice law. If you want to practice certain kinds of intellectual property law, you also need to pass the “patent bar.” Then, once you begin your practice as a real lawyer, you will need to spend hours each day for years fully mastering the intricacies of your practice area and the legal profession generally.
But in the end, your efforts will be rewarded. Not only will you be a member of an esteemed profession that dates back to the earliest days of our nation (and much further back than that), you will also be in a position to use your skills and knowledge in many ways. Being a lawyer will allow you to choose your path—whether it is helping technology, commerce, and international trade thrive; assisting students in accessing the educational experiences to which they are entitled; or ensuring the underprivileged get the services and help they need.
Whether you want to make a lot of money or make a contribution to the world, the law is an intellectually challenging and meaningful way in which to do it.
For more information on the positive aspects being a member of the legal profession, please see: