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What Being a Lawyer Is Really Like

published December 15, 2016

By Author - LawCrossing
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( 774 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
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Factors to Consider If You Want to Stay Practicing or Begin Practicing as a Lawyer

Popular television shows might lead you to believe that a lawyer's work revolves around courtroom dramatics. Movies also would have us believe that all law is trial law—with a few days put aside for a meeting with a client who's in jail. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What Being a Lawyer Is Really Like

The great majority of a lawyer's work is done outside the courtroom. Many lawyers do not litigate at all. The point of a great deal of lawyering is to keep clients out of the kind of trouble that might bring them into the courtroom—and to the extent that the courtroom can be avoided, the lawyer is successfully doing his or her job. Despite the commonly held misapprehension that the lawyer is a litigious adversary, a lawyer is more often concerned with securing harmonious and orderly arrangements, and with avoiding and settling controversy, especially in regard to the drafting of contracts, wills, and other such documents. Legal skill and expertise often come into play in the necessary supervision of the complex relationships between human beings and their organizations— corporations, unions, cities, states, federal departments and agencies, cultural organizations, and international associations. Many lawyers preside over the financing and operation of business, both to ensure its operation in accordance with corporate law and to advance entrepreneurial goals.

Law school applicants often assume that they will go to work for a law firm following their completion of law school. However, a significant number of all lawyers practice outside of law firms. This includes those who work in private industry and for private associations; those employed by the government, including the judiciary; and those who work in public interest law or legal education.

Lawyer specialization is also a source of some misunderstanding among pre-law students. Law school education is broad-ranging; most lawyers don't become involved in a specialty until after they have worked in the profession for several years, and their specialty then becomes a function of the expertise they have developed by working on certain types of cases repeatedly. However, the generalist lawyer appears to be on the wane; as society becomes more complex, many law firms are relying on lawyers who have expertise in a specific area. Some schools offer opportunities to achieve some expertise in a particular area for those students who feel prepared to make long-term career decisions early on; there are also educators who believe students are better off keeping their options open as long as possible.

What Lawyers Actually Do

The practice of law is multifaceted, and the more you explore the particulars of each setting and how that setting best suits your needs and goals, the less likely you are to feel trapped in an environment you could have avoided had you bothered to learn what that environment was like. You may have a personal preference for the more social or for the more secluded aspects of a law career, but you will need to be adept at both. Certain settings are likely to involve you more directly with clients; other environments may offer the prospect that you will eventually be appreciated and rewarded for your intellect. If effecting change in society is what you're after, you may have to be satisfied with incremental change. Keep in mind that lawyers also can effect change for an individual client.

Lawyers are found just about everywhere in a society as complex as ours. A typical first job for a lawyer might be setting up an individual practice; working in a law firm or a corporate legal department; entering government service at the local, state, or federal level; accepting a judicial clerkship; joining a bank, trust company, or accounting firm; or working for a public interest group. Following is a list—though not a comprehensive one—of some of the specialties within the law profession: corporate and securities law, antitrust law, intellectual property law, family law, tax law, labor law, criminal law, public interest law, international law, entertainment law, environmental law, real estate, estate law, tort law, and bankruptcy law. Other areas of specialty exist and often are more prevalent in some parts of the country than others; there is quite a bit of overlap in specialty areas as well. New areas of expertise, such as banking, health services, and sports law continue to develop to accommodate our rapidly changing world; a lawyer may develop a well-defined subspecialty by accumulating a high volume of a particular kind of case that may recur. The law school's career services office can provide you with more information on these specific practice areas.

Different Settings in Which to Practice Law

Aside from varying subject-matter specialties, there are many practice settings in which a lawyer can exercise his or her skills. There are more lawyers in solo practices and small firms, but the rapid growth of the big firms and the well-publicized starting salaries of newly minted lawyers have received a great deal of publicity over the years. These positions represent only a small fraction of the available positions for lawyers. Beginning with a closer look at these large firms—with their advantages and their disadvantages—we offer a description of the diverse settings in which a lawyer may work over the course of a career.

The Large Law Firm

A large firm, sometimes referred to as a national firm, is comprised of 100 to 200 partners (sometimes more) and associates, often with two or more offices. Generally, these firms are located near the financial communities and Fortune 500 companies of major metropolitan areas. The nature of the legal work undertaken by a national firm might range from preparing the initial articles of incorporation and bylaws for a new enterprise to handling a corporate reorganization under the provisions of federal bankruptcy laws. The firm may be involved in a huge corporate lawsuit that will take years to resolve, or it may be working on the details of a multi-million-dollar business transaction.

The new associate's work is likely to be restricted to a small, structured group. Usually, large firms are segmented into specialty groups such as litigation, corporate, real estate, trusts and estates, and so on. Sometimes associates rotate from one department to another. The associate's work at the outset consists of supplying background research for the more senior members or writing simple legal documents or shorter portions of more complicated documents. Associates also proofread, oversee the mechanical aspects of preparing legal documents in the appropriate form, and serve as general assistants as needed. It may be some years before associates are given primary responsibility for a case. Competition for advancement can be quite intense. An associate will usually leave, or be eased out if it becomes clear that he or she will not become a partner, although today many non-partners stay on as senior associates or non-equity partners. Partnership selection typically begins about the seventh year. Although these large firms are likely to pay quite well, they do expect a lot from their associates for that compensation.

There are also regional firms that are smaller than the national firms but more sophisticated than the typical smaller firm (discussed below). These regional firms may offer some of the benefits of each. The work may be more challenging than in a small firm, but there may not be quite as much client contact. Typical clients might be a regional corporation for whom the firm might serve as both business and legal adviser, or a private individual or family who demands a high level of service. The lines between such regional firms and national firms are increasingly blurred as many regional firms are absorbed by or evolve into national firms.

Small Firms/Solo Practice

The smaller the firm, the more local its practice. A small practice may handle routine family matters such as estate planning, investments, domestic relations, or simple litigation. Some firms—known as boutiques—may handle more complex and sophisticated work. Law firms may define an area of practice and compete with larger firms for clients. Each small practice is bound to have its distinct personality and method of operation, but it is likely that a lawyer just starting out in a small firm will have a higher degree of visibility, will practice more as a generalist, and will more quickly take on additional responsibilities.

A solo practitioner practices entirely alone with only secretaries and legal assistants employed in the office. As soon as an associate comes on board, the practice is no longer solo. More and more, however, lawyers who might have been drawn to a solo practice are sharing space and equipment to keep costs down and have a more flexible schedule. It would be beneficial, however, for the lawyer who chooses to be completely self-employed to acquire a mentor or guide who can give the kind of counsel and instruction offered by the more senior members of a larger law firm.


Government organizations that employ lawyers do not have the same kind of autonomy as do private employers. Often, management decisions in government—including budgetary issues—originate in a legislative body rather than at the headquarters. The kind of work a government lawyer does depends on the nature of the work done by a particular organization.

The Department of Justice and the Defense Department are two of the largest federal employers of lawyers. Beyond them, there are numerous agencies, boards, and commissions in the federal government that employ lawyers, including the Internal Revenue Service, Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Reserve System, Federal Communications Commission, and Federal Trade Commission. Outside Washington, government lawyers may work in a U.S. Attorney's office, with local district attorneys, with a state attorney's office, as attorney for a municipality, or in one of many other federal regional offices.

The focus of legal activity for a state is in the office of the State Attorney General. The state regulatory departments of banking, insurance, securities, and public utilities all employ staff attorneys. The legislative branch of state government also employs lawyers to work on bill drafting, law revision, legislative review of administrative regulations, and so on. Some states use a centralized clearinghouse for hiring, such as the U.S. Civil Service Commission, but many states do not. You may have to research and persevere to traverse the complex bureaucracy of the numerous agencies that exist in all 50 states. An exploration of opportunities for state government employment will require your best-organized effort.

Local government also offers many potential opportunities for work. Besides work related to criminal prosecution and defense, there is richly varied work on the civil side of local government, including such things as land use planning; utility law in departments within city governments and special districts, such as water, school, and regional planning; real property issues; and legislative counsel.

Finally, the military services represent one of the largest employers of law school graduates in the country. Although the military legal system differs from the civilian system, your law school preparation will serve you well if you choose this route.

The salary, benefits, and security offered by the military make this avenue attractive to many graduates.

Business Organizations

There is a wide range of opportunities in business, though—as in government—management decisions are frequently made outside the legal department. The nature of the legal work depends on the organization. If you join a corporate legal staff, you may eventually head the law department of that organization, which may consist of just a few lawyers or possibly more than 400. Lawyers in corporations may handle interpretation of agreements, negotiations, and preventive legal advice. Lawyers also handle regulatory work in industries that are subject to government regulation, such as utilities, transportation, communications, and the food and drug industries. Corporations also retain attorneys to work in their tax departments, or in research and development. Some people choose this route because the pay and benefits are good but the hours are more stable than in a large law firm.

Judicial Clerkships

Although clerkships may be classified as government work, they can be considered a separate category because of the unique opportunities offered and the limited duration of these jobs. Clerkships offer new lawyers the opportunity to observe closely the trial and appellate system, to work with experienced litigators, and to strengthen their writing skills. These positions are not normally considered career paths but rather gateways that will lead to future career options. Most judicial clerkships are only one or two years long. There are generally far fewer clerkships available than students who vie for these positions, and the quality of the experience will usually correlate strongly to the personality and values of the judge served.

Other Options

Besides the standard areas of private practice, government, business, clerkships, and public interest, a certain number of law school graduates each year will accept academic opportunities after several years of practice or return to school for advanced studies. Also, there are new employer groups—such as foundations, hospitals, bar associations, universities, and consulting firms—that are employing lawyers in increasing numbers.

Nonlegal Careers

The phenomenon of lawyers in nonlegal positions grew out of the need of business and industry to have people with legal training in strategic positions, to troubleshoot—that is, to anticipate and solve little problems before they become big problems.

Certain skills learned in law school are basic to a variety of nonlegal positions, especially in the business world. These skills, specifically, are 1) ease in dealing with legal terminology and concepts, 2) ability to analyze facts, and 3) ability to persuade others. The book outlines various career possibilities in business organizations (such as real estate, public relations, insurance, and employee relations) and other organizations (education, health care, media, accounting, publishing, and so forth).


The profession of law is not a single, homogeneous profession; you should view it rather as a wide umbrella, encompassing the overlapping and still-developing fields within the practice of law. Law school, then, does not specifically train you as an expert in any particular kind of law but rather acts as a springboard into various professional opportunities. It is up to you to make the most of the opportunities that come along and to seek out opportunities for yourself.

published December 15, 2016

By Author - LawCrossing
( 774 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.