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Lawyers and attorneys act as advocates and advisers. As advocates, they represent one of the parties in criminal and civil trials by presenting evidence and arguing in court to support their client. As advisers, lawyers counsel their clients on their legal rights and obligations, and suggest particular courses of action in business and personal matters. All attorneys research the intent of laws and judicial decisions and apply the law to the specific circumstances faced by their client.

Trial lawyers, who specialize in trial work, must be able to think quickly and speak with ease and authority. In addition, familiarity with courtroom rules and strategy are particularly important in trial work. Trial lawyers spend the majority of their time outside the courtroom conducting research, interviewing clients and witnesses, and handling other details in preparation for trial.

The majority of lawyers are found in private practice, where they concentrate on criminal or civil law. In criminal law, lawyers represent individuals who have been charged with crimes and argue their cases in courts of law. Attorneys dealing with civil law may assist clients with litigation, wills, trusts, contracts, mortgages, titles and leases. Other civil attorneys may specialize areas such as bankruptcy, probate, international, environmental, intellectual property, insurance or elder law. Some lawyers handle only public interest cases — civil or criminal — which may have an impact extending well beyond the individual client.

Some lawyers work full time for a single client. If the client is a corporation, the lawyer is known as "house counsel," and usually advises the company concerning legal issues related to its business activities.

Lawyers who work for state attorneys general, prosecutors, public defenders and courts play a key role in the criminal justice system. Government lawyers help develop programs, draft and interpret laws and legislation, establish enforcement procedures, and argue civil and criminal cases on behalf of the government. Other lawyers work for legal-aid societies — private, nonprofit organizations established to serve disadvantaged people in civil cases.

Lawyers often work long hours, and about half regularly work 40 hours or more per week. They may face particularly heavy pressure, especially when a case is being tried.

Training and qualifications

To practice law in the courts of any state or other jurisdiction, a person must be admitted to its bar under rules established by the jurisdiction's highest court. All states require that applicants for admission to the bar pass a written bar examination; most jurisdictions also require applicants to pass a separate written ethics examination. Federal courts and agencies set their own qualifications for those practicing before them.

To qualify for the bar examination in most states, an applicant usually must obtain a college degree and graduate from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) or the proper state authorities. After graduation, lawyers must keep informed about legal and nonlegal developments that affect their practice. Currently, 39 states and jurisdictions mandate Continuing Legal Education (CLE).

Individuals planning careers in law should like to work with people and be able to win the respect and confidence of their clients, associates and the public. Perseverance, creativity and reasoning ability are essential.

Job outlook

Employment of lawyers is expected to grow about as fast as the average through 2010. Continuing demand will result primarily from growth in the population and in the general level of business activities. Demand also will be spurred by growth of legal action in such areas as health care, intellectual property, international law, elder law, environmental law and sexual harassment.

Demand will be somewhat mitigated because many businesses increasingly are using large accounting firms and paralegals to perform some of the same functions that lawyers do. Graduates with superior academic records from well-regarded law schools will have the best job opportunities.

Lawyers are increasingly finding work in nontraditional areas for which legal training is an asset, but not normally a requirement — such as administrative, managerial and business positions in banks, insurance firms, real estate companies and government agencies.

The growing complexity of law, which encourages specialization, along with the cost of maintaining up-to-date legal research materials, favors larger firms. For lawyers who wish to work independently, establishing a new practice will probably be easiest in small towns and expanding suburban areas.


Lawyers held about 681,000 jobs in 2000. About three of four lawyers practiced privately, either in law firms or in solo practices.

In 2000, the median annual earnings of all lawyers was $88,280. Salaries of experienced attorneys vary widely according to the type, size and location of their employer. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of lawyers in 2000 are shown below:

Legal services $96,610
Federal government 87,080
Fire, marine and casualty insurance 82,170
Local government 66,280
State government 64,190

Related links

For information on law schools and a career in law:

American Bar Association, 750 North Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, IL 60611.

For information on the LSAT, the Law School Data Assembly Service, the law school application process:

Law School Admission Council, P.O. Box 40, Newtown, PA 18940.

The requirements for admission to the bar in a particular State or other jurisdiction also may be obtained at the state capital, from the clerk of the Supreme Court or the administrator of the State Board of Bar Examiners.

Adapted from the Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook.