While lawyers feature prominently in many movies and television dramas, many people do not actually know what they do. A lawyer, which is also called an “attorney,” is a person who holds a professional license to give advice to, and to represent, others in legal matters. This includes advising clients on how to handle certain situations – whether civil or criminal – acting on clients’ behalf in such matters, and representing clients in a court of law. Read on to learn more about how to become a lawyer.

What Do Lawyers Do

An attorney’s primary duties are to (1) uphold the law, and (2) to protect his client’s rights. In order to do this effectively, a lawyer must have a good understanding of the law, and the communication skills necessary to work effectively with clients, other attorneys, and the courts.

Lawyers do not always represent their clients in court – in fact, a goal in most cases is to keep the matter from escalating to the point that a hearing or trial is necessary. Attorneys listen to their clients, and give them advice regarding their problem, based on how the law applies. They may write letters, conduct investigations, conduct mediation, or create and file legal documents.

Ultimately, if a client’s matter goes before the court, the lawyer represents the client’s interests throughout court hearings or trial. In most cases, the lawyer’s primary duty is to settle disputes. To that end, the lawyer has a responsibility to ensure his client’s rights are upheld, and to try to obtain a favorable outcome.

Professional Requirements to Become a Lawyer

It is against the law to call oneself a lawyer without having met the necessary professional requirements, which include a college degree and a professional license. Even after having obtained a degree, each state’s laws require prospective lawyers to meet certain standards. While these standards vary slightly by state, they usually require the following:

  1. Bachelor’s Degree – To become an attorney, a person must first obtain a bachelor’s degree, or its equivalent.
  2. Law School – After obtaining a degree, the prospective lawyer must complete three years of law school.
  3. Bar Exam – This test evaluates the prospective lawyer’s understand of the law, the responsibilities of an attorney, and professional ethics.
  4. Character and Background Checks – The state bar evaluates the character of each person who applies for a professional license to practice law in the state. This evaluation includes a character review, and a criminal background check.
  5. Swearing an Oath – Once all of these requirements have been satisfied, the prospective attorney must take an oath to uphold the laws of the land, as well as the state and federal constitutions.
  6. License to Practice Law – Finally, the individual will be issued a professional license from the highest court in the jurisdiction, which is generally the state supreme court.

Where Can You Work as a Lawyer

Even after meeting all of the professional requirements to become a lawyer, your ability to practice law will be limited to the jurisdiction in which you have been issued a license. In order to practice law in more than one state, you would need to meet each state’s requirements for admission to the bar.

In some states, a lawyer who has practiced law in another state for several years may be allowed to practice, only if the new state’s supreme court approves them. Additionally, an out-of-state lawyer may be allowed to participate in a specific case, if approved by the court. This would be considered a pro hoc vice (“for this one occasion”) appearance.

Private Practice

According to the American Bar Association, about 75% of American lawyers work in private practice. While some have opened their own private practices, working as solo practitioners, many work in large law firms where there are multiple lawyers. Some law firms have grown to the point that they employ dozens, or even hundreds of lawyers in cities throughout the country.

In-House Attorneys

Many large corporations employ attorneys to exclusively represent their interests. These lawyers are known as “in-house attorneys.” In fact, while one company might need only a single in-house attorney to handle their legal matters, another might need multiple attorneys, each of whom deals with a specific area of law. For example, one in-house attorney might deal with civil lawsuits filed against the company, another with employment issues, and yet another might work as a political lobbyist, keeping an eye on legislation that may affect the company’s business dealings.

Government Lawyers

Local, state, and federal governments employ lawyers to provide certain, specific services. For example, state and federal governments employ attorneys to act as prosecutors. These include attorneys general, district attorneys, and public defenders. Government lawyers also work in such agencies as:

  • Office of Homeland Security
  • Patent and Trademark Office
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Department of Education (state and federal)

Public Interest Law

There are many people in American society who believe that legal representation is something only those with money can have. It is certainly true that most private practice attorneys, who charge by billable hour, come with hefty price tags that people in financial difficulty simply cannot afford.

Many lawyers work in public interest law, lending their talents to help those who cannot help themselves. This type of work includes legal aid societies, which do such things as help poor people in landlord-tenant issues, seek to strengthen environmental regulations, and advocate for civil rights for minorities.

Lawyer Salary

A lawyer’s salary depends a great deal on what type of practice he or she works in, and his level of experience in his area of law. Private practice attorneys – whether they are solo practitioners, or are employed by a large organization – derive their earnings from “billable hours.” While lawyers work throughout each day, their time is divided up between their clients. Lawyers keep track of the time they spend on each client’s case, including everything from a brief phone call, to hours spent preparing a legal brief.

Lawyers have special software that can keep track of this time, which is generally broken up into tenths of hours. For example, a 10-minute phone call with a client would be billed as 2/10ths of an hour. A court hearing that lasts 2 hours, in addition to the time spent preparing just before heading into the courtroom, might be billed as 2.5 hours.

Lawyers who are employed as in-house counsel are not usually constrained to billable hours, since all of their work is in service of their employer. Other things that affect lawyer salary are benefits, such as health insurance paid for by the employer, paid vacation, and sick leave. Because these things are difficult to quantify, they are not usually taken into account by organizations that report lawyer salary.

Median Wage for Lawyers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), the median wage for lawyers (as of 2016) is $118,160. The lowest 10% of lawyers earned less than $56,910, and the highest 10% earned more than $208,000. Lawyers who work as solo practitioners generally earn less than those who work in larger law firms, or as general counsel.

Most lawyers work full time, and many work quite a bit of overtime, which is more than 40 hours per week. Those in private practice often clock the most hours, as they spend extra time researching their cases, and preparing and reviewing documents.

Median wages for government lawyers are as follows:

Federal government $139,460
Legal services $118,660
Local government, excluding education and hospitals $91,950
State government, excluding education and hospitals $88,020

Employment Outlook for Lawyers

The BLS has projected that nearly 75,000 new lawyer jobs will be available by the year 2026. This reflects a growth of 8%, though the field is growing faster in some legal fields than others. The BLS forecasts the greatest grown in the fields of healthcare providers, and financial and insurance firms.

Essential Information

Degree Level Juris Doctor (J.D.); completion of bachelor’s degree followed by law school
Degree Field(s) Pre-law or other field for undergraduate; required score on LSAT
License/Certification Must pass state bar exam to practice
Key Skills Critical thinking, written/oral communication, research, debate, and organizational skills
Number of Jobs 792,500*
Job Outlook
8% growth*
Median Salary (2017) $114,970*

(*Source: the BLS)