Law Career Field Structure
The main players in the legal profession in the United States are lawyers and judges whose basic tasks are to interpret and apply the law. Basically, lawyers explain the law to their clients, advise them concerning the status of their cases, and act on their behalf in legal proceedings. Judges preside over court proceedings and make judgments concerning how laws are to be applied. Supporting these main players are paralegals, legal secretaries, court reporters, bail bondsmen, process servers, and other specialists who each play an important role in the legal system. Lawyers and judges depend on the people who work around them in these various positions. For example, a paralegal assists the lawyer by doing some of the vital grunt work that needs to be accomplished, such as interviewing witnesses, conducting research, and examining documents.
Because of the many different types of laws and the various situations and people they are applied to, lawyers have opportunities to practice law in a variety of areas. Most lawyers base this choice on what subject they are interested in, the people they want to work with, and where they want to live while doing that work. The possibilities include working for a private company, a government agency, a corporate law firm, or a public interest law firm. In addition, lawyers may serve as judges or become instructors and professors in colleges or universities.
Over the years, most lawyers have chosen to go into private practice, that is, providing legal services exclusively to private clients. These are the lawyers most average people contact when they need legal advice or services. A majority of private practice lawyers work by themselves, without the immediate assistance of any partners (although they may have salaried associates). Others work with colleagues in law firms that range in size from two attorneys to as many as several hundred. Typically, law firms are composed of partners, who own the practice and share expenses and earnings on an agreed basis, and associates, who are salaried lawyers working for the firm and usually expecting one day to become partners themselves.
Most lawyers, particularly private practitioners, spend little time in court and handle few criminal cases. Lawyers spend most of their time in their offices, consulting with clients, doing legal research, drafting documents, and giving advice, much of which is designed to avoid a lawsuit or trial. The specific nature of the work a lawyer does depends on whether the lawyer (or the firm) has a general practice or a specialized practice.
A general practitioner is a counselor, adviser, and, at times, advocate, willing to accept employment in the broadest possible spectrum of legal problems. Of all the lawyers, it is the general practitioner who is most often called on by individuals in times of personal distress or need.
As a general practitioner, a lawyer’s work includes drafting wills, settling estates, preparing contracts and leases, arranging real estate transfers, negotiating the purchase or sale of businesses or homes, solving tax problems, and handling family matters, such as divorce, separation, adoption, and child custody. In addition to trial practice, which it occasionally involves, a general practitioner’s work also includes representing workers before compensation boards and appearing for clients before other administrative bodies.
Specialized practitioners limit themselves to one area of law, whether it be taxation, bankruptcy, criminal defense, estate work, personal injury cases, or any of the many other specialties. For example, probate lawyers specialize in planning and settling estates; tax attorneys handle cases involving income tax or estate tax issues. More often than not their clients are referred to them by other lawyers rather than by previous clients. Frequently, specialists are lawyers who used to have a general practice and found that they would rather devote their time to the development of a particular specialty.
As a general rule, lawyers who work in firms are expected to specialize in some area. One of the reasons for working with other lawyers rather than working alone is to save time and effort and to take advantage of the particular training or skill of each partner and associate. Although individual partners are usually responsible for certain clients, each problem that comes into the firm is usually resolved by the lawyer most qualified to treat it. For example, a general practice partnership of half a dozen lawyers is likely to have lawyers who concentrate on trial work, others who specialize in tax matters, and still others responsible for trust and estate work.
This same division of labor is apparent in the large firms as well. These firms, predominantly located in major cities, have the ability to offer a wide range of highly developed specialties under one roof. They attract clients with many different needs, such as bigger businesses and wealthier individuals. They consequently develop particular expertise in the areas of the law with which their clients are most concerned, including antitrust and financial matters, international transactions, the regulation of stocks and bonds, corporate tax problems, bankruptcy, and so on. There are, in addition, whole firms devoted almost entirely to one specialty, such as intellectual property law, which involves protecting patents, trademarks, and copyrights.
Besides private practice, lawyers can opt to work for the government on the federal, state, or local levels. The difference between government work and private practice is basically in the way the job is set up. In government service there is no such thing as a partnership, and government employment is always on the basis of salary. Unfortunately, the salary in government law is usually somewhat less than in private practice.
Government attorneys, however, are often given greater responsibility at an earlier stage in their careers than are private practice lawyers. Government attorneys who have been out of law school only a few years often handle trials against the most prominent and skillful private practice attorneys. Often young lawyers gain valuable experience in government and then leave to establish themselves successfully in private practice.
Almost all government attorneys are associated with a particular board, department, or bureau. A lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board, for example, is involved with labor law. An attorney in a state tax bureau is occupied with tax matters. A lawyer in a city attorney’s office is primarily involved with municipal law.
There are some areas of government practice in which more general experience is needed, such as in the civil rights sections of the various state and federal attorneys offices. A district attorney’s specialized field is the city, county, state, or country that he or she is elected to serve. You’ll find much more specialization in government law than in private practice. These specialists often find themselves in high demand if and when they do enter private practice.
Lawyers also may work solely for a corporation. Lawyers on the legal staffs of these corporations are usually referred to as corporate or house counsels. Sometimes, but not always, they assume business responsibilities as well. A business may have only one corporate attorney, usually designated as the general counsel, or it may have a large legal staff composed of the general counsel, associate general counsels, and lesser positions commonly called assistant general counsel, senior attorney, general attorney, or simply attorney. The larger the corporation, the larger its legal staff.
Because the job of a corporate attorney is to advise the corporation in legal matters that affect it, the nature of the job depends on the business in which the particular company is engaged. If the corporation is an insurance company, for example, its staff attorneys ensure that the company complies with the applicable laws and government regulations and plan the defense of litigated cases in which the company’s clients are involved. An attorney employed by an airline, railroad, or other transportation company, on the other hand, works with the various federal and state administrative boards and commissions that govern those operations. Whether a lawyer becomes a specialist or handles a more general series of problems depends on the size of the company, what kind of company it is, and the lawyer’s position within the company.
Corporate legal positions traditionally offer great salaries. This is partly because they also offer a great opportunity for the lawyer who is interested in business to enter into actual management. On the other hand, there are companies in which the staff attorney is likely to feel the pinch of bureaucracy and to experience the frustrations of work common to any large organization.
Another type of law practice involves public interest work. Since the mid-1960s, the public interest part of the legal profession has enlarged considerably, even though the overall percentage of lawyers working in the area is still small. Public interest lawyers represent individuals, groups, and interests that have been underrepresented in the past. A major employer of public interest lawyers is the Legal Services program, a federally funded organization that provides free legal help to the poor. The Legal Aid Society provides similar services, as do many state bar associations.
Groups and interests not necessarily poverty-related also are represented by public interest lawyers. A number of law firms, largely funded by private foundations, do a lot of public interest work. In addition, there are other private organizations that support large legal staffs devoted to special goals. The various civil rights groups, for example, employ a number of attorneys to defend civil rights cases in courts throughout the country. The same is true for many of the special interest groups dedicated to preservation of the environment, conservation of energy, and equal opportunity for women and minorities, among dozens of other interests and sectors.
Probably the most essential segments of the legal system, however, are the courts. After all, without courts and judges to preside over them, there would be no use for lawyers. On the federal level, the judicial system is made up of a series of courts. The Supreme Court is the highest court of the land and rules on issues related to the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court is made up of nine justices, appointed by the president with consent of the Senate, who review selected decisions made at the state level.
The Circuit Court of Appeals deals with appeals of decisions made by the district courts, and reviews judgments of lower courts.
The district courts are the third level of the federal court system, servicing approximately 100 zones, or districts, across the country.
Each state also has its own judicial system, which is separate from the federal system. Most civil and criminal cases are tried in state courts. These cases can move on to a federal court if they are related to an issue concerning the U.S. Constitution. Most cities also have municipal courts to handle minor cases.
No matter what level the court, many individuals besides the judge and the attorneys are needed to make it run smoothly. Before court is even in session, a bail bondsman plays a role. Bail bondsmen pay the bail to allow someone who has been arrested and is awaiting trial to go free for the time being. In exchange, the person who was arrested agrees to pay the bondsman a certain percentage of the bond assigned by the court.
Another pretrial legal position is the process server. Process servers are licensed by the courts to serve legal papers to the people or corporations that are involved in legal disputes.
Inside the courtroom, bailiffs are court officers that keep the peace of the court, make sure witnesses are ushered in and out of the courtroom, hand evidence directly to the witnesses, and maintain order.
Court reporters document the events in court for the official record by transcribing the words and actions of the judge, attorneys, and witnesses. Although the court reporter, bailiff, bondsman, and process server generally receive little attention from the media, they are vital to the success of our legal system.