Lawyer  What They Do

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Lawyers Career Video

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dotLawyers, also called attorneys, are experts in persuasion and law. While they perform a variety of functions, their common goal is to use their knowledge of the law to help clients get what they want and, in a way, to reduce friction.

Law is sometimes called the skeleton of society. It is the underlying, hidden structure to the interactions between people. Lawyers help guide those interactions and settle disputes.

Some lawyers work for the government as prosecutors. They prosecute people charged with crimes on behalf of society. Other lawyers work in private practice. They may specialize in different areas, like criminal or family law.

dot Lawyers tend to work long hours, especially at big city firms. "It's a client-based industry, so when the clients are there and they need you, you have to be there," says Deanna Morash. She's a lawyer as well as director of career services at a law school.

dotTwo of the most important qualities a future lawyer can have are a solid work ethic and attention to detail, says Morash. "In addition to that, strong reading, writing and analytical skills are also key to success," she says.

Large firms tend to focus on a variety of areas, including complicated commercial and corporate law. Smaller specialty firms (also called boutique firms) will often focus on just one or two areas, such as family law or intellectual property.

Law firms charge on an hourly basis or on a percentage (contingency) basis. That means that the lawyers get a cut of the settlement or lawsuit once it's all over.

dotLawyers work in many places other than just law firms. One big employer of lawyers is government.

"All levels of government have a need for actual practicing lawyers in their area," says Morash. "They also want people who weren't necessarily even called to the bar... but people with law degrees and the skill set that that offers."

Being called to the bar is what happens after a law student has finished their law degree. When you're called to the bar, you're admitted to a state law society. You're then qualified to call yourself a lawyer and provide legal advice.

Consulting is another career option that's often overlooked. Lawyers provide consulting services in the areas of legal issues (of course!), management, human resources, and business in general. They can also work as in-house legal counsel for a corporation.

"One of the benefits or upsides of a legal degree is that it provides really good skills that tend to be transferable to a lot of other areas, so it's a good foundation," says Morash.

For those interested in humanitarian causes, there are international positions with non-governmental associations such as the Red Cross and Lawyers Without Borders. Academia is another option, although a master's degree or PhD in law is generally required.

Those who want to help people with low incomes can work for a legal aid office. Jeremy White is the managing attorney at a legal aid office in Virginia. "[Lawyers] come here because they kind of want to get their hands dirty, so to speak, and want client contact," says White. "They want to... feel like they're doing some good.

"It's very tangible, it's real basic needs -- your housing, your health care, your job," says White. "Even though the case may not be a million dollar case, the effect on that family is just like a million dollar case would be to a corporation."

You might think that legal aid work would be an especially difficult area in which to work. But White says that isn't necessarily true.

"I don't know if it's any more stressful or draining than any other area of the law," he says. "You've got to have a personality that digs in and can endure for the long haul, and I think that's probably true across the legal profession."

Just the Facts

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At a Glance

Use your knowledge of the law to help clients get what they want

  • You can work for private companies, the government or nonprofit groups
  • The hours can be long
  • A law degree is a must