Basics of the Legal Profession

What is a lawyer? 

We all know that lawyers are a type of legal professional, but so are paralegals, judges, and legislators. What, then, is a lawyer

A lawyer, more precisely known as an attorney, is a professional who is licensed under either state or federal law to give clients legal advice and represent them in legal matters. According to the American Bar Association (the official organization which regulates the legal profession), lawyers have two main duties: first, to uphold the law, and second, to protect the rights of their clients. 

This definition may seem broad, but it is important! Lawyers must be licensed in order to give legal advice, even outside of the courtroom or the boardroom, and bar associations take this rule very seriously. For a person who is not a licensed attorney to give legal advice to a paying client is known as the unauthorized practice of law. In many jurisdictions, the unauthorized practice of law is a crime.

How do you become a licensed attorney?

Typically, to become a licensed attorney, you must go through a specialized post-graduate education at an ABA accredited law school. If you complete law school, you will be awarded a Juris Doctor degree, or J.D. 

After law school you must sit for the bar exam in the state in which you want to practice law. The bar examination is generally two or three days long, and will test your knowledge of numerous areas of law. Often, you will not learn the information tested in the bar exam while you’re at law school – instead, between your law school graduation in May, and the bar exam (typically held in July or February), you will spend most of your days studying the information which will be tested on the bar exam. 

Around the time you sit for the bar exam, you will also be subjected to a “character and fitness” review. This is similar to a background check, and you will be required to provide references that will vouch for certain character traits, such as your honesty and your attitude toward rule-breaking. 

In addition, before you are licensed, you will also be required to pass an ethics and professional responsibility test.  

After earning a J.D., passing the bar exam, passing the ethics and professional responsibility test, and passing the character and fitness evaluation conducted by the state, you can (finally) be sworn in as an attorney! 

But, unfortunately, you are only a licensed attorney in one state. To become an attorney in other states, you will most likely have to go through the bar examination process again. The only way you will generally be able to work on a legal case in a state in which you are not licensed is to appear “pro hoc vice,” or “for one particular occasion.” 

If the process of becoming a lawyer seems like a lot of work, that’s because it is! What types of jobs do lawyers work, then, that requires so much training?

What does a lawyer do? 

Lawyers work a wide range of jobs! For lawyers practicing law, there are several different types of work that they do. 


Litigation may be the first thing you think of when you think “lawyers” or “legal representation.” Litigation involves representing clients in legal trials in a courtroom and in front of a judge. When you think of a “lawsuit,” you may be thinking of civil litigation (one person against another person.) Criminal cases are also a type of litigation, and involve the government bringing charges against individuals.

Transactional Law

One area of legal practice you may be less familiar with is transactional law. A transactional attorney helps both individuals and organizations work on complex business deals. Transactional law often involves writing and reading contracts—sometimes extremely complex contracts. A transactional attorney can help with relatively simple legal matters, such as incorporating a small business in the state it wants to do business in, or extremely complex legal matters like multi-million-dollar acquisitions or bankruptcies. The transactional lawyer may never see the inside of the courtroom as part of their job. 

Regulatory Law

Another common legal job is regulatory work. A regulatory agency is a rulemaking body given power by the legislature and executive branches of government. Regulations are a type of law, but are often more detailed and complex than general legislation. Because regulatory rules are often very complicated, lawyers also help organizations comply with the regulations in order to stay on the right side of the law. There are many regulatory agencies you’ve likely heard of, such as the FDA or the EPA.

Other Types of Legal Employment

There are many more types of attorney jobs. We’ve only gone over the very basics here—and there are huge areas of the law, such as arbitration and mediation, policy analysis, and non-profit law, that we didn’t have the chance to talk about. 

But some lawyers choose to work in jobs that don’t necessarily require a J.D. or state licensure. Attorneys are often in high demand in areas such as journalism, education, and politics. Getting your J.D. doesn’t limit you to being a lawyer. But being a lawyer does require that you have a J.D.

How to learn about legal careers

As you’re deciding whether or not a legal career is right for you, it’s important to take the time to learn about the different types of laws, and what exactly different types of lawyers do. Law school is a huge investment of time, money, and emotional resources, and it’s important that you know what you’re getting into before you make a decision on law school. 

So take the time to educate yourself on different legal jobs! Peruse resources such as the American Bar AssociationChambers Associates, and And most importantly, talk to lawyers!

Leg Up Legal is an online platform that helps connect prospective law students to real lawyers in the community, to build mentoring relationships that effectively teach pre-law students about the realities of legal careers, and about the extensive options and possibilities the legal field has to offer. Mentorship gives students, including first generation college and law students, the inside information and “leg up” they need to succeed in law school and as legal professionals. Check out Leg Up Legal to learn more about how mentorship can help you discover everything you need to know about legal career paths, and more. 


About the Author: 

Laura Pasekoff is the Content Development Specialist at Leg Up Legal. Laura has worked as a corporate attorney, paralegal and legal assistant, and writing teacher. After graduating from the University of New Mexico with a writing degree, Laura attended law school at Duke University, obtaining a J.D., and an LL.M. in International and Comparative Law. In 2019, Laura joined the Leg Up Legal team with the hopes of helping prospective law students discover and pursue meaningful legal careers. 




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