If you don’t have a lawyer in your life — be it a parent, relative, or friend — it can be difficult to know what exactly lawyers do. Even if you’re close with a lawyer, the legal profession is diverse, and legal careers can vary widely. Yet, if you’re interested in law school, it’s important to have an idea of what exactly you’re getting into before you dedicate the time, money, and effort required to earn a J.D.
So, what does a lawyer do? It’s a simple question with a somewhat complicated answer. In short, a lawyer is a licensed professional who gives legal advice to clients. This advice can come in many forms, including making legal arguments in a courtroom, managing the legal requirements of a complex business transaction, or even writing the law. No lawyer’s day-to-day experience looks exactly the same, but almost every attorney career requires similar types of skills, such as public speaking, counseling, strategizing, problem solving, negotiating, and writing.
The National Association for Law Placement, or NALP, classifies legal careers into two main types: “Advocates,” and “Advisors.” Advocates are those lawyers who make arguments on behalf of their clients, often in front of a judge in a courtroom, in settlement negotiations, or in arbitration or administrative proceedings. By contrast, advisors are lawyers who guide their clients on business or personal matters, such as buying real estate, selling a business, or complying with federal regulations.
Legal jobs are dependent on industry, practice area, geographic region, court system, and more. For example, an intellectual property attorney arguing on behalf of her client before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a very different experience at work than a public defender advocating for an indigent client in a state criminal court. The Monday morning of an attorney advising a company making a real estate purchase for an agricultural business could be nothing like the Monday morning of the general counsel of a newly launched technology start-up in San Francisco. Each of these professionals must have a deep and sophisticated understanding of the law which governs in their jurisdiction, and must be a capable researcher, writer, and negotiator. But what and how they research, write, and negotiate will be different.
This is true for any type of career. For example, although an archaeologist and a physicist are both scientists, how they approach their disciplines will vary. A radiologist and a surgeon, although they both attended medical school and took many of the same classes, will have very different skills and professional approaches to how they practice medicine. How, then, can you know whether you want to be an archaeologist rather than a physicist, or a radiologist instead of a surgeon?
First, you research. Carefully take the time to review descriptions of different types of jobs in the career field that interests you. For law, we recommend reading through the Practice Areas guide published by Chambers Associate. Also peruse resources published by the American Bar Association and LawyerEdu.org.
Next, get to know industry professionals. Mentors, who have the same interests and have walked the professional career path before you, are the best way to truly learn what lawyers do and what the day-to-day of a particular type of legal career will look like. If you don’t have the benefit of a parent, relative, or friend who already works as an attorney, Leg Up Legal can help.
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 law students about the realities of legal careers and about the extensive options and possibilities the legal industry 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.
Finally, understand that, while it’s important to do as much research as possible before committing to law school, no one expects you to have all of the answers before you’ve even started your legal education. Your law school will have advisors, professors, and alumni who will help you further explore your interests and get involved with a legal career that will be the right fit for you.
So, get excited! While there is no one answer to the question “What does a lawyer do,” the reality is even better. The legal profession is diverse, sophisticated, creative, and full of opportunity. All that’s left to do is explore!
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.