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Law Careers: Overview

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In the United States today there are more than one million practicing attorneys. More than half of them are involved in the private practice of law, from individual practitioners to large firms. Others are involved in public interest, government, judicial clerkships, business/industry and academia. Law is a scholarly career field that requires constant intellectual engagement and highly skilled practitioners.

FAQ: What is the Role of a Lawyer?

The role of a lawyer is to serve as an advocate for their client within the realm of the law. The daily work of a lawyer may include legal research, client meetings, preparation of legal correspondence. The bulk of a lawyer’s work involves research and writing; being adept at both is critical to this job.  In addition, there is a substantial amount of reading and digestion of information involved with the role. In order to practice law in the U.S., (for those individuals who attend law school in the U.S.) a J.D. degree is required as well as passing the Bar examination in the state in which an individual plans to practice.

FAQ: What are the Valued Skills of Lawyers?

According to the Law School Admission Council, the valued skills lawyers should possess are:

  • Reading and Listening-Lawyers must be able to take in a great deal of information, often on topics about which they are unfamiliar.
  • Analyzing-Lawyers must be able to determine the fundamental elements of problems. They spend much time discerning the nature and significance of the many issues in a particular problem.
  • Synthesizing- Lawyers must have the ability to organize large amounts of material in a meaningful, focused, and cogent manner.
  • Advocating- As an advocate, the lawyer's role is to represent his or her client's particular point of view and interests as vigorously as possible.
  • Counseling- Lawyers also spend a good deal of their time giving clients legal advice.
  • Writing and Speaking- Whether in the courtroom or the law office, lawyers must be effective communicators. If lawyers could not translate thoughts and opinions into clear and precise English, it would be difficult for the law to serve society.
  • Negotiating- One of a lawyer's primary roles is reconciling divergent interests and opinions. When the parties to a proposed transaction disagree, the lawyer, acting as a facilitator, may be able to help them negotiate to a common ground.

FAQ: Categories of Practice - Litigation and Transactional

  •  A litigator‘s work is to settle a dispute which may be civil or criminal. A civil litigation case is a private lawsuit between two parties. A complaint is initiated by the plaintiff against the defendant. A criminal case is filed by the government which can be local, state, or federal. There is a prosecuting attorney serving as the representative of the government that is pressing charges against those suspected of committing crimes.  The criminal litigator is the advocate for the accused party.In addition, there may also be civil charges brought on in a criminal case. The lawyer manages all phases of the trial process which includes: investigation, pleadings and discovery to pre-trial, trial, settlement and appeal. The work may involve researching legal questions, drafting swaying arguments, preparing for and taking deposition, organizing for trial and negotiating settlements. A litigator may have more of an opportunity to present their case in the courtroom than a transactional lawyer; however, this is not always the case. It is shown that over 90% of cases are settled outside the courtroom.
  • Transactional practice involves researching, coordinating and reviewing documents that may join individuals and companies such as a contract for a corporate merger, establishing a business or the closing documents needed to purchase a condominium. Contrary to the litigator, the transactional lawyer does not venture into a courtroom; they serve as an adviser. Having an adept transactional lawyer managing all aspects of a business transaction may prevent an individual from having to hire a litigator in the future.


FAQ: What are the Different Types of Practices?

Private Practice

Includes all positions with a law firm, including solo practitioner, associate, law clerk, paralegal and administrative or support staff.  The work of a firm may include: Appellate Law, Bankruptcy Law, Civil Rights Law, Criminal Law, Family Law, Environmental Law, Labor and Employment, Intellectual Property Law, Products Liability, Securities Law, Tax Law, to name just a few.

Public Interest

Includes positions funded by legal services, pro-bono work and other civil, legal and indigent services, as well as positions with non-profit advocacy or cause-related organizations. The cases and causes are significant to the general public. Lawyer services in this sector may include working with disadvantaged populations, or public policy that may affect the population at large. Direct client work may include child advocacy, community development, education, public housing, government benefits, and immigration issues. Lawyers working in private firms may also have the opportunity to engage in public interest work through pro-bono projects which is coordinated through their employer or through professional associations.

  • Government includes all levels and branches of government. This encompasses public defender and prosecutor positions. Also included are positions with the military and all other agencies such as district attorney offices,  small business administration, state or local transit authorities, congressional committees, law enforcement and divisions of social service. Other legal roles within the government include:
  • Regulatory- Lawyers are forming and enforcing new rules such within regulatory agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
  • Advisory- Lawyers are employed in advising roles within government agencies such as the U.S. Patent Office or the Food and Drug Administration. There is also an Office of the Legal Advisor which provides advice on all legal issues, domestic and international to other federal offices and agencies.
  • Public Policy- The majority of federal agencies participate in policy work, working to impact the public decision-making, at a variety of levels. The Department of State, Department of Commerce,  Department of Health and Human Services are just several of the agencies that engage in public policy work

Judicial Clerkships

One or two year appointments clerking for a judge on the federal, state or local level .In some cases at the state and local level, clerkship may be more permanent positions.  Judicial clerkships are prized opportunities and are quite prestigious and competitive They are exposed to a wide range of legal issues with the opportunity to make direct contributions in the judicial decision-making process and are therefore sought after by firms.  

Business & Industry

Includes positions in companies and organizations such as accounting firms, insurance companies, banking/ finance institutions, Fortune 500 corporations. Also included in this list are other organizations such as private hospitals, retail establishments, consulting and public realty firms, political campaigns, trade associations and labor unions, to name a few. Lawyers within this environment are referred to as ‘in house’ counsel. The business or organization is the primary employer and the work is done on behalf of this employer.  Typically these positions are available to attorneys with 3-5 years of prior experience in a private or public setting.


Includes work as a law professor, law librarian, administrator or faculty member in higher education or other academic settings. Within an academic setting there are positions directly related to legal work such as teaching law or being part of a university’s legal staff within a Risk Management department or General Counsel Office. Additionally, administrative positions may include admissions work, career services, financial aid, and student affairs/services, as well as serving as a dean or other university leadership position.

FAQ: How To Get Started

Although there is no pre-law major at Yale or required pre-law degree, prospective law school students should develop skills such as writing, oral communication, reading, listening, researching, analytical, problem- solving and critical reasoning. Select courses, major, internships, and extracurricular activities according to personal interests and strengths. This will help to prepare you effectively for a legal education or engage in other services that call for the use of law-related skills; and be mindful to seek educational, extra-curricular and life experiences that will assist you in developing those attributes.