Lawyers typically work in one of five sectors: for law firms, corporations and other businesses, government agencies, public-interest organizations/nonprofits, or in education. Approximately 20 percent of lawyers own their own firms, which provide legal services to individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. Many lawyers work in more than one sector during their careers.
A law firm is a business that exists to provide legal services to clients. Lawyers and other legal professionals work for firms that range in size from two attorneys to as many as several thousand. The majority of law firms in the United States are small; in fact, 95 percent of firms have 20 or fewer attorneys working in them. (A law firm that consists of only one lawyer is called a solo practice.) Law firms are composed of partners and associates. Partners are owners of the practice and share its expenses and earnings. Associates are salaried lawyers working for the firm who usually expect one day to become partners themselves. In recent years, the number of non-partner-track positions has increased. A lawyer working under this type of arrangement receives a set salary, and it is made clear that he or she will not be selected as a partner.
As a general rule, lawyers who work in firms are expected to specialize in some area. One of the ways firms benefit from lawyers working together rather than alone is that they can save time and effort while taking advantage of the particular training or skill of each partner and associate. Although individual partners are usually responsible for handling certain clients, each matter that comes into the firm is usually assigned to the lawyer most qualified to address it. For example, a general-practice partnership of 10 lawyers is likely to have a practice group of lawyers who concentrate on tax work, others who specialize in trial matters, and still others who are responsible for trust and estate work. One partner leads (or several partners lead) each group, communicating with clients and assigning work to the associates and paralegals who belong to the group. When an associate or paralegal enters a firm, he or she is assigned to a particular practice group and works mostly with members of that group.
Large firms have the same division of labor. These firms, most of which are located in major cities, have the ability to offer a wide range of highly developed specialties under one roof. They attract clients that have many different needs, such as bigger businesses and wealthier individuals. These firms consequently develop particular expertise in the areas of the law with which their clients are most concerned, including international transactions, bankruptcy, antitrust and financial matters, the regulation of stocks and bonds, corporate tax problems, and so on. There are, in addition, whole firms (sometimes called boutique firms) devoted almost entirely to one specialty, such as environmental law, bankruptcy law, or intellectual property law.
A growing number of lawyers and other legal professionals are working for large accounting firms that provide low-level legal-related services (e-discovery, document review) to corporations, nonprofits, or government agencies; secondment firms that provide legal staffing services to the aforementioned organizations; and law and business advice companies that provide expertise that is similar to that which has been traditionally provided by management consulting firms. Many of these firms are located in the United States, but others are located in foreign countries.
Lawyers, paralegals, and other legal professionals also work for public or private companies. Lawyers on the legal staffs of these corporations are usually referred to as corporate or house counsel. It’s become increasingly common for these individuals to 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 made up of the general counsel, associate general counsel, and lesser positions commonly called assistant general counsel, senior attorney, general attorney, or, simply, attorney; generally, the larger the corporation, the larger its legal staff.
Large companies—especially Fortune 500 firms—typically have their own legal departments, which provide guidance on mergers and acquisitions, regulatory issues, business development, intellectual property, and a variety of other legal issues. Many small- and medium-sized businesses have one or more lawyers on staff. Others contract legal services to law firms or solo practitioners.
Government attorneys work at the local, state, and federal level. 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 employees always receive a set salary. Unfortunately, the salary in government law is usually lower than it is in private practice. Government attorneys, however, are often given more responsibility at an earlier stage in their careers than private-practice lawyers. A government job is a great starting point for young lawyers, who gain valuable experience that will help them should they eventually decide to enter private practice.
Almost all government lawyers are associated with a particular board, department, or bureau. An attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, for example, is involved with labor law. A lawyer in a state tax bureau focuses on tax matters. A lawyer in a city attorney’s office is primarily involved with municipal law. Major federal employers of lawyers include the Social Security Administration and the Departments of Treasury, Veterans Affairs, Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, Labor, and State.
Lawyers and judges also work in the judicial system at the federal, state, and local levels. 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 Circuit Court of Appeals considers appeals of decisions made by the district courts, and it 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 eventually be heard in 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.
Public-interest law continues to grow in popularity as a practice area, although 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 Corporation, a federally funded organization that provides free legal help to the poor. Legal aid societies provide similar services, as do many state and local bar associations.
Legal professionals also work for nonprofit organizations that focus on public-interest issues such as the environment, civil rights, conservation of energy, and equal opportunity for women and minorities, among dozens of other interests and sectors.
Lawyers who pursue advanced education can work as law professors at one of more than 200 law schools in the United States. They can also work at colleges and universities that offer law-related baccalaureate degrees, or as high school teachers.