A lawyer or attorney at law is a person licensed by the state to advise clients in legal matters and represent them in courts of law (and in other forms of dispute resolution). Most countries today require professional law advisors in their judicial systems. Lawyers have many names in different countries-including "advocate", "attorney", "barrister", "counsellor", "civil law notary" and "solicitor"-and many of these names indicate specific classes or ranks of jurists.
Law is traditionally considered to be a learned profession requiring at least three years of education beyond a bachelor's degree. The degree earned by most lawyers is a J.D. or juris doctorate.
The role of the lawyer can vary significantly across legal jurisdictions. For instance, in some countries, lawyers may be required to lead or manage criminal investigations. In the United States, lawyers have taken over functions that used to be (and in some countries, still are) performed by other professionals, such as the civil law notary or even by non-professionals.
In the United States, lawyers are called attorneys. Strictly speaking, an attorney is similar to an agent, a person who has been formally empowered by someone else (a "principal") to act on behalf of the principal. Lawyers are "attorneys at law", authorised to plead cases on behalf of their clients.
Lawyers in the U.S.
The United States Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that in 2001, there were 490,000 practicing lawyers in the U.S.
It is frequently said that there are more lawyers per capita in the US than in any other country in the world. This statistic is misleading because it is difficult to compare numbers of law professionals between different legal systems. The roles of these professionals vary and some of the work that is done in the United States by a lawyer is performed by several different types of professionals in other countries.
In order for a person to be admitted to the bar for the first time, all U.S. jurisdictions, except for the state of Wisconsin, require all applicants to take and pass a bar examination, which includes both a multi-state (national) portion and a portion designated for the laws of the particular state to which the applicant is applying, as well as a good character inquiry which is essentially a full background check. The state of Wisconsin allows students who graduate from any accredited law school within the state a "diploma privilege". This "diploma privilege" makes those students exempt from taking the bar exam and, upon a showing of acceptable grades in core areas of the law, are allowed to become members of the Wisconsin Bar Association without taking either the multi-state or essay exam as all other applicants must do. Two states do not adminster the multi-state portion- Louisiana and Washington.
A successful applicant is issued a certificate of admission issued by the state's highest court and a membership card verifying their admission. The new lawyer will also be issued a unique bar identification number, which, in some but not all jurisdictions, must appear on all documents submitted by a lawyer to enable the court to confirm that the lawyer is a member of the bar in good standing.
In addition, all but a handful of jurisdictions require that the applicant have earned a law degree from an American Bar Association-accredited law school.
The American legal system is unique in that, with two exceptions, it has no formal apprenticeship or clinical training requirements between the period of academic legal training and the bar exam, or even after the bar exam. The two exceptions are Delaware and Vermont, who require that candidates for admission serve a full-time clerkship of at least five months in the office of a lawyer previously admitted in that state before being eligible to take the oath of admission.
At this time, numerous law schools have attempted to rectify this lack of experience by requiring supervised "Public Service Requirements" of all graduates.
In most states, therefore, anyone with a J.D. (or equivalent experience in the states that allow it) may immediately take the bar exam and be admitted to the bar, and then may immediately seek out clients and start filing papers with a court. The current system has been heavily criticized, since clients often end up subsidizing the clinical training of young lawyers.
Some jurisdictions permit the admission of an applicant who is already admitted to the bar of another state. This sort of admission may or may not be dependent on whether the jurisdiction to which the applicant is already admitted offers reciprocity to other jurisdictions, i.e., whether the jurisdiction itself allows attorneys in without admission. Some states zealously pride themselves on the exclusivity of their admissions process and therefore do not offer reciprocity of any kind.
Other jurisdictions allow admission to presently-practicing lawyers upon the successful completion of a limited examination on procedure and/or ethics.
United States District Courts (Federal trial courts) condition their admissions policies on those of the state in which they are located. Generally speaking, a Federal District Court will admit an lawyer to practice provided that he or she is already admitted to practice in that state. Thus, for example, a lawyer admitted in California may automatically be admitted to the bar of a Federal court in California, but could likely not automatically gain admission to a Federal court in neighboring Oregon.
Other U.S. Federal courts, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, or the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals have open admissions policies, allowing bar admission to attorneys licensed anywhere in the country.
In turn, before taking the bar exam, nearly all American lawyers must first attend law school for at least three years.
The degree awarded by U.S.law schools to graduates is the degree of Juris Doctor or J.D. (occasionally mis-Anglicized to Juris Doctorate). In contrast, other common law legal systems still use the degree of Bachelor or Laws, or LL.B. Some universites, for instance Oxford, offer B.A degrees instead of the LL.B.
A key distinction between the U.S. and U.K. systems is that in the U.S., the J.D. degree is usually undertaken by graduates whereas in the UK, the LL.B (or the equivalent B.A.) is a primary, undergraduate, degree.
Graduate law degrees may also be obtained. A Master of Laws, or LL.M., is awarded after completion of a specialized program of study - often in esoteric subjects such as taxation or trial advocacy.
The ultimate law degree obtainable in the U.S. is the S.J.D., or Scientum Juris Doctor , literally "doctor of juridical science". This should not be confused with the "doctor of laws" degree, or LL.D., which is usually, but not always, awarded for honorary purposes. Usually, only law professors bother to earn an S.J.D., since it entails an additional three years on top of one for an LL.M and three for a J.D.
The LL.M and S.J.D. are not mandatory prerequisites for lawyers who wish to become law professors. Although such advanced degrees do help with regard to seeking employment at the most prestigious law schools, the majority of law professors hold only the J.D. degree.
All jurisdictions have a bar association, being an organization of which members of the bar in that jurisdiction may be members. Traditionally, the bar association issues a magazine or journal, forms committees to deal with issues relating to the bar such as fee disputes, rules, and the like, and promotes the greater good of the profession.
Many jurisdictions, particularly in the West, have so-called an integrated bar, meaning that the state's Bar Association is the body which licenses, regulates, and disciplines lawyers, and membership therein is mandatory.
In other jurisdictions, membership in the state Bar Association is voluntary, and the Bar Association has no official power, except those which may be conferred upon it by the state's highest court.
In some jurisdictions, there also exist county or local bar associations, which normally deal with the same issues, except on a more localized basis.
Lawyer credentials, prestige, and career path
American lawyers are very credential-oriented. Apart from the minimum requirements of a J.D. and admission to the state bar, there are certain credentials which lawyers and judges use to "size up" each other. The following credentials are always mentioned in lawyer profiles and biographies, but their subtle meaning is lost on most laypeople.
First, law schools are informally divided into "tiers" based on academic prestige. The most important are arguably, Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, NYU, Michigan, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, which supply the vast majority of law professors for all other law schools, and most U.S. Supreme Court law clerks. After those come the top 15 or 20 law schools. The giant "megafirms" actually visit all these top-tier law schools each fall to recruit new associates for the following summer. In contrast, most law firms cannot predict their labor needs that far in advance, and therefore most new law school graduates have to aggressively woo law firms during their third year or even after graduation.
Within each law school, key credentials include:
- Law review membership or editorial position (based either on grades or write-on competition or both)
- Moot court membership or award (based on oral and written argument)
- Order of the Coif membership (based on grade point average)
On the basis of these credentials, as well as three favorable faculty recommendations, some students then obtain a one or two-year clerkship with a judge after graduation. A clerkship with a federal judge is usually more prestigious than one with a state judge.
With a favorable recommendation from a judge sitting on a federal court of appeals, a brilliant young attorney may be able to garner a subsequent clerkship with the U.S. Supreme Court (although graduates of the top three schools can often go directly from law school to the Supreme Court).
Attorneys who clerk at the Supreme Court are an elite group. They have job offers from multiple law firms awaiting them upon graduation, and when they start practicing after finishing their clerkship, they receive starting bonuses equal to their first year's pay. Since starting salary at megafirms is around $125,000 per year, the implication is that such attorneys may earn $250,000 in their first year of practice. There are very few other professions where a bright 25-year-old can earn that kind of money; in contrast, most doctors do not earn that much until they are at least 32.
With Order of the Coif, law review, moot court, and a federal appellate clerkship on their resume (or at least three of the four), an attorney has many options. They may strive to make partner at a large law firm, or become a law professor at an top-tier law school and try to get tenure, or go to work for the Justice Department and try to get promoted to U.S. Attorney. Once they have reached any (or all) of those objectives, they may turn to building up their connections with a political party and hope that the President nominates them to a federal judgeship or a senior position in his administration.
Examples of judges who have followed such a career path include Richard Posner and Sandra Day O'Connor.
What American lawyers do
Unlike most other nations, the American legal system does not draw a strong line between solicitors and barristers, nor does it relegate most routine work to notaries public.
Once accepted by the bar association of a state, an American lawyer may file legal pleadings and argue cases in any court in that state (either federal or state), provide legal advice to clients, and draft important legal documents (like wills, trusts, deeds, and contracts). American lawyers use the term lawyering to refer to the art of practicing law.
In some states, real estate closings may only be performed by lawyers, even though the lawyer's role in a closing mostly involves notarization of documents and disbursement of settlement funds through an escrow account.
Practicing law can be broadly generalized as: (1) interviewing the client and identifying what is their legal matter or dispute, (2) "spotting" the discrete legal and factual issues embedded within the client's larger problem, (3) systematically researching each issue, (4) designing a solution that resolves at least some of the issues, if not all, and (5) executing it through specific tasks like drafting a contract or filing a motion with a court. Most academic legal training is directed to "issue spotting", how to research facts and law, and how to argue both the facts and law in favor of either side in any case.
Contrary to the media image of lawyers, virtually all serious legal work requires hours of in-depth research in a law library or in an electronic database like Westlaw or LexisNexis. Very few television programs and movies accurately portray the long nights surrounded by a pile of books or printouts which form the core of the average American lawyer's occupational life.
They also do not show the stressful "juggling" aspect of litigation, in that most litigators have many cases in progress at any given time. Each case has deadlines that must be carefully monitored, and court dates which one must not forget to attend; and the other side in any case can serve additional motions at any time that will further complicate things. Repeated failures to stay on top on all such details can lead to malpractice suits or disbarment.
In litigation, lawyers spend a lot of time discovering the facts of the case, in order to develop a "theory of the case" that integrates facts and law in a way most favorable to their client. Sadly, too often the discovery phase of a case turns into an unpleasant war of attrition over petty technicalities. Most lawyers would agree that approximately 50 to 70% of all funds spent on legal services in the U.S. go towards discovery costs.
Most American lawyers are highly specialized in one field or another. Often dichotomies are drawn between different types of lawyers, but these are neither fixed nor formal lines. Examples include:
- Litigators (who sue and defend) v. transactional lawyers (who draft and advise)
- Solos and small firms (who can't afford to litigate every little issue) v. big firms (who can)
- Plaintiffs' lawyers (solos and small firms who represent individuals on contingent fee agreements) v. defendants' lawyers (big firms billing large corporations by the hour)
- Trial lawyers (who argue the facts like Johnnie Cochran) v. appellate lawyers (who argue the law like David Boies)
- Outside counsel (law firms) v. in-house counsel (corporate legal department)
About half of American attorneys work as solos or in small firms. See law firm. There are also many midsize firms, with anywhere from 50 to 200 lawyers, and since the 1970s, some law firms have merged to form giant "megafirms" with 1,000 lawyers or more.
Unlike other common law jurisdictions, there is nothing to prevent an American lawyer from controlling and arguing his case at each level of the judiciary through its entire lifecycle. However, cases which advance to the appellate level, particularly to the U.S. Supreme Court, are often assigned to experienced appellate practitioners or firms. Nonetheless, in some cases, a lawyer may handle his or her case from the trial level all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A notable example of this is the Brown v. Board of Education litigation, where the same trial team handled the case from start to finish.
Who can do legal work besides lawyers
Engaging in the kind of work customarily done by lawyers, without a valid, current license to do so, is the "unauthorized practice of law", which is punishable as a crime in most jurisdictions. In some jurisdictions, the definition of the practice of law is quite strict; persons have been successfully prosecuted for publishing do-it-yourself will forms and for representing special-education children in federal proceedings as specifically allowed by federal law.
A person who has a J.D. but is not admitted to any bar is not a lawyer. However, some courts allow law students to act as "certified student attorneys" after the satisfactory completion of their first year of law school and the completion of particular second- and third-year courses such as Evidence.
Paradoxically, some jurisdictions will allow a non-lawyer to sit as a judge, usually in lower courts or in hearings by governmental agencies, even though a non-lawyer may not practice before these same courts.
American attorneys' attire
Unlike their counterparts in other common law jurisdictions, American attorneys are not required to wear wigs or any other archaic items of clothing when they appear in court. They are expected to wear contemporary business suits.
The one big exception is the United States Solicitor General, who traditionally argues before the U.S. Supreme Court in 19th-century attire, including a "morning coat" with tails.
What American lawyers are called
In the U.S., lawyers are most frequently referred to in everyday speech as "lawyers" or "attorneys". Technically speaking, an "attorney" is simply one who acts on behalf of another. An "attorney at law" is, therefore, one who is trained to, and legally permitted to, act on behalf of a client. Practically speaking, there is no difference at all between "lawyer" and "attorney" in the United States.
Some lawyers and law firms may refer to themselves on advertisements and stationery as "attorneys and counsellors at law". While there was formerly a legal distinction between the two, there is none at present. However, a judge will refer to an attorney appearing before him or her as "Counsel" or "Counsellor", if not as "Mr. ___" or "Ms. ___".
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