Different Types of Lawyers

There are many different types of lawyers (also called attorneys).  At some point in time, almost everyone will benefit from understanding what lawyers do, their educational background, and what different types of lawyers there are.  Among other purposes, the information is useful for those considering a career in law, for businesses that are hiring for their legal department, and for individuals who need legal representation or advice.

Education & Licensure Requirements of Lawyers

The primary educational requirements are the same for all lawyers in the United States.  To become a lawyer, you must attend three years of law school.  At most law schools, you have no power over what courses you take during your first year. 

Law students typically receive a set schedule of foundational courses from your school.  During your second and third years, you usually need to complete certain required courses but can also take elective courses of your choice.  Law students who know what type of lawyer they want to be should focus their electives in the subject area they plan to practice. 

Some schools offer “certificates” in certain areas.  These certificates are not required to become a certain type of lawyer but can provide useful education and credentials.  For example, a student that wants to become an environmental lawyer might want to pursue a legal education at a school that offers a certificate in environmental law.

After graduation law school, an attorney’s education is not required.  To practice law in the United States, you must pass the bar examination for the state where you will be practicing law and meet other state requirements for getting “admitted” to practice in that state.  Studying for the bar usually takes about 3 months.  In most states, you must wait another 2 – 3 months to get results.  In addition to the bar examination, prospective lawyers must also pass an ethics examination and background check to get admitted.  Lawyers can only practice law in the states where they have been admitted to practice.

Lawyer Career Outlook

The career outlook for lawyers has become less appealing in the past 10 years because there are many more law schools and lawyers than there used to be.  This floods the market and makes it harder for lawyers to obtain jobs and decreases overall salaries.  However, there are still good career prospects for industrious attorneys especially if they choose a type of law – like technology – where there is a growing need for lawyers.

Some recent attorney annual salary medians and averages:

  • Divorce attorney - $48k - $80k
  • Bankruptcy lawyer - $113k
  • Corporate lawyer - $66k - $170k
  • Civil Rights lawyer - $69k - $145k
  • Criminal lawyer - $78k
  • DUI/DWI attorney - $56k
  • Employment law lawyer - $65k - $175k
  • Estate law attorneys - $64k
  • Divorce lawyer - $48k - $80k

It is important to note that these are just averages from specific studies.  Salaries can change a lot year over year depending on the business and political environment.  Lawyer salaries are dependent on a lot of factors including experience, where the lawyer is located, the size of the business or law firm they work for and in the case of government agencies, whether they work for state, local, or federal governmental agencies. 

For example, a self-employed estate attorney’s average salary is $95k, far greater than the average of all estate attorneys.  Similarly, the starting salary of the average attorney in small-town might be around $46k with starting salary in a large city closer to $70k for the same type of work performed.

Paralegal Profession

Paralegals are not lawyers but they are another career in the legal profession.  In the United States, there is no formal education requirement for paralegals, making a career as a paralegal a smart alternative for those interested in law but who want to avoid the time and expense of law school and taking the bar examination.

Paralegals main function is to assist the lawyers that they work for.  The day-to-day responsibilities of paralegals vary greatly.  Some paralegals provide more administrative support doing things like placing court dates and deadlines on the lawyer’s calendar, writing simple letters, sending out notices, and organizing the lawyer’s files.  Other paralegals perform more substantive legal work like summarizing depositions, medical records, and other documents, drafting complicated correspondence and reports, and even doing legal research.

Although not required, colleges across the country offer degrees in paralegal studies and related subjects.  There are also a few national examinations that paralegals can take to obtain a paralegal certification.  Taking the extra step to obtain a degree and certification can help new paralegals find a job or a higher paying job. 

The pay of paralegals is less than attorneys but a good paralegal at a large law firm can earn enough money to live quite comfortably in their location. 

Types of Lawyers

There are many laws and there are lawyers who specialize in about anything you can think of – from environmental attorneys to first amendment lawyers to digital application attorneys.  The following are a few of the many different types of lawyers in the United States:

Public Interest Lawyer.  Public interest lawyers focus on helping society in some way.  They may do this by representing individual clients who cannot afford private legal representation through legal aid organizations or other non-profits.  They might also be involved in drafting and promoting legislation to reform the legal process.  Public interest lawyers work for non-profits or governmental agencies and usually have the lowest salaries of all the different types of lawyers.

Government Lawyer.  There are government lawyers for every single aspect of government.  Local, state, and federal governments all have attorneys on staff.  Within each level of government, an attorney works for an agency.  For example, on the federal level, the FBI has attorneys as does the Department of Environmental Protection.  At the local level, permitting boards usually have an attorney to assist with their operations.

Private Sector Lawyer.  Private sector lawyer refers to the broad category of lawyers that do not work for the government or non-profits but instead work for private companies and law firms.  Private sector lawyers usually make more than public sector lawyers.

Trial Lawyer.  There are different types of trial lawyers.  Usually a trial lawyer will focus on an area like corporate law or medical malpractice.  There are civil and criminal trial attorneys.  Usually attorneys decide whether they will focus on criminal law or civil law trials because while evidence rules are similar, the procedures for each type of trial are otherwise very different.

Immigration Lawyer.  There is a growing need for immigration lawyers as laws change and many individuals have trouble navigating the immigration process on their own or could face deportation.  Immigration attorneys might help people with the paperwork and process of obtaining green cards and visas.  They might also help immigrants facing deportation action defend themselves.  Some immigration attorneys focus only on a specific type of immigrants – for example, some law firms specialize in helping athletes come to the United States.

Estate Planning Lawyer.  Estate planning attorneys help their clients plan for what happens to their estate, their assets, after they become incapacitated or die. Estate planning attorneys draft legal documents like powers of attorney, trusts, wills, and deeds. 

A large part of estate planning often involves considering tax implications.  Because of this, some attorneys choose to go back to school and obtain an LLM, a post law school legal degree, focused on tax.

Personal Injury Lawyer.  This type of lawyer represents parties in personal injury disputes.  Personal injury Personal injury refers to more than just physical harm – it also encompasses mental harm that can result when an individual is injured.  Personal injury attorneys may help the injured individual recover for their damages by suing one or more persons or entities.  Personal injury attorneys are also needed to defend the people and entities that are sued after an incident causing personal injury occurs.  The types of legal actions personal injury attorneys work on include medical malpractice, product liability, civil battery, and defamation to name just a few.

Toxic Tort Lawyer.  Toxic tort lawyers are a special type of personal injury lawyer.  They work with people that have been exposed to toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and even toxic water and air.  Asbestos lawsuits are the toxic tort that people are most familiar with and that encompass the majority of toxic tort lawsuits. These types of lawsuits are often complicated so toxic tort lawyers usually do a lot of continuing education focused on keeping up to date and learning more about toxic torts.

Civil Rights Lawyer.  Civil rights attorneys use the law to help people protect their civil rights or recover damages if their civil rights have been trampled on.  Civil rights are the core rights of United States citizens that stem from state and federal constitutions. 

There are different types of civil rights attorneys based on what civil rights they focus on helping their clients protect.  For example, some civil rights lawyers focus on helping individuals that have been discriminated against for an unlawful reason at work while others focus on helping people that have been subjected to wrongdoing, like excessive force, by law enforcement.

Criminal Law Lawyer.  There are two types of criminal law attorneys, prosecutors and defense attorneys.  Prosecutors represent the state they work for and bring criminal charges against individuals accused of committing a crime.  Defense attorneys represent the people accused on committing a crime.  Private defense attorneys are paid by the accused individual to defend them against the criminal charges.  Public defenders are defense attorneys that work for the government who represent those who cannot afford to hire private counsel.

Criminal law attorneys work in a fast-paced environment and are often in court.  They frequently interact with judges and attorneys on the other side and often have to negotiate deals with the other side.  Prosecutors and public defenders are usually paid a low salary while private criminal defense attorneys have big earning capacity because they are usually paid hourly for their work by their client.

Entertainment Lawyer.  Entertainment lawyers represent clients in the entertainment industry.  Their clients could be individuals, like singers, or companies, like record agencies.  Their work involves a lot of business deals.  Most entertainment lawyers negotiate and draft a lot of contracts and deal with intellectual property issues, like trademarks and copyrights, frequently.  

Real Estate Lawyer.  After the great recession, many real estate lawyers found themselves unable to find work. There has been a resurgence in the need for real estate attorneys since the economy has recovered.  Real estate lawyers have a variety of options for their practice they can help close real estate deals, represent parties when real estate deals fall through and lawsuits are filed, and can represent clients in the process of obtaining required permits for their real estate deals.  Some states even require that a real estate attorney be present at real estate closings which creates a good market for attorneys in this area.

Digital Media and Internet Lawyers.  This type of lawyer deals more than just internet law – they deal with all sorts of legal issues that arise out of the use of digital platforms like mobile phones, tablets, and computers as well as the internet.  Issues range from ensuring a website complies with the law to dealing with privacy complaints to advising companies about how they can and cannot use tracking tools in their apps and on their websites.

Legal Malpractice Lawyers. Lawyers also need lawyers.  Legal malpractice lawyers work on cases where an attorney is accused of doing something wrong when representing a client and is sued for damages for the alleged wrongdoing.  Some legal malpractice attorneys represent the clients that are bringing the suit while others help the accused attorneys defend themselves and avoid having to pay a judgment.

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