What Does an Attorney Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

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Image by Julie Bang © The Balance 2019

An attorney, also called a lawyer, advises clients and represents them and their legal rights in both criminal and civil cases. This can begin with imparting advice, then proceed with preparing documents and pleadings and sometimes, ultimately, appearing in court to advocate on behalf of clients.

There were 792,500 attorneys employed in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Attorney Duties & Responsibilities

Attorneys' responsibilities can cover a wide range of duties, and they might vary somewhat depending upon the area of law in which they practice. Some common duties include:

  • Advise clients regarding ongoing litigation or to explain legal issues they might be facing or have concerns about.
  • Research the details and evidence involved in cases, such as police reports, accident reports, or pleadings previously filed in a case, as well as applicable law.
  • Interpret case law and decisions handed down by other applicable courts. This can involve analyzing the effects of a good many factors that might have been involved in other cases.
  • Develop case strategies, such as trying to resolve cases early and cost-effectively for his clients rather than go to trial.
  • Prepare pleadings and other documents, such as contracts, deeds, and wills.
  • Appear in court before a judge or jury to orally defend a client's rights and best interests.

Attorneys can be general practitioners, or they might specialize in any one of a number of areas, such as criminal law, real estate, corporate issues, estate and probate matters, intellectual property, matrimonial and family law, or environmental law.

Attorney Salary

Salary can depend upon whether an attorney is a solo practitioner or works for a firm. Self-employed attorneys tend to earn less.

  • Median Annual Salary: $120,910
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $208,000
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $58,220

While many attorneys bill their time to clients at hundreds of dollars per hour, this is not necessarily the salary they're earning. Those in private practice have expenses like office upkeep and support staff, and those who work for firms and corporations might receive only a portion of what they bill hourly to the firm's clients.

Education, Training & Certification

This career typically requires seven years of full-time study, then continuing education.

  • Education: After earning a bachelor's degree, an aspiring attorney must earn a juris doctor (JD) degree from a school of law. The law school must generally be accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) to meet attorney licensing requirements in most states.
  • Testing: Admission to the vast majority of law schools requires first passing the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which measures the candidate's affinity for studying law.
  • Apprenticeships and Volunteer Work: Law students might also get practical experience while they're still in school, including volunteering in community legal clinics, participating in competitions or practice trials, and working in summer or part-time jobs in law firms. Some also write for their school's law journal.
  • Admittance to the Bar: Attorneys must be admitted to the bar association of the state in which they want to practice. This requires "passing the bar," a written examination that includes taking a written ethics exam as well in some states.
  • Continuing Education: This isn't a graduate-and-pass-the-bar-and-you're-done profession. Many bar associations require that members must take continuing legal education courses yearly or sometimes every three years to maintain their memberships.

Most state bar associations will not accept applicants who have felony convictions on their records or a history of substance or alcohol abuse. Academic misconduct can also disqualify a candidate.

Attorney Skills & Competencies

In addition to the educational and licensing requirement, an attorney needs certain soft skills to excel in this field:

  • Communication skills: An attorney must be able to communicate well both in writing and orally. They must also be excellent listeners.
  • Nerves of steel: An attorney must remain unflappable when things go wrong in court in front of a critical audience—and they sometimes will.
  • Critical thinking skills: An attorney must have strong problem solving and critical thinking skills in order to identify problems and come up with solutions, then choose and implement the best one.
  • Research skills: Much about this profession requires being able to isolate and identify pertinent information.
  • Interpersonal skills: These skills can be even more important in delicate areas of specialty, such as family law, in order to establish a supportive relationship with clients at times when they might not be at their best.

Job Outlook

Attorneys often begin their careers as associates of a law firm. After spending several years working with more seasoned attorneys, they might work their way up to become partners in the firm. Some experienced lawyers become judges, while others join law school faculties.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that job growth for attorneys will be about 8 percent, which is as fast as the average for all occupations from 2016 through 2026.

Work Environment

Most attorneys work in private or corporate practices, but local or state governments or for the federal government employ others. Some serve as in-house counsel for corporations, which means they're actually employed by the companies they represent. Almost a quarter of all attorneys are self-employed. In all cases, however, the majority of their work is spent in offices.

An attorney must sometimes travel to meet with clients and, depending on his specialty, appear in court for trials, conferences, and mediation. Criminal lawyers spend a portion of their time in prisons when their clients are incarcerated. This is less common in some fields, however, such as estate law. Some specialties involve much more in the way of client/attorney interaction and meetings.

This can be a very high-pressure career, with clients' lives and livelihoods hanging in the balance.

Work Schedule

An attorney's work involves continuously having to meet deadlines. This can result in a lot of overtime, particularly for solo practitioners who may not have associates to rely upon.

The majority of lawyers work full time, and many work more than 40-hour weeks, particularly those employed by large law firms or who work in private practice.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Some similar jobs can be held during law school, while others may result from spending many years working as an attorney: