A lawyer, also referred to as an attorney at law or an attorney, is a profession who is licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction or area. The term practicing law, in general, means to represent a client before a court of law or to give legal advice.

An attorney performs many tasks and will provide many services in the course of their everyday legal work. There are some attorneys who will practice in numerous different areas of law and there are others who may only specialize in a few areas or even one specific area.

An attorney may work:

  • In a group of attorneys, referred to as a law firm;
  • With a partner; or
  • By themselves in a solo practice.

What are Attorneys Allowed to Do?

Attorneys are the only individuals who are permitted to practice law. The practice of law may include numerous services, such as providing legal advice or representing a client in a court of law.

There are very few specific situations in which a non-lawyer will be permitted to practice law. A non-lawyer may be permitted to provide legal information in certain specific situations.

In many states, there are government agencies which may allow a non-lawyer to act as a representative during an agency hearing.

What is the Difference Between an Attorney, a Paralegal, and a Notary Public?

Attorneys are different from paralegals and notary publics. A paralegal is a professional with some specialized legal training which allows them to provide assistance of an attorney with their daily tasks. Paralegals typically perform very specific tasks, including research and writing.

A notary public assists with the authentication of documents by notarizing them. Usually, these documents include:

  • Wills;
  • Contracts;
  • Deeds; and
  • Other items which require certification.

If either a notary public or a paralegal attempts to offer an individual their services as an attorney, an individual should decline immediately and report the individual to the state bar for unauthorized practice of law.

How Do I Get a Law License?

Because an attorney assists the general public with sensitive and complex legal issues, the practice of law is heavily regulated. The practice of law is regulated by each state pursuant to the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides that state regulation of matters which are not specifically prohibited to them or are reserved for the federal government.

Every state has a governing body, called a state bar, that regulates the practice of law in the state. Attorneys are required to be licensed to practice law.

A licensed attorney may practice federal law as well as the law of the state in which they are licensed. It is important to note that admission to a federal court district is not automatic.

An attorney is not permitted to practice the law of another state unless the attorney is also licensed to practice that state’s law. Certain states, typically neighboring states or jurisdictions, have reciprocal agreements with other states which allow an attorney to practice in both states.

Every state bar sets its own licensing requirements. The majority of states regulate the bar examination and require candidates to:

  • Pass a state bar exam;
  • Pass an ethics exam; and
  • Undergo a comprehensive background check.

A state bar can also:

  • Regulate continuing education for attorneys;
  • Handle discipline for attorneys;
  • Maintain a directory of attorneys;
  • Publish attorney disciplinary actions; and
  • Publish a bar journal.

There are some states that have a mandatory bar association, which requires attorneys to belong and pay dues. Some states, however, do not but still regulate the issues noted above.

What is the First Step: Getting a Legal Education?

Prior to a prospective attorney being permitted to take the bar exam, they typically must graduate with a bachelor’s degree from an undergraduate institution. Then, the prospective lawyer must prepare for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which primarily tests logic and reasoning skills.

That LSAT score will be considered when the individual applies for law school, in addition to the rest of their educational and other achievements. The individual then will typically be required to graduate from an accredited law school which is accredited by the American Bar Association.

Law school is usually a three year program which teaches the future attorney:

  • Critical thinking;
  • Legal advocacy;
  • Persuasive writing;
  • Oral argument; and
  • Ethical responsibilities.

Some law schools have part-time programs which may extend the education period by a year or two. When a student graduates from law school, they will receive a degree called a juris doctorate.

There are some states that do not require a law school degree in order to sit for the bar exam. In these states, a certain amount of study under another attorney or the supervision of a judge is typically required.

Graduation from an accredited law school or completing the state’s legal education requirements enables an attorney candidate to take the state bar exam. Every state has its own bar exam, which usually consists of a test covering the laws of the state as well as a multistate test on points of law which are common in all jurisdictions.

The majority of states also require a separate civics examination called the multistate Professional Responsibility Exam. If a student does not graduate from an accredited law school, they may be required to satisfy some additional requirements prior to being permitted to take the bar exam.

What is the Second Step: Taking the Bar Exam?

The bar exam is a rigorous and challenging 2 to 3 day written test which is given twice a year. In the majority of jurisdictions, the test is comprised of:

  • Multiple choice questions for the multistate exam portion; and
  • A state law portion which consists of:
    • A combination of essays;
    • Multiple choice and short answer questions; and
    • Legal skills assessment.

A candidate who does not perform to a certain standard will be required to retake the test in full. Depending upon the state, an average of 15 to 60 percent of test takers do not pass the exam. A successful bar candidate usually devotes 2 to 3 months to prepare for the exam.

There are some states which have adopted a Uniform Bar Examination model for their state bar exam. This model consists of:

  • The multiple choice multistate Bar Examination;
  • The multistate Essay Examination; and
  • The multistate Performance Test.

What is the Third Step: Passing Your Ethics Exam and Background Check?

In addition to passing the bar exam, a prospective attorney is required to pass a multiple choice ethics exam as well as complete a comprehensive background check, which assesses the candidate’s character as well as their fitness to practice law. This process often requires other legal professionals or individuals who can vouch for the character of the candidate.

In other words, a prospective attorney will be required to pass a background check for a criminal record as well as have individuals who are willing to speak on their behalf.

Is it Necessary to Continue Your Legal Education?

Because the laws are constantly evolving, a license to practice law is only the beginning. In order to ensure that an attorney maintains their skills and stays abreast of developments in the law, attorneys are required to complete continuing legal education courses each year in order to maintain their license.

What is Attorney Discipline?

Once an attorney is admitted to the bar, they are required to follow strict rules of professional conduct. If an attorney violates one of the rules or commits malpractice, they may have their law license revoked or suspended and have their licensure status published.

How To Find Qualified Attorneys?

It can be overwhelming to try and find an attorney when you have a sensitive legal issue. There are several methods you can use, including calling around to attorneys in your area or asking friends and family.

This process, however, may be time-consuming or even impractical when you are dealing with a pressing legal issue. An attorney matching service, such as LegalMatch, can be very helpful and efficient when seeking an attorney.