A lawyer, attorney at law, or attorney, is a professional who is licensed to practice law in a given area or jurisdiction. To “practice law” generally means to represent a client before a court of law, or to give legal advice.
Attorneys perform many tasks and provide many services in the course of their everyday work. Some attorneys may practice in a wide range of areas of the law; others may only specialize in a few or only one area. Attorneys can work in groups (such as in a law firm), with a partner, or by themselves in a solo practice.
While the requirements to become an attorney differs from state to state, generally, a lawyer must have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. They must also have graduated from an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree.
Lawyers who have gone to law school in a foreign country must usually obtain a Master of Laws (LL.M) before they are allowed to take a state bar examination. How to choose the right law school is a daunting prospect for a person who aspires to be a lawyer.
When a person graduates from law school, they are not automatically allowed to practice law. Every state in the U.S. requires that a law school graduate take a state bar examination. This is a long, rigorous exam that tests the graduate’s legal knowledge and their ability to apply it in specific situations. Additionally, the state bar must review the applicants background and decide that the graduate has a good moral character before he or she can be admitted to the state bar.
Once admitted to the state bar, the graduate is formally considered a licensed attorney and can practice law in that state. If they want to practice law in a different state, they will generally be required to pass the bar exam for that specific state.
Only an attorney is allowed to practice law. The practice of law includes many services, from giving legal advice to representing a client before a court of law. There are only very limited situations where a non-lawyer would be ever allowed to practice law. Non-lawyers might be allowed to give legal information in certain situations. In many states, government agencies might allow non-lawyers to act as representatives during agency hearings.
A paralegal is different from a lawyer. A paralegal is a person with some specialized legal training which allows them to provide assistance to lawyers in their daily tasks. They usually perform very specific tasks such as research and writing.
A “notary public” is also not a lawyer. A notary public helps to authenticate documents by notarizing them. Typically these documents are wills, contracts, deeds, and other items that need certification. If either a paralegal or notary public attempts to offer you their “services” as a lawyer, you should decline immediately, and report them to the state bar for the unauthorized practice of law.
The entire body of laws is comprehensive and attempts to cover every aspect of life. Laws are generally divided into different categories; attorneys usually practice in a specific “practice area” (though many attorneys may practice in many areas).
While not a comprehensive or all-inclusive list, general practice areas include:
- Family Law: This includes various family-related conflicts and issues, including divorce, child custody and visitation, spousal support, child support, paternity, and other topics;
- Employment Law: This covers various work-related disputes like hour and wage claims, wrongful termination, hostile work environments, harassment, and discrimination;
- Criminal Law: This area of law covers a whole host of violations including theft crimes, assault and battery, various homicide crimes like manslaughter and murder, and other crimes;
- Real Estate Law: Real estate laws cover transactions and disputes over property sales and transfers, landlord/tenant issues, construction, property improvements, and other aspects related to property;
- Business Law: Business lawyers may handle a wide range of subjects like contracts between businesses, business disputes, buying and selling a business, and other business activities;
- Immigration Law: This body of laws covers aspects such as visas, citizenship, removal or deportation from the country, and green cards;
- Personal Injury Law: This is a broad practice area that covers various claims like negligence claims, slip and fall cases, car accidents, malpractice, and other instances where a person suffers harm;
- Wills, Trusts, and Estates: Attorneys who practice in this area may handle various financial matters including distribution of property after a person’s death through their will, creation and management of trusts, and estate planning;
- Bankruptcy Law: This area of law deals largely with people’s debts, and covers aspects like consumer and business bankruptcy, debt collections, consumer credit, and certain tax issues;
- Government Law: Government law covers many public concerns, including schools and education, social security, governmental discrimination, various civil rights issues, and veterans benefits;
- Defective Products Law: These laws cover instances where consumers are harmed, injured, or killed by defective products. It can also cover other areas like warranties and defective services; and
- Intellectual Property Law: This involves legal concepts like trademarks, copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and other protections for non-tangible assets.
Thus, when selecting an attorney at law, you’ll usually want to first consider what area of law your dispute, conflict, or legal inquiry falls under. From there, you can locate an attorney who provides services in that particular area.
In most cases, the average citizen might not have enough legal knowledge to be able to pursue legal action on their own. It is typically necessary to hire a lawyer if you have any type of dispute or conflict that needs resolving. An attorney at law in your area can provide legal advice, guidance, and representation to help you obtain the appropriate remedy for your case.