Attorney at Law

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This article relates to the profession as practiced in the United States. For a more general discussion, see Lawyer. For discussion of powers granted to an Attorney-in-Fact, see Power of attorney.

A lawyer in the United States is technically called Attorney at Law. However, in some of the states, a lawyer is technically called Attorney and Counsellor at Law.

The American legal system has a united (or fused) legal profession, and does not draw a distinction between lawyers who plead in court and those who do not. Many other common law jurisdictions, as well as the civil law jurisdictions, have a separation, such as the solicitor and barrister/advocate split in the United Kingdom and the advocate/civil law notary split in France. There is also no delegation of routine work to notaries public.


[edit] Titles and names

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. The correct title is "Attorney-at-Law" and indicates a person who is trained, and legally permitted, to act on behalf of a client.

In earlier times, some states, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, maintained a divided legal profession as can be found in the United Kingdom consisting of attorneys (solicitors) and counsellors (barristers). In deference to this practice, when an Attorney-at-Law is admitted to practice in most states, his or her certificate of admission bears the title Attorney and Counsellor-at-Law in recognition of his inheritance of both of these roles.

In some states an Attorney at Law adds the post-nominal "Esq."

[edit] The job of an attorney

Once accepted by the bar association of a state, an American Attorney may file legal pleadings and argue cases in any court in that state (except federal courts, which usually require a separate admission), provide legal advice to clients, and draft important legal documents (such as wills, trusts, deeds, and contracts). American attorneys use the term lawyering to refer to the art of practicing law.

In some states, real estate closings may only be performed by attorneys, even though the attorney'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. "Identifying" the discrete legal and factual issues embedded within the client's larger problem;
  3. Researching systematically each issue;
  4. Deriving a solution that resolves some, if not all of the issues;
  5. Executing it through specific tasks like drafting a contract or filing a motion with a court.

Most academic legal training is directed to identifying legal issues, how to research facts and law, and how to argue both the facts and law in favor of either side in any case.

[edit] Media images

Contrary to the media image of attorneys, 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 attorney'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, attorneys 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 attorneys would agree that approximately 50 to 70% of all funds spent on legal services in the U.S. go towards discovery costs.

[edit] Specialization

Most American attorneys are highly specialized in one field or another. Often dichotomies are drawn between different types of attorneys, but these are neither fixed nor formal lines. Examples include:

  • Litigators (who sue and defend) v. transactional attorneys (who draft and advise)
  • Attorneys in private practice and small firms (who can't afford to litigate every little issue) v. big firms (who can)
  • Plaintiffs' attorneys (individual attorneys and small firms who represent individuals on contingent fee agreements) v. defendants' attorneys (big firms billing large corporations by the hour)
  • Trial attorneys (who argue the facts like Johnnie Cochran) v. appellate attorneys (who argue the law like David Boies)
  • Outside counsel (law firms) v. in-house counsel (corporate legal department)

About half of American attorneys work solo or in small firms. See law firm. There are also many midsize firms, with anywhere from 50 to 200 attorneys, and since the 1970s, some law firms have merged to form giant "megafirms" with 1,000 attorneys or more.

[edit] Control of cases

Unlike other common law jurisdictions, there is nothing to prevent an American attorney 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, an attorney 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.

[edit] Education and training

See main article at Education of Lawyers in the United States

Before taking the bar exam, nearly all American lawyers must first attend law school for at least three years.

The degree earned by prospective attorneys in the United States is generally a Juris Doctor (J.D.).

Louisiana State University in the U.S. now offers a joint J.D. (Juris Doctor) / B.C.L. (Bachelor of Civil Law) over 7 semesters (instead of its previous 6-semester program for the J.D. alone) in recognition of the increased Louisiana civil law component of the new program.

The highest law degree obtainable in the United States 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.

[edit] Law students in court

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 with subjects such as evidence. Many states allow students to argue in front of a court as a certified legal intern (CLI), provided they meet certain prerequisites, such as requiring the student to have completed at least half of their law education, taken or is taking the law school's ethics class, and they are under the supervision of a qualified and licensed attorney. This concept was somewhat misrepresented in the movie Legally Blonde, where the protagonist Elle argues before a jury. Although Elle was under the supervision of an attorney, no state would allow a student still completing the first year of law to argue a case in court.

[edit] Penalties for unlicensed work

A person who has a J.D. but is not admitted to any bar is not a lawyer, and cannot engage in the practice of law as an Attorney-at-Law.

Engaging in the kind of work customarily done by attorneys, without a valid, current license is classed as "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.

Paradoxically, some jurisdictions will allow a non-attorney to sit as a judge, usually in lower courts or in hearings by governmental agencies, even though a non-attorney may not practice before these same courts.

[edit] American attorneys' attire

Unlike their counterparts in other common law jurisdictions, American attorneys are not required to wear wigs, robes or any other items of court dress when they appear in court. They are expected to wear contemporary business Suits.

The one 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.

[edit] Alternatives to the practice of law

As a result of overcrowding in the legal profession, the desire to achieve better work/life balance, and disenchantment with the legal profession many attorneys are leaving the Bar and sometimes not even bothering to be admitted after law school as attorneys. Furthermore, an excess supply of law graduates, means that many are not entering the bar. Many pursue alternatives, using their training and qualifications.

Alternatives include:

  • Work with the government as a policy analyst or a legislative drafter (the latter is sometimes classified as a 'policy analyst' and sometimes as a 'lawyer');
  • Work for a publisher of a legal information publication;
  • Work in banking, finance, real estate, insurance;
  • Work in law enforcement.

In these fields, law degrees are useful (and sometimes mandatory, such as in the case of policy analysts and legislative drafters) qualifications for a job.

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