Attorney Job Description: What You'll Do

Attorneys come from many backgrounds and often hold undergraduate degrees in history, economics, political science, and other liberal arts fields. While law schools do not typically require a law-related undergraduate degree for admission, students planning to pursue an legal career should consider earning their bachelor's in criminal justice or legal studies.

Criminal justice programs teach students about the judicial system as a whole, covering various law enforcement careers, criminal justice history, constitutional law, and other key areas. This guide describes typical attorney job duties, along with salary expectations and education requirements for lawyers.

What Does an Attorney Do?

Attorneys are trained and licensed professionals who are authorized to give legal advice and to represent clients in legal proceedings. Lawyers work to secure the best outcome for their clients, using their extensive knowledge of legal theories and precedents along with state, local, and federal law. Lawyers play an essential role not only in criminal and civil law but also in business, government, and other spheres of society.

The responsibilities of an attorney depend heavily on their specialization. For example, defense attorneys and public defenders represent people accused of wrongdoing. They advocate for clients in court and attempt to reach settlements outside of court.

Prosecutors and district attorneys, on the other hand, represent their state, locality, or federal government and bring cases against individuals charged with crimes. Family and divorce attorneys help couples divide assets and negotiate custody of children, while real estate lawyers assist with property transactions. Corporate lawyers negotiate business deals, draft contracts, and ensure their clients comply with regulations.

Lawyers play an essential role not only in criminal and civil law but also in business, government, and other spheres of society.

Some attorney jobs involve spending time in courthouses and detention centers. Other attorneys work primarily in law offices. Corporate lawyers may work for a law firm or may serve as a company's in-house counsel.

Since there are so many different types of attorneys, daily tasks vary considerably. Attorney job descriptions depend on the professional's particular line of work, but most attorneys do have some similar responsibilities.

In general, attorneys spend a lot of time conducting research, analyzing legal theories, and familiarizing themselves with other cases. They also dedicate considerable time to producing and submitting legal documents, including appeals, wills, contracts, deeds, and lawsuits. Lawyers communicate daily with clients, judges, and other involved parties.

Trial attorneys choose jurors, consult with judges, argue in court, and talk to witnesses. They also meet with clients privately to discuss legal options and review case materials. Corporate lawyers advise executives on legal matters related to contracts, labor issues, company finances, and patents.

What Are the Qualities an Attorney Should Have?

Written Communication

Since they draft a variety of documents in their daily work, attorneys must be able to write clearly and concisely with correct style and grammar.

Oral Communication

Lawyers must have strong verbal and interpersonal skills so they can persuasively advocate for clients during arbitrations, meetings, and court proceedings.

Analytical Skills

Attorneys need to interpret and analyze large amounts of information to help clients win legal battles and operate within legal boundaries.

Research Skills

Attorneys need strong research abilities to find rulings, laws, and regulations that relate to their work. They must be comfortable searching through extensive amounts of information.

Problem-Solving

Lawyers need superb problem-solving skills to achieve the best possible outcomes for their clients. They must determine the best arguments and recommendations for each situation.

What Education Is Required to Become an Attorney?

While law schools do not require applicants have an undergraduate education in criminal justice, the degree can be a solid choice for aspiring lawyers. Earning a degree in criminal justice can help you find an entry-level criminal justice job and decide whether a career in law is right for you.

Bachelor's Degrees

Many four-year colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in criminal justice, criminology, and legal studies. Undergraduates studying criminal justice typically take foundational classes on the U.S. criminal justice system, law enforcement, and legal theory. Learners may also take specialized courses on topics such as cybersecurity, forensics, and corrections. Courses on criminology explore the nature and causes of criminal behavior. Other classes examine landmark Supreme Court rulings and key constitutional issues.

Like most bachelor's degrees, criminal justice programs typically take about four years to complete. Part-time students may take longer, while students who pursue an accelerated program often graduate more quickly.

Criminal justice degrees prepare students for careers in law enforcement, forensics, corrections, and crime scene investigation. Graduates can also work as paralegals and legal aides. Earning a degree in criminal justice can help students land a law-related job that may impress law school admissions officers.

Juris Doctor

A juris doctor (JD) degree qualifies graduates to take their state's bar exam and to become a licensed lawyer. In addition, law schools offer networking opportunities that can help students advance their careers. Law schools often help students secure summer internships that can turn into full-time jobs after graduation.

Law programs typically begin with foundational classes on key types of law, including criminal law, property law, common law, and constitutional law. Lower-level courses build essential skills related to negotiation, legal writing, courtroom strategies, and research. As they progress through the program, law students may specialize in a field such as international law, tax law, or corporate law.

To apply to law schools, students must take the Law School Admission Test, better known as the LSAT. Law students typically spend about three years completing their juris doctor.

Explore other advanced degrees in criminal justice and legal studies

Where Are Attorneys Employed?

Projections Central projects employment for attorneys to increase 8.2% from 2016-2026. The table below includes the states with the highest numbers of employed attorneys as of May 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Top States for Attorney Careers
State Number Employed
California 82,180
New York 76,840
Florida 47,280
Texas 42,590
District of Columbia 31,680
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018
Top Cities and Metropolitan Areas for Attorney Careers
Metropolitan Area Number Employed
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 80,900
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 43,900
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 37,320
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 26,860
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 20,140
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 18,280
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 16,490
Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH 16,460
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 15,920
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 13,810
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018

Want to Learn More About Attorney Jobs?

Explore Attorney Salary Information

The top 25% highest-paid attorneys earn more than $180,000 annually, according to the BLS. Click the link below to discover more about attorney salaries.

Learn more about attorney salaries

Explore More Careers in Criminal Justice

If you are not sure that becoming an attorney is the best fit for you, consider pursuing one of the criminal justice-related degrees listed below.

Explore paralegal associate programs Explore paralegal bachelor's programs Explore associate degrees in legal studies Explore bachelor's degrees in legal studies