The Practice of Law

What is the Practice of Law?

The practice of law involves counseling clients on legal matters, and advocating on their behalf in transactions and disputes with other individuals, businesses, and the government. These services are provided by attorneys licensed by the bar association within their home state. General practitioners are available to help clients with a variety of common issues, such as personal injuries, divorce, and criminal charges. Other attorneys restrict their practices to certain types of specialty cases, such as copyright infringements or social security disability appeals.

Hiring an attorney creates a fiduciary relationship. This means the attorney must put the client's interests above his or her own. Attorneys are also under a duty to keep communications and other information from a client confidential, and to avoid representing anyone else whose interests conflict with the client's interests. Such a relationship is meant to protect clients. It allows them to share information they might otherwise hold back, helping the lawyer to provide more effective representation.

Law offices range in size from a single attorney with little or no support staff, to large international firms with thousands of attorneys. Like other businesses, law offices with more than one practitioner can be established as partnerships, limited liability companies, professional corporations, and other entities as permitted by state law. Clients are either charged on a flat rate basis, or by the hour. Hourly fees are typically deducted from a source of funds known as a "retainer," paid by the client at the outset of the representation.

Expert Legal Advice

As anyone who has been unexpectedly served with notice of a lawsuit can attest, dealing with a legal matter can be confusing, frustrating, and perhaps a bit scary. The practice of law requires attorneys to listen to the problems their clients are experiencing. Problems must be analyzed in light of the applicable legal principles, so the attorney can explain the client's options going forward. A significant portion of the practice of law is dedicated to this exercise of providing legal advice, or "client counseling" as it is often called.

To give advice and help clients make strategic decisions, attorneys must have a solid understanding of the law, and this requires a legal education. Law schools admit only a fraction of the college graduates who apply. The curriculum takes three years to complete, followed by a multi-day bar examination consisting of 200 multiple choice questions and an extensive writing assessment. After passing the exam and obtaining a license, practicing attorneys are still required to participate in continuing education on an annual basis.

Ethical rules prohibit an attorney from taking a case involving a subject matter in which the attorney is not competent. In order to grow professionally and develop new skills, attorneys network with each other through electronic mailing lists, online discussion groups, social media, and traditional meetings and conventions. Law firms also maintain collections of research materials and subscriptions to online services such as Westlaw and LexisNexis. The goal is to keep abreast of legislation and court decisions, and to use this information to the client's advantage.

Transactional Services

Another basic aspect of the practice of law involves drafting documents and helping clients execute personal and commercial transactions. Lawyers who engage in these activities may go their entire careers never seeing the inside of a courtroom. Common services performed by a transactional attorney include reviewing written contracts, drafting wills and other estate planning documents, applying for government benefits on behalf of a client, and forming business entities by submitting the necessary filings to the secretary of state.

Representation in Court

Contract disputes, automobile accidents, medical malpractice, and other such cases often result in litigation, meaning the parties file a lawsuit and use the court system to settle their differences. These matters are handled by attorneys who specialize in adversarial legal proceedings. Professional litigators are skilled at putting pressure on the opposing party as a means of achieving their client's goals. They also know how to deliver persuasive arguments to trial judges, and how to win over juries by using the evidence to create empathy for their client and disdain for the other party.

A large majority of the attorneys who appear in court on a regular basis are involved in the practice of criminal law. Prosecutors work on behalf of the government, pursuing justice against people who break the law. On the other side, criminal defense attorneys represent the accused. They work to protect the constitutional rights of their clients, and to make sure the police do not overstep their bounds as they investigate wrongdoing. Much like civil litigators, criminal defense attorneys identify and attack weaknesses in the opposing side's case, using the law to obtain the best result possible for their clients.

Deciding to Hire an Attorney

If you are unsure if the services you need fall within the practice of law, the best course is to contact an attorney to find out. Most attorneys offer free consultations in order for you to learn if you need their help. Whatever your situation may be, you are likely to discover that hiring a lawyer will make your life easier.


Know Your Rights!

  • Can I File a Lawsuit Without a Lawyer

    Often, people may have viable bases for lawsuits but fear that they are not allowed to file their claim without a lawyer. As a result, concerns over paying attorney fees may keep some from following through with their claims, meaning that the legal wrong may go unaddressed and the person who was wronged may go uncompensated. But, it is possible to file a lawsuit without a lawyer.

  • Legal Advertising in America

    While billboards and television ads with lawyers faces and slogans may be commonplace today, just a few years ago such advertising was not permitted for attorneys. Over the last two decades, restrictions on lawyer advertising have relaxed somewhat, allowing the proliferation of ads we see today. Still, these advertisements are not without restriction.

  • What Are the Common Types of Attorney Fee Arrangements

    One of the biggest concerns of people in need of the assistance of an attorney is how much it will cost. The type of fee arrangement that is available to a client will often have a lot to do with the type of legal issues you are bringing to your attorney. There are several common types of attorney fees and fee arrangements.

  • What Can a Legal Aid Clinic Do for Me?

    Many in legal trouble have needed the aid of an attorney but did not have the resources to pay for one. Some have heard of legal aid organizations but may wonder what services these organizations can provide and how useful they really are.

  • What is an Attorney-Client Privilege

    Whenever someone hires an attorney, an attorney-client relationship is formed, and a privilege is created. But what is the attorney-client privilege? What makes the relationship between a lawyer and a client different from other professional relationships?

  • What Should I Ask Before Hiring an Attorney?

    Most people do not hire attorneys everyday. This may leave them at a bit of a disadvantage in knowing what they should find out from an attorney before hiring them. Before hiring a lawyer, you should get information about aspects of the attorney-client relationship.

  • Who's Who and What's What in the Courtroom

    Going to court can be a stressful experience, especially if you have never been. Aside from the fears of what may be at stake or concerns about a new social setting, many are scared of embarrassing themselves by not knowing who does what, what things are called, etc. There are actually a number of traditional rules, terms, and procedures many are unaware of, and though not usually that important for the lay person, knowing what they are could be useful in putting one's mind at ease.

  • Why Should I Have to Pay a Retainer Fee?

    When hiring an attorney, a potential client is often asked to pay an upfront fee called a "retainer" in order to hire the client. Many clients wonder why they should have to pay such a fee, particularly when they are sometimes non-refundable and they have not yet received any benefit from hiring the attorney. What happens if the case settles shortly after paying the retainer fee and before the attorney has done much work?

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