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General Attorneys
Significant Points
  • About 26 percent of lawyers are self-employed, either as partners in law firms or in solo practices.
  • Formal requirements to become a lawyer usually include a 4-year college degree, 3 years of law school, and passing a written bar examination; however, some requirements may vary by State.
  • Competition for admission to most law schools is intense.
  • Competition for job openings should be keen because of the large number of students graduating from law school each year.


Nature of the Work

The legal system affects nearly every aspect of our society, from buying a home to crossing the street. Lawyers form the backbone of this system, linking it to society in numerous ways. They hold positions of great responsibility and are obligated to adhere to a strict code of ethics.

Lawyers, also called attorneys, act as both advocates and advisors in our society. As advocates, they represent one of the parties in criminal and civil trials by presenting evidence and arguing in court to support their client. As advisors, lawyers counsel their clients about their legal rights and obligations and suggest particular courses of action in business and personal matters. Whether acting as an advocate or an advisor, all attorneys research the intent of laws and judicial decisions and apply the law to the specific circumstances faced by their clients.

The more detailed aspects of a lawyer’s job depend upon his or her field of specialization and position. Although all lawyers are licensed to represent parties in court, some appear in court more frequently than others. Trial lawyers spend the majority of their time outside the courtroom, conducting research, interviewing clients and witnesses, and handling other details in preparation for a trial.

Lawyers may specialize in a number of areas, such as bankruptcy, probate, international, elder, or environmental law. Those specializing in, for example, environmental law may represent interest groups, waste disposal companies, or construction firms in their dealings with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other Federal and State agencies. These lawyers help clients prepare and file for licenses and applications for approval before certain activities are permitted to occur. Some lawyers specialize in the growing field of intellectual property, helping to protect clients’ claims to copyrights, artwork under contract, product designs, and computer programs. Other lawyers advise insurance companies about the legality of insurance transactions, guiding the company in writing insurance policies to conform to the law and to protect the companies from unwarranted claims. When claims are filed against insurance companies, these attorneys review the claims and represent the companies in court.

Most lawyers are in private practice, concentrating on criminal or civil law. In criminal law, lawyers represent individuals who have been charged with crimes and argue their cases in courts of law. Attorneys dealing with civil law assist clients with litigation, wills, trusts, contracts, mortgages, titles, and leases. Other lawyers handle only public-interest cases—civil or criminal—concentrating on particular causes and choosing cases that might have an impact on the way law is applied. Lawyers sometimes are employed full time by a single client. If the client is a corporation, the lawyer is known as “house counsel” and usually advises the company concerning legal issues related to its business activities. These issues might involve patents, government regulations, contracts with other companies, property interests, or collective-bargaining agreements with unions.

A significant number of attorneys are employed at the various levels of government. Some work for State attorneys general, prosecutors, and public defenders in criminal courts. At the Federal level, attorneys investigate cases for the U.S. Department of Justice and other agencies. Government lawyers also help develop programs, draft and interpret laws and legislation, establish enforcement procedures, and argue civil and criminal cases on behalf of the government.

Other lawyers work for legal aid societies—private, nonprofit organizations established to serve disadvantaged people. These lawyers generally handle civil, rather than criminal, cases.

Lawyers are increasingly using various forms of technology to perform more efficiently. Although all lawyers continue to use law libraries to prepare cases, most supplement conventional printed sources with computer sources, such as the Internet and legal databases. Software is used to search this legal literature automatically and to identify legal texts relevant to a specific case. In litigation involving many supporting documents, lawyers may use computers to organize and index materials. Lawyers must be geographically mobile and able to reach their clients in a timely matter, so they might use electronic filing, Web and videoconferencing, mobile electronic devices, and voice-recognition technology to share information more effectively.

Work environment. Lawyers do most of their work in offices, law libraries, and courtrooms. They sometimes meet in clients’ homes or places of business and, when necessary, in hospitals or prisons. They may travel to attend meetings, gather evidence, and appear before courts, legislative bodies, and other authorities. They also may face particularly heavy pressure when a case is being tried. Preparation for court includes understanding the latest laws and judicial decisions.

Salaried lawyers usually have structured work schedules. Lawyers who are in private practice or those who work for large firms may work irregular hours, including weekends, while conducting research, conferring with clients, or preparing briefs during nonoffice hours. Lawyers often work long hours; of those who work full time, about 33 percent work 50 or more hours per week.

Nature of Attorney (Estate Tax) Position

The Federal estate tax is imposed upon the transfer of the property of a deceased person to his beneficiaries. The Attorney (Estate Tax) determines by reference to Federal, State and local laws, the types of property or property interests which are included in the gross estate and the liability for Federal estate taxes.

Types of property includable in the estate may be divided generally into such categories as:

(1) property owned by the deceased person;
(2) transactions made in contemplation of death;
(3) transfers of property with person retaining life estate;
(4) transfers taking effect at death;
(5) revocable transfers;
(6) annuities;
(7) joint interests;
(8) powers of appointment;
(9) proceeds of life insurance.

The taxable estate is determined by deducting from the value of the gross estate certain exemptions and deductions, such as:

(1) expenses, indebtedness, and taxes;
(2) losses;
(3) transfers for public, charitable, and religious uses; and
(4) bequests to surviving spouse.

A brief description of the type of work performed by the Attorney (Estate Tax) follows:

(1) The attorney determines whether the necessary supporting data have been submitted with the return, determines the nature and extent of the audit to be made, and conducts the necessary field examination to assure that all property or interests of the deceased person and its value are disclosed and substantially correct. He may inquire into such sources of information as copies of the deceased person's income tax returns; inventory of the deceased person's safe deposit box; State inheritance tax proceedings; probate records for evidence that provisions of the will, mortgages, or other records are not contested; gift tax returns, canceled checks or stub books of the deceased person's bank accounts; hospital and doctor's records; or official records of real estate sales for comparison with fair market values. In addition, he may seek opinions and information from real estate dealers, stock and bond brokers, appraisers, bankers, attorneys, accountants, and members of the deceased person's family to ascertain and substantiate the extent and value of the deceased person's property and interests.

(2) The attorney analyzes all information and determines proper tax liability. This includes, when necessary, research into Federal, State and local laws and decisions of courts of various levels and jurisdictions. Such research is required to resolve any questions regarding what property is includable in the estate, the correct values of the deceased person's interests, and the proper and allowable deductions and credits; and

(3) The attorney, in personal contacts with representative(s) of the estate, proposes changes resulting from the investigation and attempts to convince the representative of the estate of the correctness of his position by citing law, court decisions, precedent opinions, appraisals, etc. The attorney must be prepared to consider and evaluate the rebuttals of the estate representative(s), which are typically in the form of other precedents and court decisions, opinions of experts and appraisers, and the reasoning developed from these precedents and opinions.

(4) If agreement is reached, the attorney submits the case for review. A final technical review is made by the review staff. If agreement is not reached, the representative of the estate is afforded a hearing at an informal conference with the supervisor or a senior attorney.

In the review of gift tax returns, the Attorney (Estate Tax) performs functions similar to those described above. The Federal gift tax is imposed upon the transfer of property by way of gift. The gift tax applies whether the gift is direct or indirect, and whether the property is real or personal, tangible or intangible. If the donor does not pay the tax when due, the receiver may be called upon to discharge the tax liability.

Attorney (Estate Tax) GS-0905-07


GS-7 Attorneys (Estate Tax) typically receive formal classroom and on-the-job training in the examination of estate and gift tax returns to determine proper tax liability. They are assigned individual cases to provide training in a variety of legal, financial, and investigative problems encountered in the examination of estate and gift tax returns. They familiarize themselves with the examining process, and with applicable laws, regulations, decisions and rulings.

In a trainee capacity, the GS-7 Attorney (Estate Tax) conducts field investigations of returns which have been screened by the supervisor. Typically, selected returns investigated are characterized by: a limited number of issues or questionable situations of a simple and repetitive nature; an apparent absence of controversial aspects; tax deficiencies or overassessments in relatively small amounts; or low monetary value of the gross estate. Issues may be resolved in most cases by referring to clearly defined precedents or existing statutes and regulations. On more difficult returns, the trainee receives even closer supervision.

Level of responsibility

The GS-7 Attorney (Estate Tax) works under the close guidance of the supervisor or an attorney of higher grade who makes assignments and provides detailed instructions concerning each phase and aspect of the examination. Guidelines usually deal explicitly with issues contained in assignments. The supervisor gives advice and guidance as needed on problems which arise during the examination. Completed work is thoroughly reviewed to determine progress and the need for any additional training or instruction on specific phases of the work.

Attorney (Estate Tax) GS-0905-09


GS-9 Attorney (Estate Tax) positions typically include:

(1) Work which is developmental in nature, with assignments becoming progressively more difficult. -- In developmental positions, the GS-9 attorney conducts audits of an increasingly difficult and responsible nature in the examination of estate and gift tax returns. These returns are selected primarily for their value in providing experience and in developing knowledge, skills, and auditing techniques required for performance of the full range of estate tax examinations typical of the GS-11 level of difficulty. Positions differ from those at the GS-11 level in that the work typically is performed under close supervisory control.

(2) Work which is continuing in nature with the assignments somewhat limited in scope and complexity. -- In continuing-type positions, the GS-9 attorney conducts audits of estate and gift tax returns which have been screened by the supervisor. The returns differ from those assigned at the GS-11 level in that difficult features or problems are not expected to occur or to be handled independently; and tax potential is relatively limited. Returns examined ordinarily cover estates of the lower gross values. Some may be of higher value where no difficult issues are anticipated.

Assignments at the GS-9 level involve recurring legal and financial issues, limited in scope and complexity. These issues may be resolved by determining facts, and applying well-established laws, regulations, or precedent decisions to the circumstances at hand. Legal issues relate to the decedent's ownership of or interest in property; to the includability of such property for tax purposes; and to the propriety of deductions claimed. In continuing GS-9 positions the issues normally are not clouded by complexities found at higher grade levels, such as questionable powers of appointment, uncertainty of property interests passing to surviving spouse, or transfers in contemplation of death.

Financial issues relate to the valuation of residential and personal property, stocks, bonds, or other securities, or small private businesses, where the fair market value can be determined by the use of tables and formulas, by comparison with similar property, or by examination of business records. For example, the valuation of residential property can be made adequately through use of realtors' opinions, or clearly appropriate comparable sales. The attorney applies judgment in determining depreciation and in making comparisons since parcels of real estate are not likely to be identical. Valuation problems differ from those at higher levels in that the GS-9 attorney is not expected to conduct special appraisal studies, to make extensive comparisons with complex business enterprises, or to apply special business or accounting knowledge in determining the fair market value.

Level of responsibility

Work is performed under the supervision of the group supervisor or a higher-graded attorney who makes assignments, gives specific instructions on new issues, and points out potential problem areas and possible solutions. Recommendations and decisions are based upon facts, laws, and precedents which are reasonably direct and explicit in supporting the conclusions reached. For returns involving less complex issues and relatively small tax potential or change, the attorney is responsible for a complete audit. The supervisor is available to provide instructions and assistance if difficult problems arise. Work is reviewed for completeness, effectiveness, and accuracy.

Supervisory assistance on developmental assignments initially is more frequent and in greater detail, including on-the-job observation and guidance. Assistance on individual cases is gradually diminished as the attorney gains competence in completing assignments. The work and reports are reviewed closely in order to check on progress and improvement in the acquisition of knowledge and development of auditing techniques, as well as for completeness of examination and report, accuracy of legal citations, judgment used in developing facts, correct valuations of property, and computation of tax.

Personal contacts are primarily with representatives of the estate for the purpose of obtaining information and explaining the basis for proposed changes in tax assessments in terms of the facts involved and the applicable laws, regulations, decisions, and rulings. Also involved are numerous contacts with third parties, such as realtors, bankers, lawyers, accountants, public officials, physicians, hospital authorities, or members of the decedent's family, for the purpose of securing necessary information and evidence.

Attorney (Estate Tax) GS-0905-11


GS-11 Attorneys (Estate Tax) typically perform independent examinations of a wide range of estate and gift tax returns. These returns involve legal, financial, investigative, or other problems of substantial variety and complexity. Tax potential may be significant. Returns examined ordinarily cover estates ranging from low to median gross value; or, in some cases, the estates may be larger where problems encountered are no more complex than is characteristic of the GS-11 level of difficulty. Returns assigned at the GS-11 level typically may be resolved by the use of experienced judgment in selecting and applying established laws, regulations, and precedents, and accepted methods and procedures. By contrast, returns examined at the GS-9 level include those which are limited in scope or complexity, or are assigned for developmental purposes.

Assignments at the GS-11 level involve a wide range of legal and financial issues which are likely to arise in the audit of estate and gift tax returns. These issues can ordinarily be resolved by referring to laws, regulations, and precedent decisions which are directly applicable or require little interpretation. Typical legal issues involve:

(1) decedent's ownership or interest in property, including duration of interest;
(2) all types of property transfers during the decedent's lifetime, such as those with retained life estate taking effect at or in contemplation of death;
(3) propriety of deductions claimed, including deduction for expenses, indebtedness and taxes; for losses; for public, charitable, and religious bequests, or for property interests passing to surviving spouse; or
(4) questionable powers of appointment.

Financial issues include the valuation of different types of property, including income-producing real estate, large holding of closely held stock, and private businesses. Valuation issues at the GS-11 level can usually be resolved by using recognized appraisal and accounting techniques and by applying current and historical knowledge of varied business, commercial, and industrial enterprises. For example:

(1) valuation of conventional residential and income-producing types of real estate or other personal effects requires gathering opinions of value, using sales comparison methods, and using occasionally capitalization of income methods;
(2) valuation of closely held stock in corporations which are organized as a single entity, or which do not involve unusual activities, is accomplished by analyzing balance sheets and profit and loss statements in order to arrive at the true net worth.

Level of responsibility

Work is performed under the supervision of the group supervisor who assigns cases, issues general instructions, and points out unusual circumstances surrounding the case, or any background information which must be considered. The attorney is expected to plan, organize, and conduct his examination independently with respect to investigating facts, searching precedents, defining the issues, and developing conclusions and recommendations. The supervisor is available for advice or discussion on unusual problems which arise during the conduct of the examination.

Guidelines are numerous and typically require a substantial amount of research to fit the specific circumstances or cases at hand. Conclusions reached and recommendations made are expected to be thorough and the examination complete with respect to all conventional aspects of the assignment. Completed work is reviewed for adequacy, soundness of judgment, and consistency with regulations.

Personal contacts are made with a variety of individuals, similar to those discussed at GS-9, for the purpose of securing information and evidence. The GS-11 attorney is responsible not only for explaining the basis for any proposed changes in tax liability, but also for conducting conferences and considering and, where appropriate, rebutting the contentions of estate representatives on a wide variety of issues.

Attorney (Estate Tax) GS-0905-12


GS-12 Attorneys (Estate Tax) are assigned the independent examination of estate and gift tax returns which potentially contain one or several major issues, as well as numerous other problems of conventional difficulty. Major issues relate to unusually difficult or potentially complex legal, financial, investigative or other problems, and typically involve substantial tax considerations. Returns examined usually cover estates of high gross value, but may also include larger or smaller estates when more complex problems of the GS-12 level are present. Returns require extensive investigations to resolve highly controversial matters for which clear precedents do not exist. Potential tax deficiencies normally are contested by estate representatives who are specialists in the probate and tax fields, or by competent appraisers and accountants.

By contrast, major issues of unusual difficulty are not anticipated in the returns assigned to GS-11 attorneys. If encountered at the GS-11 level, the supervisor normally participates in the examination or provides closer guidance or control in resolving the unusually difficult issues.

GS-12 assignments are characteristically complex, involving legal issues frequently mingled with related factual, financial, or accounting issues. Issues assume major proportions, for example, when a substantial tax deficiency requires:

(1) interpretation of legal documents which are vague or ambiguous;
(2) extensive investigation to ascertain the facts and circumstances;
(3) application of legal precedents which are highly arguable due to the complexity of the facts and to the different possible interpretations which may be placed on them; or
(4) detailed research of legal questions, including consideration of judicial decisions and legislative intent in cases involving adaptation of precedents of similar but not identical issues.

To illustrate: A major issue may arise when the attorney must ascertain the dominant motive of the deceased person in determining whether property transfers of a material part of a large and complex estate, held in trust for the benefit of another person, are includable in the gross estate. This determination involves such questions as whether from the terms of the trust or the circumstances and dealings of the parties concerned there has been an actual or implied retention of income or use of the property; the transfer was intended to take effect at or after death; or the transfer was subject to the deceased person's death to the exercise of a power to alter, amend, revoke, or terminate.

Other issues in GS-12 assignments include unusually difficult valuation problems. These are typically encountered in the valuation of business interests of substantial size, large commercial properties, and other property of an unusual nature. Issues assume major proportions, for example, when the determination of the value of such property requires:

(1) intensive analysis of substantial business operations;
(2) gathering and analyzing engineering appraisals or other expert opinions and selecting the most appropriate valuation from among different points of view; or
(3) application of extensive working knowledge of financial, business, or accounting operations including a variety of intangible factors not covered by recognized valuation methods or by data that are comparable.

To illustrate: A major issue may arise in the valuation of unusual property such as docks and waterfront property; sizable mortgages which are disputed in whole or in part; substantial patent rights; large holdings of antiques, jewelry, or works of art; and extensive holdings of stock involving allowances. Unusually difficult problems arise in the valuation of such properties, for example, when comparative sales data are limited or nonexistent; when there are no established investment markets for such properties; or when normal profit and operating cost figures are inapplicable.

Level of responsibility

Work is performed under the general supervision of the group supervisor who assigns returns with few or no instructions. The supervisor is available for advice and discussion of unusual problems. Guidelines are similar to those at lower levels. For major problems, however, precedents are seldom directly applicable due to the complexity of the facts and to the different possible interpretations which may be placed on them. Novel or controversial legal issues may call for the attorney to determine that the matter can only be resolved by securing an opinion or legal interpretation from the appropriate supervisory level or staff.

Conclusions reached and determinations made are expected to extend through all aspects of the examination, including the nature and extent of the audit to be made, issues to be developed, and sources of information to be consulted, as well as the determination of tax liability. Recommendations are expected to be in final form and to be made only after negotiations with representatives of the estate are completed, generally resulting in their agreement to tax deficiencies.

In addition to personal contacts with third parties for the purpose of securing information and evidence, as discussed at the GS-11 level, contacts are also made with estate representatives, most of whom are specialists in the probate and tax field, professional accountants, or engineering appraisers. Problems of explanation and persuasion involve difficult and complex questions of law and valuation, especially in the area of judgment characterized by legitimate doubt as to the proper application of precedents or the correct basis of valuation.

Attorney (Estate Tax) GS-0905-13


GS-13 Attorney (Estate Tax) positions exceed the requirements specified at GS-12 in that the examination of estate and gift tax returns typically includes:

(1) a considerable number of major issues of an unusually difficult nature; or
(2) novel issues which are likely to set important precedents within the field of tax administration; or
(3) highly complex problems in the valuation of extremely large holdings and closely held corporations.

Normally, the total gross value of estates is exceptionally high. Proposals for findings of sizable tax deficiencies are strongly contested by well-recognized and highly competent attorneys, accountants, and technical specialists in estate planning, engineering, and business appraisal.

The examination of returns requires extensive specialized knowledge related to all aspects of estate and gift taxation; high investigative ability to uncover deliberate attempts to exclude unusually large interests from the estate through well-planned and complex legal or valuation devices and entanglements; a high degree of originality in the development of legal and valuation rationale on issues where there are no suitable precedents; and outstanding ability to present and maintain the Government's position successfully.

Assignments at the GS-13 level include some of the most controversial legal issues found in the area of real property, trusts, and estates. They involve points of law that are without precedent or that are the subject of conflicting precedents. Major issues call for (a) extensive legal research to locate cases of sufficient similarity; and (b) sound judgment on the part of the attorney in determining when the case requires a legal opinion, interpretation, or other guidance from the technical staff.

Such issues arise:

(1) When an exceptionally large tax deficiency is based upon the interpretation of a wide variety of complex and lengthy legal documents, and the meaning or intent of the maker of the documents is vague and obscure;
(2) when determinations are rendered difficult by reason of conflicting legal precedents, such as those arising from court decisions in different jurisdictions;
(3) when a tax decision will set a precedent for numerous other cases, and the determination of the action to be taken must be based upon rationale developed from various sources in common law and court decisions which are not directly related; or
(4) when there is a need to evaluate the potential effect of precedent-setting decisions on the outcome of the case under consideration and on other related cases.

Financial issues in GS-13 assignments involve the valuation of closely held or infrequently traded securities of closely-held corporations with (a) numerous subsidiaries, or (b) a number of related companies with interlocking directorships. Such companies are extremely large, including household corporate names, giants of the industrial or commercial fields, or locally prominent businesses with gross sales ranging to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Valuation problems include hidden factors and intangibles which render the earning capacity unreliable as an indicator of fair market value. For example: broad business, accounting, and financial knowledge are required to prepare reconciliations of surplus together with balance sheets and profit and loss statements; to make comparisons of these statements over a period of years to determine specific trends in the business being valued; to project such trends into the future as affecting the total valuation; and to recognize and define the effect of abnormalities in specific years.

The GS-13 attorney also determines the fair market value of any and all types of real estate. He determines the value of the entire gamut of tangible and intangible property, based on personal knowledge and consultation with qualified specialists. Included in this category, for example, are mining interests or oil interests, where engineering aspects must be valued by a qualified engineer, but where the responsibility for sustaining such valuations in the face of competent opposing contentions rests with the attorney.

Level of responsibility

The level of responsibility exceeds GS-12 primarily in the increased difficulty of the returns examined, the novel legal issues encountered, and the negotiating ability required.

For example, greater judgment is required (a) in recognizing potential legal issues involved in extremely large holdings, and (b) in determining the scope of investigations which must be undertaken to uncover deliberate attempts to exclude unusually large interests from the estate. Conclusions reached often result in agreement to very large tax deficiencies or in setting the basis for the Government's position in future court action. Impact of decisions may be far-reaching in establishing significant precedents in the field of estate taxation. Recommendations are usually accepted as submitted.

Personal contacts differ from those described at lower levels in that the estate representatives contacted are almost invariably among the best legal, valuation, and probate talent available. Frequently, there are no applicable precedents for the issues involved, or there are conflicting legal precedents. Thus, explanation and persuasion in negotiating controversial issues require a high order of knowledge, confidence, and experience of the attorney in maintaining the Government's position.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Formal requirements to become a lawyer usually include a 4-year college degree, 3 years of law school, and passing a written bar examination; however, some requirements vary by State. Competition for admission to most law schools is intense. Federal courts and agencies set their own qualifications for those practicing before or in them.

Education and training. Becoming a lawyer usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school—4 years of undergraduate study, followed by 3 years of law school. Law school applicants must have a bachelor’s degree to qualify for admission. To meet the needs of students who can attend only part time, a number of law schools have night or part-time divisions.

Although there is no recommended “prelaw” undergraduate major, prospective lawyers should develop proficiency in writing and speaking, reading, researching, analyzing, and thinking logically—skills needed to succeed both in law school and in the law. Regardless of major, a multidisciplinary background is recommended. Courses in English, foreign languages, public speaking, government, philosophy, history, economics, mathematics, and computer science, among others, are useful. Students interested in a particular aspect of law may find related courses helpful. For example, prospective patent lawyers need a strong background in engineering or science, and future tax lawyers must have extensive knowledge of accounting.

Acceptance by most law schools depends on the applicant’s ability to demonstrate an aptitude for the study of law, usually through undergraduate grades, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), the quality of the applicant’s undergraduate school, any prior work experience, and sometimes, a personal interview. However, law schools vary in the weight they place on each of these and other factors.

All law schools approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) require applicants to take the LSAT. As of June 2008, there were 200 ABA-accredited law schools; others were approved by State authorities only. Nearly all law schools require applicants to have certified transcripts sent to the Law School Data Assembly Service, which then submits the applicants’ LSAT scores and their standardized records of college grades to the law schools of their choice. The Law School Admission Council administers both this service and the LSAT. Competition for admission to many law schools—especially the most prestigious ones—is usually intense, with the number of applicants greatly exceeding the number that can be admitted.

During the first year or year and a half of law school, students usually study core courses, such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, torts, civil procedure, and legal writing. In the remaining time, they may choose specialized courses in fields such as tax, labor, or corporate law. Law students often gain practical experience by participating in school-sponsored legal clinics; in the school’s moot court competitions, in which students conduct appellate arguments; in practice trials under the supervision of experienced lawyers and judges; and through research and writing on legal issues for the school’s law journals.

A number of law schools have clinical programs in which students gain legal experience through practice trials and projects under the supervision of lawyers and law school faculty. Law school clinical programs might include work in, for example, legal-aid offices or on legislative committees. Part-time or summer clerkships in law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments also provide valuable experience. Such training can lead directly to a job after graduation and can help students decide what kind of practice best suits them. Law school graduates receive the degree of juris doctor (J.D.), a first professional degree.

Advanced law degrees may be desirable for those planning to specialize, perform research, or teach. Some law students pursue joint degree programs, which usually require an additional semester or year of study. Joint degree programs are offered in a number of areas, including business administration or public administration.

After graduation, lawyers must keep informed about legal and nonlegal developments that affect their practices. In 2008, 46 States and jurisdictions required lawyers to participate in mandatory continuing legal education. Many law schools and State and local bar associations provide continuing education courses that help lawyers stay abreast of recent developments. Some States allow continuing education credits to be obtained through participation in seminars on the Internet.

Licensure. To practice law in the courts of any State or other jurisdiction, a person must be licensed, or admitted to its bar, under rules established by the jurisdiction’s highest court. All States require that applicants for admission to the bar pass a written bar examination; most States also require applicants to pass a separate written ethics examination. Lawyers who have been admitted to the bar in one State occasionally may be admitted to the bar in another without taking another examination if they meet the latter jurisdiction’s standards of good moral character and a specified period of legal experience. In most cases, however, lawyers must pass the bar examination in each State in which they plan to practice. Federal courts and agencies set their own qualifications for those practicing before or in them.

To qualify for the bar examination in most States, an applicant must earn a college degree and graduate from a law school accredited by the ABA or the proper State authorities. ABA accreditation signifies that the law school—particularly its library and faculty—meets certain standards. With certain exceptions, graduates of schools not approved by the ABA are restricted to taking the bar examination and practicing in the State or other jurisdiction in which the school is located; most of these schools are in California.

Although there is no nationwide bar examination, 48 States, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands require the 6-hour Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) as part of their overall bar examination; the MBE is not required in Louisiana or Washington. The MBE covers a broad range of issues, and sometimes a locally prepared State bar examination is given in addition to it. The 3-hour Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) is used as part of the bar examination in several States. States vary in their use of MBE and MEE scores.

Many States also require the Multistate Performance Test to test the practical skills of beginning lawyers. Requirements vary by State, although the test usually is taken at the same time as the bar exam and is a one-time requirement.

In 2008, law school graduates in 52 jurisdictions were required to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE), which tests their knowledge of the ABA codes on professional responsibility and judicial conduct. In some States, the MPRE may be taken during law school, usually after completing a course on legal ethics.

Other qualifications. The practice of law involves a great deal of responsibility. Individuals planning careers in law should like to work with people and be able to win the respect and confidence of their clients, associates, and the public. Perseverance, creativity, and reasoning ability also are essential to lawyers, who often analyze complex cases and handle new and unique legal problems.

Trial lawyers, who specialize in trial work, must be able to think quickly and speak with ease and authority. In addition, familiarity with courtroom rules and strategy is particularly important in trial work.


Lawyers held about 759,200 jobs in 2008. Approximately 26 percent of lawyers were self-employed, practicing either as partners in law firms or in solo practices. Most salaried lawyers held positions in government, in law firms or other corporations, or in nonprofit organizations. Most government-employed lawyers worked at the local level. In the Federal Government, lawyers worked for many different agencies, but were concentrated in the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and Defense. Many salaried lawyers working outside of government were employed as house counsel by public utilities, banks, insurance companies, real-estate agencies, manufacturing firms, and other business firms and nonprofit organizations. Some also had part-time independent practices, while others worked part time as lawyers and full time in another occupation.

A relatively small number of trained attorneys work in law schools and are not included in the employment estimate for lawyers. Most are faculty members who specialize in one or more subjects; however, some serve as administrators. Others work full time in nonacademic settings and teach part time.

Job Outlook

About as fast as the average employment growth is projected, but job competition is expected to be keen.

Employment change. Employment of lawyers is expected to grow 13 percent during the 2008-18 decade, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Growth in the population and in the level of business activity is expected to create more legal transactions, civil disputes, and criminal cases. Job growth among lawyers also will result from increasing demand for legal services in such areas as healthcare, intellectual property, bankruptcy, corporate and security litigation, antitrust law, and environmental law. In addition, the wider availability and affordability of legal clinics should result in increased use of legal services by middle-income people. However, growth in demand for lawyers will be constrained as businesses increasingly use large accounting firms and paralegals to perform some of the same functions that lawyers do. For example, accounting firms may provide employee-benefit counseling, process documents, or handle various other services previously performed by a law firm. Also, mediation and dispute resolution are increasingly being used as alternatives to litigation.

Job growth for lawyers will continue to be concentrated in salaried jobs as businesses and all levels of government employ a growing number of staff attorneys. Most salaried positions are in urban areas where government agencies, law firms, and big corporations are concentrated. The number of self-employed lawyers is expected to grow slowly, reflecting the difficulty of establishing a profitable new practice in the face of competition from larger, established law firms. Moreover, the growing complexity of the law, which encourages specialization, along with the cost of maintaining up-to-date legal research materials, favors larger firms.

Job prospects. Competition for job openings should continue to be keen because of the large number of students graduating from law school each year. Graduates with superior academic records from highly regarded law schools will have the best job opportunities. Perhaps as a result of competition for attorney positions, lawyers are increasingly finding work in less traditional areas for which legal training is an asset, but not normally a requirement—for example, administrative, managerial, and business positions in banks, insurance firms, real estate companies, government agencies, and other organizations. Employment opportunities are expected to continue to arise in these organizations at a growing rate.

As in the past, some graduates may have to accept positions outside of their field of interest or for which they feel overqualified. Some recent law school graduates who have been unable to find permanent positions are turning to the growing number of temporary staffing firms that place attorneys in short-term jobs. This service allows companies to hire lawyers on an “as-needed” basis and permits beginning lawyers to develop practical skills.

Because of the keen competition for jobs, a law graduate’s geographic mobility and work experience are assuming greater importance. Willingness to relocate may be an advantage in getting a job, but to be licensed in another State, a lawyer may have to take an additional State bar examination. In addition, employers increasingly are seeking graduates who have advanced law degrees and experience in a specialty, such as tax, patent, or admiralty law.

Job opportunities often are adversely affected by cyclical swings in the economy. During recessions, demand declines for some discretionary legal services, such as planning estates, drafting wills, and handling real estate transactions. Also, corporations are less likely to litigate cases when declining sales and profits restrict their budgets. Some corporations and law firms will not hire new attorneys until business improves, and these establishments may even cut staff to contain costs. Several factors, however, mitigate the overall impact of recessions on lawyers; during recessions, for example, individuals and corporations face other legal problems, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and divorces—all requiring legal action.

For lawyers who wish to work independently, establishing a new practice will probably be easiest in small towns and expanding suburban areas. In such communities, competition from larger, established law firms is likely to be less than in big cities, and new lawyers may find it easier to establish a reputation among potential clients.

Additional Resources

Information on law schools and a career in law may be obtained from the following organizations:

  • American Bar Association, 321 North Clark St., Chicago, IL 60654. Internet:
  • National Association for Law Placement, 1025 Connecticut Ave. NW., Suite 1110, Washington, DC 20036. Internet:

Information on the LSAT, the Law School Data Assembly Service, the law school application process, and financial aid available to law students may be obtained from:

Information on obtaining Attorney positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.

Source: OPM's Position Classification Standards for White Collar Work

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