Learn About Being an Attorney

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published December 10, 2019

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

What does an attorney do?

An attorney’s main role is to advise and represent clients and their legal rights in civil and criminal cases. Their services can vary from giving professional advice to preparing documents and appearing in court to plead on behalf of the client. Other tasks an attorney may perform include:

  • Explaining legal issues to clients and advising them on any ongoing litigation that involves them

  • Researching all elements of a case, such as accident and police reports, elements of the legal system relevant to the case or previously filed pleadings.

  • Develop various strategies on behalf of their clients to find timely and cost-effective ways of managing legal issues.

  • Preparing legally binding documents, such as contracts, wills and deeds

  • Directly defending the client’s best interests in court, before a judge or jury

  • Assist clients in discussing plea bargains and other agreements with the district attorney’s office

  • Advise clients on their public behavior while legal charges are pending

Average salary

Most attorneys work in full-time positions in private or corporate practices and local, state and federal government agencies. Salaries for attorneys depend on several factors, such as level of education, size of the employing firm, geographical location, specialization, work experience and the type of client their employer is working for. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the salary link.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $95,740 per year

  • Some salaries range from $16,000 to $220,000 per year.

Attorney requirements

A successful attorney needs certain education, experience, training and advanced skills:

Education

Becoming an attorney takes extensive education and preparation before obtaining the license to practice law. Here are the degrees and exams required to become a practicing attorney.

Bachelor’s degree

After graduating from high school, the first step on the way to becoming an attorney is earning a four-year degree from an accredited college or university. Although there are no guidelines or preferences regarding the chosen major, students can earn a degree in political science, English or criminal justice.

Law school

Aspiring attorneys must graduate from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. To apply for law school, students need to first sit for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Its purpose is to test students’ reading comprehension and analytical skills. Law school curriculum can vary but usually consists of general law-related courses, such as business law, constitutional law, international law, criminal law or civil law. It typically lasts three years, and halfway through the second year, students can take specialized courses in various aspects of the law. Upon graduation, a student receives a Juris Doctor degree.

Bar examination

The final step in an attorney’s basic education before being admitted to the state bar is passing a two-day examination that tests the applicant’s knowledge of the law and the legal system. While formats slightly vary from state to state, the first day of the exam consists of six 30-minute essay questions, while during the second day the applicants must answer a series of questions specifically related to the laws of the state in which they are taking the test in. Most states also require an ethics examination as part of the bar exam.

Training

A significant part of an attorney’s training is gaining practical experience at a law firm or organization. This typically involves working under the direct supervision of a practicing attorney and being asked to perform various low-level law-related tasks. Direct experience gives students the chance to improve on some much-needed soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking, negotiation abilities, time management or persuasion.

Certifications

All lawyers need to earn licensure before practicing. Each state has different requirements for earning a license, but all of them require candidates to pass a bar exam. Bar exam content may vary from state to state, depending on different laws. Most states require attorneys to renew their licensure every three years.

Law is a very large field, and attorneys typically specialize in a single area, such as civil law, bankruptcy law, estate planning law, child welfare law, tax law and others. Here are some certification courses for attorneys that wish to specialize:

Estate planning law specialist certification

Issued by the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils, this certification shows potential clients that an attorney specializes in estate planning law. Earning it reflects experience in estate planning and includes recommendations from other estate planning law specialists.

Child Welfare Law Specialist certification

Issued by the National Association of Counsel for Children, this certification acts as proof that an attorney the knowledge, skill and expertise in child welfare laws. This allows the attorney to represent civil parts of the government in all cases concerning child protection, such as custody cases, adoption, temporary custody, foster care, guardianship and other related matters.

Skills

An attorney needs a variety of hard skills, soft skills and certain qualities to perform this role:

Communication

No matter what their chosen specialization is, a successful attorney must possess excellent communication skills, both written and verbal. Also, because a large part of the profession includes analyzing information, they must be very good at listening to others.

Critical thinking

Attorneys must define issues and develop viable solutions. This includes strong critical-thinking skills and having the ability to identify the best solution for each problem.

Strong character

An attorney may sometimes face difficult situations, both in court and outside of it. They must possess the mental fortitude to identify solutions quickly, without being influenced by external factors, such as a courtroom audience.

Research

Many aspects of an attorney’s profession involve analyzing vast amounts of information and identifying the parts relevant to a specific case. This involves having the ability and patience to isolate and use relevant information.

Time management

Practicing law is generally very time-consuming and attorneys typically have large workloads. Having good time-management skills includes efficiently separating their available time and correctly prioritizing tasks to accomplish as much as possible in a limited timeframe.

Attorney work environment

Attorneys typically work in legal offices, courtrooms or law libraries. Depending on their specialization, they may often travel to meet clients at their homes, their place of business, in hospitals or correctional facilities. Although working as an attorney is typically a full-time position with set hours, it is common for attorneys to work overtime, sometimes over 50 hours per week.

Their working environment involves constant communication with multiple parties. They often work in highly competitive environments and have to make difficult decisions every day, sometimes with no consultation with other parties. They can also expect the following: 

  • Sitting for long periods of time at a desk while reading materials

  • Using a computer to perform research

  • Traveling to meet with clients and to courthouses

  • Wearing professional attire 

  • Complying with strict laws and regulations

How to become an attorney

Here are the steps you can take to become an attorney:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. The first step to becoming an attorney is enrolling in a four-year bachelor’s program after graduating high school. Consider earning a degree in political science, history or criminal justice to prepare for law school. 

  2. Sit for the LSAT. Getting a high score on the LSAT can help your chances of admittance to law school. Study all the materials to ensure you’re prepared. 

  3. Graduate law school. You must graduate from a law school certified by the American Bar Association. The courses focus on general law-related core subjects. In the last year, you can take classes on a certain aspect of the law. You’ll receive a J.D. once you graduate. 

  4. Gain experience by completing an internship. During law school, you’ll most likely complete an internship with a private practice or government agency. Consider finding an internship in your desired specialty to gain experience before you graduate. 

  5. Pass the bar examination. The final step in becoming a certified attorney is passing the bar examination. The content of the bar exam varies in each state. You’ll probably need to renew your license every three years.

Attorney job description example

Our law firm, Johnson, Oppenheim, Lee & Ramirez, is actively seeking an attorney specializing in criminal defense law to join our criminal defense department. The role implies dealing with high-profile criminal cases and advising our clients in all matters related to the specialization. The minimum requirements for this position are:

  • Excellent communication and research skills

  • Four-plus years of experience as a practicing criminal defense attorney

  • Ability to handle complex and publicly scrutinized cases and willingness to personally meet with clients

Related careers

  • Legal assistant

  • Paralegal

  • General counsel

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