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What Different Types of Lawyers Are There?

by Steve Eggleston 27th February 2019

There are a lot of lawyers out there. Every year around 45,000 people earn law degrees and become part of the pool of 1.4 million lawyers practicing in America. Per capita, America has more lawyers than any country in the world except Greece (no kidding), and a higher percent of gross domestic product (GDP) is spent in the law trades in America than any country but Italy, to which we’re more or less on par. And with those kinds of numbers, it’s not surprising that there are all sorts of lawyers, doing all sorts of things.

Trial Lawyers

Nearly half of all American lawyers working for the bigger firms are litigators. These are the lawyers who represent the people who sue and get sued. Though only a small fraction of cases actually goes to trial (some 2%), litigation covers much more than that. The litigation process begins with the auto accident or contract dispute or crime committed and devolves from there to the court system. Settlement demands are made to insurance companies, complaints are drafted and served with summons, and depositions galore take place across the nation, following thousands of subpenas issued daily.

Transaction Lawyers

But the majority of law graduates and lawyers don’t want to be gladiators. They may have loved “Perry Mason” or “Matlock” or “L.A.Law,” or even “Rumpole of the Baily (the British courtroom drama complete withwhite wigs),” but they didn’t have enough combativeness in their blood to makea career of it. A goodly portion of these lovely men and women will insteadbecome a piece of the large swath of law grads that become transactionallawyers. These attorneys negotiate contracts, do real estate deals, puttogether divorce papers, and create wills and trusts and estate plans. Ascompared to their litigation brethren and sisters, they also have much smallerteeth (just kidding).

Big Law, Small Law

Books

Within the world of each – litigators and transaction lawyers – there are massively different kinds of lawyers as well. Most disparate are the lawyers that populate Big Law and those that populate all the rest. Big law is an embellishment for the nation’s largest, often international, law firms with hundreds of lawyers and offices scattered hither and thither. The criteria seems to be top Ivy League credentials, perfect LSAT scores, and summer internships for members of Congress or the President. Only part of this is tongue-in-cheek, but point being, only the crème de la crème find homes in Big Law. By logical exclusion, everyone else I suppose would be Small Law. But that’s not really so.

Public Callings

Many attorneys that don’t chase the calling of Big Law become public sector lawyers. Public sector lawyers are as diverse as the leaves of fall. They range from county district attorneys and PDs to state Attorney’s General and federal prosecutors. And those are just the litigators. There are tens of thousands who hold paperwork posts that involve loads of research, reports, and memorandums covering everything from issuance of building permits to campaign law advise. Every federal department has a legal team, as does every city, county, and state. There are literally tens of thousands of public sector lawyers practicing across America.

Public Interest Lawyers

Not to be confused with public sector lawyers are public interest lawyers who practice public interest law. Public interest law generally is that field of practice devoted to helping the least advantaged in society. These guys and gals are also called pro bono lawyers and called names by the power structure (only slightly kidding). They often make trouble for oil companies that want to build pipelines across Indian lands, developers that want to ravage the environment to make a quick buck, or food suppliers that resist full disclosure on their labels. From Ralph Nadar’s Public Interest Research Groups to Green Peace to the Environmental Defense Fund – these lawyers put public interest before profit. The most notable in history might be the late great Clarence Darrow, renowned for defending unions and the little school teacher charged with a crime for bringing Darwin’s theory of evolution to a public school.

Rich Lawyers

Law books

For every public interest lawyer there’s a rich lawyer who, like his poorer counterpart, could have come from anywhere. The man who walked O.J. Simpson with the phrase, “if it does not fit, you cannot convict,” Johnnie Cochran, was a member of the Million Dollar Roundtable. As a civil trial lawyer, he won dozens of million-dollar verdicts and became very rich for it. Other American trial lawyers like Melvin Belli, Jerry Spence, Racehorse Haynes, and Roy Black – all very different kinds and styles of lawyers – took on the system and either won millions of dollars in jury verdicts (Belli, Spence and Haynes) or took in enormous fees to defend the undefendable (Black).

Insurance Lawyers

On the receiving end of many of those big verdicts are the insurance lawyers or more popularly insurance defense lawyers. When you get to the granular level in personal injury and property law, there are only two kinds of lawyers: personal injury lawyers and insurance defense lawyers. The insurance defense lawyers are hired by the insurance companies to defend the millions of insureds sued in auto and home-related accidents every year. Every city and town has them and they employ tons of attorneys, not only to defend insureds but to test and defend insurance coverage limitations. You might call it a cottage industry, but truly, it is one very big cottage.

Politicians

The same might be said of the cottage industry of lawyers that become politicians. In the current 88th Congress there are a total of 535 members. 315 of them (58%) are attorneys. Of the 100-member Senate, 66 have some significant legal training, as is also the case with 249 or 57% of the House. This of course does not count any of the legislatures of the fifty states that constitute the United States, most of whom are lawyers as well. And all of this makes total sense, if you think about it, because Congress and the state legislatures are empowered to make the federal and state laws of the land. And who better to do that than the people who are trained as the eyes of the law.

Law Professors

Speaking of trained in the eyes of the law, it all starts with the law professors that grip the podiums of classes brought to you by the 237 or so law schools in America. Generally these professors come from the top ten percent of their law classes, while as the old joke goes, “the bottom ten percent get rich.” Law professors make salaries that are relatively modest by comparison to the rich trial lawyers. But there are a few exceptions, of course, people like Alan Dershowitz, the renowned Harvard Law School legal scholar and criminal defense lawyer professor whose views are often sought on matters of the latest constitutional urgency.

All the rest…

The different types of lawyer are seemingly endless. We have not spoken about the Office of the General Counsel, who are corporate in-house attorneys common to all major American corporations. And then thereare the unique specialists like the Hollywood film lawyers, New York music attorneys;the IP or intellectual property crowd in Silicon Valley that defend and attack trademarks and copyrights; the admiralty counsel who focus on the ships andmatters of navigable waters and the high seas; immigration lawyers in the worldof the wall; family lawyers who churn out divorce decrees and custody awards;and a whole slew of others.

In closing we might be wise to invoke the oft-misapplied saying, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”This quote comes to us from a line in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2,Act IV, Scene 2 (sort of like citing a legal reference, isn’t it?). But perhapsit doesn’t mean what you think it does. It doesn’t mean that lawyers are badand we should kill them. Just the opposite, the quote comes from a person whowants to overthrow the government, because to do that, the first thing you’dhave to do, is kill all the lawyers.

Whether you become one and what kind, of course, is entirely up to you…because there are as many different types to choose from as there are people. 

Steve Eggleston - author at Eduvenio

By Steve Eggleston

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