Practice of Law

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Practice of Law

The professional tasks performed by lawyers in their offices or in court on a day-to-day basis. With the growth of specialization, it has become difficult to generalize about the practice of law. Nevertheless, common elements can be identified in the disparate typical workday of, for example, a criminal defense attorney and a probate attorney.

The practice of law depends on lawyers having clients. Therefore, lawyers must spend time with clients or potential clients. In these meetings lawyers are expected to do more than just listen to their clients' concerns and desires. Lawyers must ask questions that help identity the legal issues at stake and use the answers to make an initial assessment of the case. If the legal and factual issues are simple a lawyer may be able to offer the client legal advice. If the issues are more complex or the facts are unclear the lawyer will defer offering advice. At the end of the meeting the client or the lawyer may decide they do not want to pursue the matter any further. If they agree to proceed, however, the client will often sign a retainer agreement that specifies what the lawyer will charge and how payments will be made.

Once a legal problem or issue has been identified the lawyer must act on the client's behalf and research the law of the state or jurisdiction. If the client wants a will or contract prepared, the lawyer will draft the document. If the client has a dispute with a party, the lawyer may contact that party or the party's attorney, to discuss the situation. If the problem cannot be resolved informally the lawyer may file a civil lawsuit with a local court and begin the litigation process. These types of actions are mirrored in the Criminal Law, where prosecutors represent the state and defense lawyers represent those persons charged with crimes. If a criminal matter cannot be resolved through a plea bargain, the case must be tried in court.

The practice of law is most public when a matter is tried before a court. In both civil and criminal hearings and trials, lawyers must understand rules of procedure and evidence. Lawyers select jurors, challenge the introduction of evidence, make arguments to the judge and jury, propose jury instructions and do whatever is necessary to represent their clients. Lawyers also may file appeals on behalf of their clients if they lose in the trial court. Appeals require the preparation of a brief and oral argument in front of appellate judges.

An overlooked part of the practice of law is the collection of money on behalf of the client. Once a court issues a final judgment awarding damages, court costs, and attorneys' fees, an attorney must secure payment from the other party. If the party fails to pay the judgment the attorney can garnish the wages of the party and attach the party's Personal Property in order to obtain the money to which the client is legally entitled.

Further readings

Bogus, Carl T. 2001. Why Lawsuits are Good for America: Disciplined Democracy, Big Business, and the Common Law. New York: New York Univ. Press.

Foonberg, Jay G. 1999. How to Start and Build a Law Practice. 4th ed. Chicago: American Bar Association.

Hobson, Wayne K. 1986. The American Legal Profession and the Organizational Society, 1890–1930. New York: Garland.

Walton, Kimm Alayane. 2000. What Law School Doesn't Teach You … But You Really Need to Know. New York: Harcourt Brace Legal and Professional Publications.


Attorney-Client Privilege; Attorney Misconduct; Canons of Ethics; Ethics, Legal; Lawyer; Legal Malpractice; Professional Responsibility.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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