The practice of law is a wide and varied area of employment ranging from academic studies to lawyers working for law firms. Each country has different education systems, different requirements for certain types of work and different titles for its lawyers. The following is therefore a general description of the various types of work within the legal profession. It should also be noted that lawyers often move between these areas of practice in order to gain experience from one field which may be useful in another area of work.
In most countries, one must have studied law at a graduate level to be able to work within the legal profession. As an example, in the UK, most people study law for 3 years. If one then wishes to start working for a law firm or work within the court system, it is necessary to attend law school or bar school for an additional year. Law school is for law students who wish to work with law firms and bar school is for those who wish to work either as barristers or judges (public prosecutors or private defense lawyers). In the United States, it is generally required that one obtains a four-year undergraduate degree in any subject and subsequently attend law school for three years. However, in other countries, like Sweden or Belgium, students study law at university and then start to work directly, usually taking an exam at a later stage to become a qualified lawyer of some kind.
Law firms vary in size but are basically a group of lawyers working together for various private and public clients. They are often set up as partnerships where the lawyers who work together own the law firm together. These owners are called partners. The largest law firms are large international partnerships with offices all over the world. The largest law firms may have thousands of lawyers working worldwide consisting of partners, senior and junior associates, and trainees, as well as support staff such as secretaries, human resources, and IT experts. The large law firms are divided into specialized groups made up of lawyers working within the same area of law, for example a corporate department which works with company law (US – corporate law), a tax department which works with tax law, a litigation department which works with litigation issues, etc. Much of the work carried out by the larger law firms are large projects which involve many different departments within the law firm and, in addition, involve working with lawyers from other countries. Other law firms are smaller and focus on more local or national work. Law firms also work with other, non-economic areas of law, for example, criminal law when defending persons accused of crimes or family law when helping a couple obtain a divorce. Lawyers who work at law firms usually work with private clients, although many are also instructed by public authorities to act on behalf of the state in all kinds of legal areas, civil and criminal. Lawyers who work at law firms will often obtain special titles after working for a certain length of time, such as solicitor (UK) or advocate (FR). These titles are usually earned after passing a specific exam and/or having worked for a certain amount of time.
The courts of a country enforce the criminal and civil laws which are imposed on the country’s citizens and companies. The court system is usually structured in different levels, where the most number of courts are at the first level (first instance). Decisions from these courts can then, in most cases, be appealed to higher level courts, with one court being the ultimate deciding authority, such as the House of Lords in England and the Supreme Court of the United States. Most countries only have one court system. However, in the US there is a federal and a state court system and in the European Union countries, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is an additional court which can enforce European Union law within the member countries.
Courts are normally headed by judges who often are lawyers, although in specialized courts such as commercial courts or employment courts, the judges may often be professionals with many years experience and expertise within a special area of law. There are other officials who work at courts who do not have a legal education, such as lay judges and the administrative personnel. Generally speaking, lawyers within the court system usually work as public prosecutors or judges. A public prosecutor is a person who prosecutes criminals on behalf of the State and is therefore employed by the State. To become a judge, one normally must have worked in some capacity previously within the court system, either as a public prosecutor or as a court clerk and progress to being nominated as a judge. In some countries, for example Sweden, a law student starts to work in a district court and works their way from being court clerks to junior, then senior, judge. In the United Kingdom a law student first has to qualify as a barrister then seek work as a junior judge, and work their way to becoming a more senior judge. This process is not the same for all courts in all jurisdictions, however. There are some courts where judges are appointed without any previous court experience.
All companies need help with legal issues, from actually forming the company to running operations and dealing with everyday business problems. Companies sometimes use law firms for this work, but more often (especially in larger companies) employ their own lawyers who only work for them. These are often referred to as in-house counsel or company lawyers. Some large multinational companies have large groups of lawyers working for them all over the world. There is usually a lead in-house counsel who is also a member of the board of directors. These lawyers work mostly with commercial and corporate law although other areas of law are common too. For example, in-house counsel at a large bank will work with banking, finance and capital markets law. An in-house counsel at a large petrol company may work with environmental law. The in-house counsel works closely with the management of the company and with the board of directors to ensure that the decisions taken by the management and directors comply with the laws applicable to the company. Many lawyers who work at companies will often have worked at commercial law firms as well.
There are many lawyers who work within the public sector, both within the government and within the many different public authorities. In the US and the UK, it is often common for politicians to have a legal background. Lawyers who work within government departments prepare and draft new or amended legislation which the government wishes to pass through parliament. Legislation is constantly changed so that it is up-to-date and relevant in relation to the changes which take place within society, such as technological developments, globalization and environmental changes. Therefore, lawyers who work for the government have to draft new legislation to cover new technology, such as when mobile phones were introduced, or re-draft existing legislation such as contract law which covers the sale of goods to include the selling of goods over the internet.
The public authorities of a country are authorized by the legal system of that country to enforce the legislation that has been enacted. There are a large number of public authorities prepare legislation and enforce different laws applicable to private persons and companies. For example, most countries have an authority which supervises banks and financial institutions to ensure that they carry on their business according to the laws and regulations which are enacted within that area. There are also authorities which are entrusted with enforcing competition legislation (see section on Competition Law) whereby companies market behavior is supervised and to a certain extent controlled. The lawyers who work for public authorities will then also represent the state in any court proceeding which may be necessary to enforce the law.