You enjoyed watching Law and Order and those old Perry Mason reruns. The drama and excitement made you certain that becoming a criminal lawyer and having center stage in the courtroom was your calling. After all, you were outstanding as lead in To Kill a Mockingbird and excelled on the high school debate team.
But, you talked with the lawyer who lives next door to Mom and Dad; she gave you a very different view of what lawyers do. Criminal lawyers work with legal cases where the State is the plaintiff and individuals are the defendants. Most of the everyday lawyers you encounter practice civil law. Civil cases usually involve conflicts or litigation between two private parties. On TV, you see lawyers in court, but seldom get the true picture of the many hours spent in their office or doing research.
Lawyers specialize in family law.
Though not particularly glamorous, sometimes petty, and often heartbreaking, messy divorces, ugly custody cases, and other domestic situations require the expertise of a skilled and compassionate family lawyer. Should little Buffy and Skipper spend Christmas or Thanksgiving with Mom or with Dad? When do Grandma and Grandpa get to see the little guys? And, who gets custody the pooch, the pension, and the photos? Good listening skills and patience for ongoing “he said, she said” situations, make some family lawyers function like psychologists, counselors, or social workers at times. Become a family lawyer, and you will come home from work each day and be increasingly thankful for your comfortably sedate personal life.
Writing wills and trusts and handling house closings are generally routine tasks handled by civil lawyers. Knowledge of the specific laws in your state is essential. Clients provide the necessary information; you, their attorney, draft the paperwork.
Lawyers handle personal injury cases, medical neglect and also some traffic situations.
You’ve seen their ads on daytime TV that target down-on-their-luck folks. But, if you decide to be a personal injury lawyer, word-of-mouth recommendation within your own community should attract ample business. For example, John had a routine surgical procedure at the local hospital. His personal injury lawyer is trying to untangle the facts; why is John more disabled now than he was before the surgery? John can no longer dress himself nor do other daily tasks and cannot perform essential functions at work. It may take a while for John’s attorney to receive the financial settlement that John deserves.
Government lawyers have a variety of on-the-job responsibilities.
Though many civil lawyers are self-employed or in small practices, those who work for the government appreciate the steady paycheck and fairly regular hours. Some attorneys are advisers or advocates to legal aid societies that help those who cannot afford legal help. Government lawyers are employed at the city, county, state or federal level, and some are involved in criminal cases. The work is exciting and interesting and varies daily.
Depending on the size of the municipality, a city may have one or several city attorneys. A city attorney can advise a citizen of their legal rights, as in the case of Sara who shares a driveway with an irrational neighbor and repeatedly has her car blocked so she can’t get out. City attorneys generally attend city council meetings and present their expertise as needed.
A Public Defender is employed by the county. Larger counties usually have several public defenders. They represent defendants who cannot afford a lawyer in criminal cases. The psycho who set a fire that destroyed part of a downtown area was represented by a Public Defender, because just like you, alleged criminals are entitled to legal representation, too.
Most State’s Attorney’s are elected county officials. The State’s Attorney is a prosecutor for criminal and some traffic cases. You may recognize the name and face of your county’s State’s Attorney from the TV News reports of high profile cases.
There are other specialties for attorneys.
Landlord and eviction cases are never pretty. Old man Chuck’s case lasted for nearly a year. Widowed and possibly not-of-sound-mind when he quickly remarried, he bequeathed the family home to his young gold-digging widow. Chuck died unexpectedly. When Chuck’s grief-stricken children came to the house to collect family mementos, the widow barricaded herself in the house and wouldn’t allow them access.
Where you live dictates the need for certain attorney jobs. In large cities with much commerce, tax lawyers or corporate lawyers, especially those with expertise in contracts are in demand. Live someplace like New York or Los Angeles and you could be an entertainment lawyer. Also, immigration law is an emerging law specialty. And if you live near a major university, you might enjoy teaching a class in torts or constitutional law.
In a perfect world, people will all get along with each other, and there’s no need for lawyers. Until that happens, you’re likely to find ample employment practicing criminal or civil law. Being a lawyer can be a satisfying and lucrative profession.
Debra L. Karplus, MS, OTR/L
Registered Occupational Therapist