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Definition of Attorney
A lawyer, according to Black's Law Dictionary, is "a person learned in the law; as a attorney, counsel or solicitor; a person who is practicing law."
Law is the system of rules of conduct established by the sovereign government of a society to correct wrongs, maintain the stability of political and
social authority, and deliver justice. Working as a lawyer involves the practical application of abstract legal theories and knowledge to solve
specific individualized problems, or to advance the interests of those who retain (i.e., hire) lawyers to perform legal services.
The role of the lawyer varies significantly across legal jurisdictions, and so it can be treated here in only the most general terms. More information
is available in country-specific articles (see below).
In practice, legal jurisdictions exercise their right to determine who is recognized as being a lawyer; as a result, the meaning of the term
"lawyer" may vary from place to place.
In Australia the word "lawyer" is used to refer to both barristers and solicitors (whether in private practice or practicing as corporate in-house
In Canada, the word "lawyer" only refers to individuals who have been called to the bar or have qualified as civil law notaries in the province of
Quebec. Common law lawyers in Canada may also be known as "barristers and solicitors", but should not be referred to as "attorneys", since that
term has a different meaning in Canadian usage. However, in Quebec, civil law advocates (or avocats in French) often call themselves "attorney" and
sometimes "barrister and solicitor".
In England and Wales, "lawyer" is used loosely to refer to a broad variety of law-trained persons. It includes practitioners such as barristers,
solicitors, legal executives and licensed conveyancers, ; and people who are involved with the law but do not practice it on behalf of individual
clients, such as judges, court clerks, and drafters of legislation.
In India, the term "lawyer" is often colloquially used, but the official term is "advocate" as prescribed under the Advocates Act, 1961.
In Scotland, the word "lawyer" refers to a more specific group of legally trained people. It specifically includes advocates and solicitors. In a
generic sense, it may also include judges and law-trained support staff.
In the United States, the term generally refers to attorneys who may practice law; it is never used to refer to patent agents or paralegals.
Other nations tend to have comparable terms for the analogous concept.
In most countries, particularly civil law countries, there has been a tradition of giving many legal tasks to a variety of civil law notaries,
clerks, and scriveners. These countries do not have "lawyers" in the American sense, insofar as that term refers to a single type of general-purpose
legal services provider; rather, their legal professions consist of a large number of different kinds of law-trained persons, known as jurists, of
which only some are advocates who are licensed to practice in the courts. It is difficult to formulate accurate generalizations that cover all the
countries with multiple legal professions, because each country has traditionally had its own peculiar method of dividing up legal work among all its
different types of legal professionals.
Notably, England, the mother of the common law jurisdictions, emerged from the Dark Ages with similar complexity in its legal professions, but then
evolved by the 19th century to a single dichotomy between barristers and solicitors. An equivalent dichotomy developed between advocates and
procurators in some civil law countries, though these two types did not always monopolize the practice of law as much as barristers and solicitors,
in that they always coexisted with civil law notaries.
Several countries that originally had two or more legal professions have since fused or united their professions into a single type of lawyer.
Most countries in this category are common law countries, though France, a civil law country, merged together its jurists in 1990 and 1991 in
response to Anglo-American competition. In countries with fused professions, a lawyer is usually permitted to carry out all or nearly all the
responsibilities listed below.
Oral argument in the courts
Arguing a client's case before a judge or jury in a court of law is the traditional province of the barrister in England, and of advocates in some
civil law jurisdictions. However, the boundary between barristers and solicitors has evolved. In England today, the barrister monopoly covers only
appellate courts, and barristers must compete directly with solicitors in many trial courts. In countries like the United States that have fused
legal professions, there are trial lawyers who specialize in trying cases in court, but trial lawyers do not have a de jure monopoly like barristers.
In some countries, litigants have the option of arguing pro se, or on their own behalf. It is common for litigants to appear unrepresented before
certain courts like small claims courts; indeed, many such courts do not allow lawyers to speak for their clients, in an effort to save money for
all participants in a small case. In other countries, like Venezuela, no one may appear before a judge unless represented by a lawyer. The advantage
of the latter regime is that lawyers are familiar with the court's customs and procedures, and make the legal system more efficient for all involved.
Unrepresented parties often damage their own credibility or slow the court down as a result of their inexperience.
Research and drafting of court papers
Often, lawyers brief a court in writing on the issues in a case before the issues can be orally argued. They may have to perform extensive research
into relevant facts and law while drafting legal papers and preparing for oral argument.
In England, the usual division of labor is that a solicitor will obtain the facts of the case from the client and then brief a barrister
(usually in writing). The barrister then researches and drafts the necessary court pleadings (which will be filed and served by the solicitor) and
orally argues the case.
In Spain, the procurator merely signs and presents the papers to the court, but it is the advocate who drafts the papers and argues the case.
In some countries, like Japan, a scrivener or clerk may fill out court forms and draft simple papers for lay persons who cannot afford or do not
need attorneys, and advise them on how to manage and argue their own cases.
Advocacy (written and oral) in administrative hearings
In most developed countries, the legislature has granted original jurisdiction over highly technical matters to executive branch administrative
agencies which oversee such things. As a result, some lawyers have become specialists in administrative law. In a few countries, there is a special
category of jurists with a monopoly over this form of advocacy; for example, France formerly had conseils juridiques (who were merged into the main
legal profession in 1991). In other countries, like the United States, lawyers have been effectively barred by statute from certain types of
administrative hearings in order to preserve their informality.
Client intake and counseling (with regard to pending litigation)
An important aspect of a lawyer's job is developing and managing relationships with clients (or the client's employees, if the lawyer works in-house
for a government or corporation). The client-lawyer relationship often begins with an intake interview where the lawyer gets to know the client
personally, discovers the facts of the client's case, clarifies what the client wants to accomplish, shapes the client's expectations as to what
actually can be accomplished, begins to develop various claims or defenses, and explains his or her fees to the client.
In England, only solicitors were traditionally in direct contact with the client. The solicitor retained a barrister if one was necessary and acted
as an intermediary between the barrister and the client. In most cases a barrister would be obliged, under what is known as the "cab rank rule", to
accept instructions for a case in an area in which they held themselves out as practicing, at a court at which they normally appeared and at their
Main article: Legal advice
Legal advice is the application of abstract principles of law to the concrete facts of the client's case in order to advise the client about what
they should do next. In many countries, only a properly licensed lawyer may provide legal advice to clients for good consideration, even if no
lawsuit is contemplated or is in progress. Therefore, even conveyancers and corporate in-house counsel must first get a license to practice, though
they may actually spend very little of their careers in court. Failure to obey such a rule is the crime of unauthorized practice of law.
In other countries, jurists who hold law degrees are allowed to provide legal advice to individuals or to corporations and it is irrelevant if they
lack a license and cannot appear in court. Some countries go further; in England and Wales, there is no general prohibition on the giving of legal
advice. Sometimes civil law notaries are allowed to give legal advice, as in Belgium. In many countries, non-jurist accountants may provide what is
technically legal advice in tax and accounting matters.
Protecting intellectual property
In virtually all countries, patents, trademarks, industrial designs and other forms of intellectual property must be formally registered with a
government agency in order to receive maximum protection under the law. The division of such work among lawyers, licensed non-lawyer jurists/agents,
and ordinary clerks or scriveners varies greatly from one country to the next.
Negotiating and drafting contracts
In some countries, the negotiating and drafting of contracts is considered to be similar to the provision of legal advice, so that it is subject to
the licensing requirement explained above. In others, jurists or notaries may negotiate or draft contracts.
Lawyers in some civil law countries traditionally deprecated "transactional law" or "business law" as beneath them. French law firms developed
transactional departments only in the 1990s when they started to lose business to international firms based in the United States and the United
Kingdom (where solicitors have always done transactional work).
Conveyancing is the drafting of the documents necessary for the transfer of real property, such as deeds and mortgages. In some jurisdictions, all
real estate transactions must be carried out by a lawyer (or a solicitor where that distinction still exists). Such a monopoly is quite valuable from
the lawyer's point of view; historically, conveyancing accounted for about half of English solicitors' income (though this has since changed), and a
1978 study showed that conveyancing "accounts for as much as 80 percent of solicitor-client contact in New South Wales." In most common law
jurisdictions outside of the United States, this monopoly arose from an 1804 law that was introduced by William Pitt the Younger as a quid pro quo
for the raising of fees on the certification of legal professionals such as barristers, solicitors, attorneys and notaries.
In others, the use of a lawyer is optional and banks, title companies, or realtors may be used instead. In some civil law jurisdictions, real estate
transactions are handled by civil law notaries. In England and Wales a special class of legal professional–the licensed conveyancer–is also allowed
to carry out conveyancing services for reward. ian S. lapating
Carrying out the intent of the deceased
In many countries, only lawyers have the legal authority to draft wills, trusts, and any other documents that ensure the efficient disposition of a
person's property after death. In some civil law countries this responsibility is handled by civil law notaries.
In the United States, the estates of the deceased must generally be administered by a court through probate. American lawyers have a profitable
monopoly on dispensing advice about probate law (which has been heavily criticized).
Prosecution and defense of criminal suspects
In many civil law countries, prosecutors are trained and employed as part of the judiciary; they are law-trained jurists, but may not necessarily be
lawyers in the sense that the word is used in the common law world. In common law countries, prosecutors are usually lawyers holding regular licenses
who simply happen to work for the government office that files criminal charges against suspects. Criminal defense lawyers specialize in the defense
of those charged with any crimes.
Common law/civil law
In most common law countries, especially those with fused professions, lawyers have many options over the course of their careers. Besides private
practice, they can become a prosecutor, government counsel, corporate in-house counsel, administrative law judge, judge, arbitrator, law professor,
or politician. There are also many non-legal jobs which legal training is good preparation for, such as corporate executive, government
administrator, investment banker, entrepreneur, or journalist. In developing countries like India, a large majority of law students never actually
practice, but simply use their law degree as a foundation for careers in other fields.
In most civil law countries, lawyers generally structure their legal education around their chosen specialty; the boundaries between different types
of lawyers are carefully defined and hard to cross. After one earns a law degree, career mobility may be severely constrained. For example, unlike
their American counterparts, it is difficult for German judges to leave the bench and become advocates in private practice. Another interesting
example is France, where for much of the 20th century, all judiciary officials were graduates of an elite professional school for judges. Although
the French judiciary has begun experimenting with the Anglo-American model of appointing judges from accomplished advocates, the few advocates who
have actually joined the bench this way are looked down upon by their colleagues who have taken the traditional route to judicial office.
In a few civil law countries, such as Sweden, the legal profession is not rigorously bifurcated and everyone within it can easily change roles and
In many countries, lawyers are general practitioners who will take almost any kind of case that walks in the door. In others, there has been a
tendency since the start of the 20th century for lawyers to specialize early in their careers. In countries where specialization is prevalent, many
lawyers specialize in representing one side in one particular area of the law; thus, it is common in the United States to hear of plaintiffs' personal
Main article: Law firm
Lawyers in private practice generally work in specialized businesses known as law firms, with the exception of English barristers. The vast
majority of law firms worldwide are small businesses that range in size from 1 to 10 lawyers. The United States, with its large number of firms with
more than 50 lawyers, is an exception. The United Kingdom and Australia are also exceptions, as the UK, Australia and the U.S. are now home to several
firms with more than 1,000 lawyers after a wave of mergers in the late 1990s.
Notably, barristers in England and Wales and some states in Australia do not work in "law firms". Those who offer their services to the general
public—as opposed to those working "in house"—are required to be self-employed. Most work in groupings known as "sets" or "chambers", where some
administrative and marketing costs are shared. An important effect of this different organizational structure is that there is no conflict of interest
where barristers in the same chambers work for opposing sides in a case, and in some specialised chambers this is commonplace.
Professional associations and regulation
Mandatory licensing and membership in professional organizations
In some jurisdictions, either the judiciary or the Ministry of Justice directly supervises the admission, licensing, and regulation of lawyers.
Other jurisdictions, by statute, tradition, or court order, have granted such powers to a professional association which all lawyers must belong to.
In the U.S., such associations are known as mandatory, integrated, or unified bar associations. In the Commonwealth of Nations, similar organizations
are known as Inns of Court, bar councils or law societies. In civil law countries, comparable organizations are known as Orders of Advocates, Chambers
of Advocates, Colleges of Advocates, Faculties of Advocates, or similar names. Generally, a nonmember caught practicing law may be liable for the
crime of unauthorized practice of law.
In common law countries with divided legal professions, barristers traditionally belong to the bar council (or an Inn of Court) and solicitors belong
to the law society. In the English-speaking world, the largest mandatory professional association of lawyers is the State Bar of California, with
Some countries admit and regulate lawyers at the national level, so that a lawyer, once licensed, can argue cases in any court in the land. This is
common in small countries like New Zealand, Japan, and Belgium. Others, especially those with federal governments, tend to regulate lawyers at the
state or provincial level; this is the case in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Switzerland, to name a few. Brazil is the most well-known
federal government that regulates lawyers at the national level.
Some countries, like Italy, regulate lawyers at the regional level, and a few, like Belgium, even regulate them at the local level (that is, they
are licensed and regulated by the local equivalent of bar associations but can advocate in courts nationwide). In Germany, lawyers are admitted to
regional bars and may appear for clients before all courts nationwide with the exception of the Federal Court of Justice of Germany (Bundesgerichtshof
or BGH); oddly, securing admission to the BGH's bar limits a lawyer's practice solely to the supreme federal courts and the Federal Constitutional
Court of Germany.
Generally, geographic limitations can be troublesome for a lawyer who discovers that his client's cause requires him to litigate in a court beyond the
normal geographic scope of his license. Although most courts have special pro hac vice rules for such occasions, the lawyer will still have to deal
with a different set of professional responsibility rules, as well as the possibility of other differences in substantive and procedural law.
Some countries grant licenses to non-resident lawyers, who may then appear regularly on behalf of foreign clients. Others require all lawyers to live
in the jurisdiction or to even hold national citizenship as a prerequisite for receiving a license to practice. But the trend in industrialized
countries since the 1970s has been to abolish citizenship and residency restrictions. For example, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a
citizenship requirement on equality rights grounds in 1989, and similarly, American citizenship and residency requirements were struck down as
unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 and 1985, respectively. The European Court of Justice made similar decisions in 1974 and 1977
striking down citizenship restrictions in Belgium and France.
Who regulates lawyers
A key difference among countries is whether lawyers should be regulated solely by an independent judiciary and its subordinate institutions (a
self-regulating legal profession), or whether lawyers should be subject to supervision by the Ministry of Justice in the executive branch.
In most civil law countries, the government has traditionally exercised tight control over the legal profession in order to ensure a steady supply of
loyal judges and bureaucrats. That is, lawyers were expected first and foremost to serve the state, and the availability of counsel for private
litigants was an afterthought. Even in civil law countries like Norway which have partially self-regulating professions, the Ministry of Justice is
the sole issuer of licenses, and makes its own independent re-evaluation of a lawyer's fitness to practice after a lawyer has been expelled from the
Advocates' Association. Brazil is an unusual exception in that its national Order of Advocates has become a fully self-regulating institution (with
direct control over licensing) and has successfully resisted government attempts to place it under the control of the Ministry of Labor.
Of all the civil law countries, Communist countries historically went the farthest towards total state control, with all Communist lawyers forced to
practice in collectives by the mid-1950s. China is a prime example: technically, the People's Republic of China did not have lawyers, and instead had
only poorly-trained, state-employed "legal workers," prior to the enactment of a comprehensive reform package in 1996 by the Standing Committee of the
National People's Congress.
In contrast, common law lawyers have traditionally regulated themselves through institutions where the influence of non-lawyers, if any, was weak and
indirect (despite nominal state control). Such institutions have been traditionally dominated by private practitioners who opposed strong state control
of the profession on the grounds that it would endanger the ability of lawyers to zealously and competently advocate their clients' causes in the
adversarial system of justice.
However, the concept of the self-regulating profession has been criticized as a sham which serves to legitimize the professional monopoly while
protecting the profession from public scrutiny. Disciplinary mechanisms have been astonishingly ineffective, and penalties have been light or
Voluntary associations of lawyers
Lawyers are always free to form voluntary associations of their own, apart from any licensing or mandatory membership that may be required by the
laws of their jurisdiction. Like their mandatory counterparts, such organizations may exist at all geographic levels. In American English, such
associations are known as voluntary bar associations. The largest voluntary professional association of lawyers in the English-speaking world is
the American Bar Association.
In some countries, like France and Italy, lawyers have also formed trade unions.
Main article: Attorney's fee
Lawyers are paid for their work in a variety of ways. In private practice, they may work for an hourly fee according to a billable hour structure, a
contingency fee (usually in cases involving personal injury), or a lump sum payment if the matter is straightforward. Normally, most lawyers negotiate
a written fee agreement up front and may require a non-refundable retainer in advance. In many countries there are fee-shifting arrangements by which
the loser must pay the winner's fees and costs; the United States is the major exception, although in turn, its legislators have carved out many
exceptions to the so-called "American Rule" of no fee shifting.
Lawyers working directly on the payroll of governments, nonprofits, and corporations usually earn a regular annual salary. In many countries, with
the notable exception of Germany, lawyers can also volunteer their labor in the service of worthy causes through an arrangement called pro bono
(short for pro bono publico, "for the common good").Traditionally such work was performed on behalf of the poor, but in some countries it has now
expanded to many other causes such as the environment.
In some countries, there are legal aid lawyers who specialize in providing legal services to the indigent. France and Spain even have formal fee
structures by which lawyers are compensated by the government for legal aid cases on a per-case basis. A similar system, though not as extensive or
generous, operates in Australia, Canada, as well as South Africa.
In other countries, legal aid specialists are practically nonexistent. This may be because non-lawyers are allowed to provide such services; in both
Italy and Belgium, trade unions and political parties provide what can be characterized as legal aid services. Some legal aid in Belgium is also
provided by young lawyer apprentices subsidized by local bar associations (known as the pro deo system), as well as consumer protection nonprofit
organizations and Public Assistance Agencies subsidized by local governments. In Germany, mandatory fee structures have enabled widespread
implementation of affordable legal expense insurance.