Legal Profession

Legal Profession in the United States

Persons who are authorized to practice law. The legal profession consists of approximately 650,000 licensed attorneys. Generally, an attorney is a person appointed to act on another’s behalf. The services performed by attorneys for their clients can be grouped into several broad categories. Lawyers act as official representatives of their clients. This may involve representation in court, but more often in other settings. An attorney may, for example, represent a client before a government agency to obtain a favorable outcome on a matter involving taxes or a local ordinance. If actual litigation develops, an attorney must be prepared to represent the interests of a client at a hearing or at trial. An attorney also frequently pursues settlements to disputes. Such settlements are typically negotiated rather than litigated. Negotiation is an activity common to the effective representation of both civil and criminal clients. Lawyers also provide clients with advice. That is, they counsel clients as to the actions they may take to best protect their interests. Finally, members of the legal profession prepare documentation for their clients. Documents such as contracts and wills secure the interests of clients into the future. (1)

Analysis and Relevance

The members of the legal profession are the central group in the administration of civil and criminal justice. Members of the legal profession are the only ones authorized to practice law either in or out of court. Persons must be admitted to the bar of a state before they can actually practice law there. Each state sets its own standards, but there are some common requirements. A prospective lawyer must graduate from a law school, pass a test known as a bar exam, and possess solid “moral character.” Admission to the bar does not automatically authorize an attorney to practice in another state. While reciprocity does exist for many, persons may be required to take a state’s bar exam as a condition of practicing in that state. Federal courts set federal standards. Although more stringent requirements do exist in some federal districts, a lawyer licensed in a state is typically able to practice before federal courts. The interests of the legal profession are generally promoted by bar associations, organizations established at the national, state, and local levels. Bar associations are interested in the economic well-being of attorneys, but they are also dedicated to high standards in the training of lawyers and legal ethics. Bar associations are involved in attempts to improve the legal services available to the public. Ten to fifteen percent of the legal profession practice law as salaried employees of government agencies, and another ten to fifteen percent are employed by private corporations. The remaining seventy percent are engaged in some form of private practice. A private practitioner may operate alone or in association with one or more other lawyers. Approximately fifteen percent of attorneys in private practice are members of firms with 20 or more lawyers. (2)

Regulation of the Legal Profession

Each state has adopted laws, regulations and codes of ethics that provide for the licensure of attorneys, which grants attorneys the exclusive right to practice law and places restrictions upon the activities of licensed attorneys.

The boundaries of the “practice of law,” however, are indistinct, vary from one state to another and are the product of complex interactions among state law, bar associations and constitutional law formulated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Many states define the practice of law to include the giving of advice and opinions regarding another person’s legal rights, the preparation of legal documents or the preparation of court documents for another person. In
addition, all states and the American Bar Association prohibit attorneys from sharing fees for legal services with non-attorneys.

Legal Profession


Further Reading

  • We All Get Along Here': Case Flow in Rural Courts, Fahnestock, Kathryn and Geiger, Maurice D., 76: 258-263 (Feb.-Mar. '93, AJS Judicature)
  • 2020 Vision: A Bifocal View, Tigar, Michael E., 74: 89-92 (Aug.-Sep. '90, AJS Judicature)
  • Access to civil justice: Is there a solution? (viewpoint), Moon, Ronald T.Y., 88: 155-157,188 (Jan.-Feb. '05, AJS Judicature)
  • The attorney gender gap in U.S. Supreme Court litigation, Sarver, Tammy A., Kaheny, Erin B., and Szmer, John J., 91: 238-250 (Mar-Apr '08, AJS Judicature)
  • The authors respond (letter), Bergsgaard, Donna M. and Desmond, Andrew R., 79: 108 (Nov.-Dec. '95, AJS Judicature)
  • California holds hearings on bar (brief), Brief, AJS, 82: 94 (Sept.-Oct. '98, AJS Judicature)
  • A Client's Experience With Implementing Value Billing, Baird, Zoe, 77: 198-200 (Jan.-Feb. '94, AJS Judicature)
  • A common-sense approach to justice, Reno, Janet, 77: 66-67, 113-114 (Sep.-Oct. '93, AJS Judicature)
  • Contingency fee lawyers as gatekeepers in the civil justice system, Kritzer, Herbert M., 81: 22-29 (July-Aug. '97, AJS Judicature)
  • Court increases California bar dues (brief), Brief, AJS, 82: 141 (Nov.-Dec. '98, AJS Judicature)
  • Court-Annexed Compulsory Arbitration Is Providing Litigants With A Speedier and Less Expensive Alternative to the Traditional Courtroom Trial, Broderick, Raymond J., 75: 41-44 (Jun.-Jul. '91, AJS Judicature)
  • Different Voices, Different Choices? The Impact of More Women Lawyers and Judges on the Justice System, Author, No, 74: 138-146 (Oct.-Nov. '90, AJS Judicature)
  • The emerging tech challenge to the legal profession (viewpoint), Zorza, Richard, 84: 302-303, 329 (May-June '01, AJS Judicature)
  • The Empirical Turn In Legal Education (editorial), Editorial, AJS, 89: 312, 351 (6, AJS Judicature)
  • Enhancing federal judicial compensation (letter), Lawson, Hugh, 92: 102 (3, AJS Judicature)
  • Enhancing federal judicial compensation, the author responds (letter), Paul, Roland, 92: 102 (3, AJS Judicature)
  • Fiddling While Rome Burns: A Response to Dr. Hensler, Butler, Gregory Brian and Miller, Brian David, 75: 251-254 (Feb.-Mar. '92, AJS Judicature)
  • Footnote fight (letter), Billings, Carol D., 79: 108 (Nov.-Dec. '95, AJS Judicature)
  • Funding Judicial Campaigns In Illinois, Nicholson, Marlene Arnold and Nicholson, Norman, 77: 294-299 (May-Jun. '94, AJS Judicature)
  • How The Shift From Hourly Rates Will Affect The Justice System, Barker, Sarah Evans, 77: 201-202 (Jan.-Feb. '94, AJS Judicature)
  • How to enhance federal judicial compensation (viewpoint), Paul, Roland, 92: 24-55 (2, AJS Judicature)
  • The Impact of Federal Rule 11 on Lawyers and Judges in the Northern District of California, Nelken, Melissa L., 74: 147-152 (Oct.-Nov. '90, AJS Judicature)
  • An ineffective solution (letter), Salibra, Lawrence A., II, 84: 6 (July-Aug. '00, AJS Judicature)
  • Is It Time for the Legal Post-Mortem to Ensure Lawyer Accountability? (query), Nygaard, Richard Lowell, 76: 171, 214 (Dec.-Jan. '93, AJS Judicature)
  • Judges or Lawyers – Who Are The Keepers of the Flame? (query), Tigar, Michael E., 74: 125-127 (Oct.-Nov. '90, AJS Judicature)
  • Keep government out of the citation business (brief), Bergsgaard, Donna M. and Desmond, Andrew R., 79: 63-66 (Sept.-Oct. '95, AJS Judicature)
  • Lawyers' Fees And The Holy Grail: Where Should Clients Search For Value?, Kritzer, Herbert M., 77: 186-190 (Jan.-Feb. '94, AJS Judicature)
  • Legal information vs. legal advice: Developments during the last five years, Greacen, John M., 84: 198-204 (Jan.-Feb. '01, AJS Judicature)
  • The Legal Profession: A Critical Evaluation, Adams, Arlin M., 74: 77-83 (Aug.-Sep. '90, AJS Judicature)
  • Lessons from Brown for today's public interest lawyers, Morrison, Alan B., 88: 60-65 (Sept.-Oct. '04, AJS Judicature)
  • A new way for courts to promote professionalism (viewpoint), Bien, Elliot L., 86: 132-133, 167-168 (Nov.-Dec. '02, AJS Judicature)
  • Nonlawyer incursions (letter), McArthur, John, 81: 186 (Mar.-Apr. '98, AJS Judicature)
  • An open letter to the new president about the administration of justice (editorial), Editorial, AJS, 84: 172 (Jan.-Feb. '01, AJS Judicature)
  • Opening the bar's doors (letter), Barsanti, John R., Jr., 81: 186 (Mar.-Apr. '98, AJS Judicature)
  • Perceptive and Disturbing (letter), Wilbert, Paul L., 74: 289 (Apr.-May '91, AJS Judicature)
  • Reforming The Laywer-Client Relationship Through Alternative Billing Methods, Litan, Robert E. and Salop, Steven C., 77: 191-197 (Jan.-Feb. '94, AJS Judicature)
  • Rethinking barriers to legal practice, Kritzer, Herbert M., 81: 100-103 (Nov.-Dec. '97, AJS Judicature)
  • The Role Of State Bar Associations In Judicial Selection, Sheldon, Charles H., 77: 300-305 (May-Jun. '94, AJS Judicature)
  • Should Lawyers Be More Critical of Courts? (query), Miner, Roger J., 71: 134-135, 172 (Oct.-Nov. '87, AJS Judicature)
  • A simplified system of citation, Sherman, Gary, 79: 60, 62-63 (Sept.-Oct. '95, AJS Judicature)
  • State Court-Annexed Arbitration: What Do Attorneys Think?, Boersema, Craig, Hanson, Roger A., and Keilitz, Susan, 75: 28-33 (Jun.-Jul. '91, AJS Judicature)
  • Survey examines civility in the Seventh Circuit (focus), Hackett, Terry, 75: 107-108 (Aug.-Sep. '91, AJS Judicature)
  • Taking Aim at the American Legal System: The Council on Competitiveness's Agenda for Legal Reform, Hensler, Deborah R., 75: 244-250 (Feb.-Mar. '92, AJS Judicature)
  • What attorneys think of jury trial innovations, Cowan, J. Donald, Jr., Crisham, Thomas M., Keating, Michael B., Mahony, Gael, Pole, Debra E., Pope, Michael A., Schwarzer, William W., and Wester, John R., 86: 192-199 (Jan.-Feb. '03, AJS Judicature)
  • What does it mean to be a good lawyer?: Prosecutors, defenders and problem-solving courts, Feinblatt, John and Denckla, Derek, 84: 206-214 (Jan.-Feb. '01, AJS Judicature)
  • What is a traditional judge anyway? Problem solving in the state courts, Berman, Greg, 84: 78-85 (Sept.-Oct. '00, AJS Judicature)
  • Why attorneys support mandatory mediation, Gordon, Elizabeth Ellen, 82: 224-231 (Mar.-Apr. '99, AJS Judicature)
  • Resources

    See Also

    Notes and References

    1. Definition of Legal Profession from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California
    2. Id.

Legal Profession: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Legal Profession. This part provides references, in relation to Legal Profession, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Legal Profession by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Legal Profession and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Legal Profession or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Legal Profession and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Legal Profession. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Legal Profession should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Legal Profession when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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