Lawyer: A Definitive Guide Every Pre-Law Student Must Read (2018 Update)

Lawyers are so much more than merely the butt of disparaging occupational jokes, even if it must be said that some lawyer jokes like the following classic told by Arizona Sen. John McCain are quite memorable: What's the difference between a catfish and a lawyer? One is a scum-sucking bottom dweller, and the other one is a fish.

Incidentally, the joke being told by Senator McCain is quite appropriate, as there is a long history of lawyers who were elected to Congress and even elected president. Indeed, more than half of the US presidents — 25 in total— have been lawyers, with the most recent lawyer-turned-president being Barack Obama.

Whether lawyers serve the capacity of classic joke material, important legal advocates or respected former presidents, it is clear that lawyers are an essential part of our society. What follows is a fun and informative guide that will provide you with everything you need to know about lawyers, starting with defining precisely what a lawyer is and does.

What Is a Lawyer, Anyway?

Attorney, esquire, ambulance chaser (a derogatory term for personal injury lawyers, for reference), counselor, barrister, legal eagle... the titles and terms referring to lawyers are long indeed. Much of the terminology is rooted in a long and rich history. In the United Kingdom, for example, barristers and solicitors both receive legal training, but they are considered different professions. As such, there is no singular definition that can aptly describe what a lawyer is in a global context.

In the United States, however, much of these distinctions are eschewed in favor of a broader, arguably more useful definition. The American Bar Association — an organization of lawyers founded in 1878 that has guided law's evolution in the United States — defines a lawyer as "a licensed professional who advises and represents others in legal matters."

Attorney vs. Lawyer

We already mentioned some of the names that get thrown around when referring to lawyers. Arguably, the most common one mentioned is attorney. Take a quick glance at lawyer websites and they frequently even refer to themselves as attorneys and lawyers in the same paragraph. What gives? And, more importantly, what is the difference between an attorney and a lawyer?

Some authors have made the distinction that lawyers are people who graduate law school but have yet to pass the bar exam (more on this exam later) to become a licensed professional who can advise clients on legal matters. To legal experts, however, the terms are synonyms, and attorney vs. lawyer is a distinction with no difference. Simply, there is no meaningful difference between an attorney and a lawyer.

As such, feel free to use whichever term strikes you as preferable. For the sake of this guide's simplicity, however, expect to read about lawyers.

Definitions Are Well and Good, But What Do Lawyers Do?

Simply put, lawyer is a broad term that simply means someone who can help you with legal matters. Under this broad umbrella, lawyers will have specialized experience (referred to as practice areas) that will showcase their unique qualifications to help clients resolve a legal issue. Examples of common practice areas include:

  • Family Law
  • Personal Injury Law
  • Criminal Defense
  • Constitutional Law
  • Property Law
  • Estate Planning

These are just a few of many areas of practice that lawyers can pursue as career options, but lawyers don't have these career options without completing the educational, exam and occupational requirements needed to become a lawyer.

How to Become a Lawyer

Before becoming a lawyer, an individual must enter into a Faustian bargain to take advantage of their clients and fleece them for monetary gain, at least based on some people's misconception. Lawyer jokes aside, if society put its figurative pitchfork down, there would be much to praise about lawyers.

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