Exploring Law as a Career: Edition 2

Where Lawyers Practice…

Attorneys may practice in a wide-variety of settings.  A legal career provides a dynamic and diverse set of options.  Below is an overview of some of the most common practice settings available to attorneys.

Public Interest

Attorneys working in public interest take on many roles. Typically, public interest attorneys represent indigent clients, with little resources. The role of a public interest lawyer is to serve the community’s interests. In addition to indigent and low-income clients, public interest lawyers will also litigate and represent bigger interests permeating society. Examples of this are attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union, public defenders, and nonprofit organizations.

    • Public interest lawyers can also practice in private public interest firms. These types of private law firms take on clients, but practice cases relating to public interest issues.
    • Public interest lawyers can also focus their practice in criminal law, representing people who are facing criminal charges. Public defenders work in offices across the country, serving as many criminally charged or incarcerated clients’ lawyers. They represent clients in court, fighting for the client’s best interest.
    • Non-profit organizations and Legal Aid organizations also have lawyers who are helping fight their cause, while also ensuring that the non-profit’s mission is being served. Legal Aid organizations provide legal services for low-income and need-based individuals in the community seeking legal help.
    • Public interest organizations may focus on litigation to achieve legal and social change, develop public policy, engage in community development, or specialize in international affairs focusing on activism or diplomacy.
Private Practice

Think of the traditional law firm setting. Whether it’s a big law firm with many different legal teams and hundreds of attorneys, or a small firm with a specialized practice group and a few attorneys, attorneys in private practice will represent clients (individuals, organizations, or business entities) that seek their assistance. The private practice setting provides flexibility. If you are interested in a general practice area, or want to practice a niche and specific field of law, you will be able to find a practice in the private sector.

    • Big law firms. Big Law firms will typically have hundreds (possibly thousands) of lawyers in the firm and will offer representation in many different practice areas. The biggest law firms will have offices in multiple cities and potentially even in international locations.  Law firms organize attorneys into specific practice areas with partners and associates in each group. Bigger law firms tend to have bigger client portfolios, representing many clients in a variety of industries and in areas of law.
    • Medium law firms.  Depending on the location medium size firms may consist of 10 – 50 attorneys, or even a few hundred.  Similar to big firms they will function with a hierarchal structure (Senior Partners, Partners, Associations).  Medium size firms may specialize their practice on a limited number of areas of law or may have a variety of practice areas similar to a large law firm.
    • Small or Boutique law firms.  Small or boutique law firms may host as few as 10 or less attorneys and will typically offer services in very specific practice areas. Boutique firms will tend to highly-specialize in one area of the law. A common example is Intellectual Property boutique firms. As IP is a highly-specialized field, there are firms that will only focus on a very specific aspect of IP and will take on client matters relating only to that specific, niche area of the law.

Local, State, and Federal government provide many options for individuals with a JD degree. Government attorneys practice at the federal, state, and local level. Many attorneys at the Federal level work at the Department of Justice, but also in Congress and the Executive Branch. Government attorneys also represent the United States, such as prosecutors. A government attorney’s client is the government (state, federal, or local) and by extension the citizens.  Government attorneys may also work for the various administrative agencies such as the Department of Labor or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The attorneys help ensure compliance with agency rules and policy, including enforcement.  The U.S. Military also has its own unique military system through the JAG Corps.   

    • Prosecutors – found at federal and state level.
    • Department of Justice criminal and civil division, there are many different sections in the DOJ, and attorneys are found in all sections.
    • “The Hill” – Legislative directors in members of Congress’ offices, attorneys for specific committees, JDs drafting bills for a congressperson.
    • City, State, Federal level of Government – They can work across almost every discipline of the law, however their “client” or whose interest they are advocating for are constituents or larger groups of people, or the government entity itself rather than an individual client or private entities. At the local level, attorneys will work in various aspects of the local government and municipality. At the state and federal level exist assistant attorney generals that litigate for the state’s interest.
    • Executive Agencies – Attorneys work in all executive agencies in the Executive Branch working on legal matters and keeping both the United States’, and the agency’s, best interest at hand.
In-House Counsel

In-house attorneys work in companies—large corporations to start ups. In-house counsel manage the corporation’s legal matters, manage outside counsel, and collaborate with a law firm to advance a corporation’s needs. They represent the interests of the organization, and will require expertise in various disciplines of the law–including corporate, real estate, intellectual property, administrative, and litigation.


Law graduates can pursue public careers in nontraditional settings as well some law graduate may pursue opportunities in teaching, business, higher education, human resources, foreign-service, or policy. Some may pursue legal research opportunities, work for legal organizations such a state bar associations or organizations that provide continuing legal education for attorneys – while others may pursue opportunities in politics.

Clerking (judiciary)

Attorneys can also work in the judiciary, as law clerks. Law clerks will work for a judge and collaborate with the judge to write opinions and handle matters in chambers. Clerks work with a judge with on-going trials, and spend time researching case law and writing.  Clerking may occur as a short term position immediately following graduation, or early in a career.  Some judges employee permanent clerks or staff attorneys who work in their chambers on a permanent basis.

Next week!  Alumni Attorney Talks

Check back next week as we explore legal practice areas in Edition 3 of our career series!  We will also be posting the inaugural addition of our new Alumni Attorney Talks series featuring Jason Emmanuel and a highlight of his work as an Assistant State’s Attorney…