Whether you are seeking the assistance of a lawyer or contemplating going to law school, there is a general confusion in the population as to what types of lawyers are there. Some people assume that a lawyer is a lawyer, and so any lawyer will be able to provide whatever legal services they need. While technically this is true because a lawyer is licensed to practice law (minus a few exceptions where further licensing is required), the law is so vast and all-encompassing that it is impossible for a single lawyer to effectively provide legal services across each different area of law. Much like doctors, where there is a focus on a specific area of the body, specific age groups, or specific types of ailments and diseases, lawyers typically specialize in one, or a few related types of law.
Below is a list of 18 of the most common types of lawyers (in no particular order) and brief descriptions of each lawyers’ law practice.
Business Lawyer (also called Corporate Lawyer)
Business law is quite broad, and business lawyers will often deal with several areas of law discussed below, including employment, intellectual property, and mergers and acquisitions. Sometimes these lawyers just focus on basic business legal tasks such as forming your company, while others are more encompassing and will work on all types of business needs from employment issues to tax compliance. Also, some lawyers focus only on small businesses and startups, while others focus on large enterprises.
Keep in mind that there are business transactional lawyers and business litigation lawyers as well. The difference between these two types of business lawyers are significant, in that business transactional lawyers handle transactions (such as negotiating deals) and drafting documents (such as employment agreements), while business litigation lawyers handle your lawsuits (such as when someone sues your company for violating the terms of a contract). Most of the time, a business transactional lawyer will not do business litigation, and vice versa, although there are exceptions.
Employment & Labor Lawyer
Employment & Labor lawyers are exactly as they sound; they handle issues relating to employment. They mainly deal with making sure businesses are complying with state and federal labor laws. Much like corporate lawyers, there are both litigation and transactional employment lawyers. Employment litigators are the ones who go to court to argue when/if a business violated the terms of an employment contract or state law, while transactional employment lawyers deal more with drafting the employment documents themselves when an employee is being hired. Some employment lawyers do both litigation and transactional work.
Finance & Securities Lawyer
Finance and Securities lawyers only operate in a very specific sector of law. They tend to only deal with issues relating to banks and individuals issuing money, or to companies selling stock. They can also help defend clients if the IRS or SEC files a complaint against a person or a corporation.
Mergers & Acquisitions Lawyer (M&A)
Mergers and acquisition (M&A) lawyers deal with the buying and selling of companies. The buying and selling of major companies can be a very long and complex process which usually involves a team of lawyers. M&A lawyers tend to be very well-versed in finance and securities laws, as well as tax law, to make sure they structure the deals, aka the purchase or sale of their client’s company, correctly.
Intellectual Property Lawyer (IP)
Intellectual Property, or IP, lawyers deal with anything having to do with protecting intellectual property, that is intangible (something you can’t touch like a song or an idea) property. The three major areas of law within intellectual property are copyright, trademark, and patent. Some IP lawyers just focus on copyright and trademark issues, while others just focus on patent issues. Patent law is one area that requires further licensing than just a regular law degree and also requires a technical background (such as one in engineering, software development, chemistry, or life sciences). Since IP laws are all very technical and different from each other, lawyers don’t tend to handle all of these issues (however IP law firms will have a team of lawyers who can help you with any of them). Like most areas of law, there are normal IP lawyers and IP litigators. The normal IP lawyers help with all the filings required to protect your IP, while litigators are the ones who go to court to battle who owns what IP and how much that IP protects the individual in a given dispute.
You probably could have guessed what a family lawyer does. A family lawyer handles anything having to do with direct family issues. Sometimes this includes estate or family planning, but usually family lawyers handle things like divorce, custody battles, prenuptial agreements, and other issues surrounding marriage and children. While some only focus on divorce, most family lawyers cover all areas of family law.
Estate Planning Lawyer
Estate planning lawyers make sure your family dealings are all in order if/when something goes wrong. Their tasks range from creating trusts for a child’s college fund to drafting a will so your assets get distributed appropriately to the members of your family when you die. However, there are instances where people do not have a will and their assets have to go through Probate (court that decides what happens to your assets after death if you don’t have a will). In these instances, there is a subset of family lawyers, called Probate Lawyers, who argue where and how those assets are distributed.
Tax lawyers usually help businesses and individuals comply with state and federal laws when filing their tax returns. However, a larger proportion of these lawyers actually go to court to defend you if the IRS audits you and you face potential jail time or significant fines. Most individual tax lawyers also work in estate planning in some fashion unless they work in the tax department of a large corporation.
Criminal Defense Lawyer
Criminal defense lawyers help defend people accused of committing a crime against prosecution by the government, with the goal of reducing their sentencing or helping them stay out of jail. The crimes handled by criminal defense lawyers range from small offenses such as shoplifting to more serious crimes such as DUI, drug trafficking, assault and battery, or even murder. Many lawyers who practice criminal defense had previous experience working on the prosecution side at the Office of the District Attorney (DA), either while in law school or after.
These lawyers are usually very high-volume lawyers in the sense that they tend to have a lot clients on a daily basis and they only perform one or a few small tasks for each one. Traffic lawyers will go to court on your behalf to fight traffic citations or give you advice about whether you have a chance to get out of a speeding ticket or violation for running a red light. Sometimes traffic lawyers are also criminal lawyers who will fight your DUI or DWI as well.
Personal Injury Lawyer
Personal injury (PI) lawyers are the types of lawyers that deal with accidents and injuries of any nature. Personal injury lawyers get involved when you are in a car accident, a doctor misdiagnoses an illness, you had bad side effects from a prescription drug that they didn’t warn you about, you were injured by a defective product, and more. This is probably the most common type of attorney that you see advertising on TV, park benches, bus stops, and everywhere else. Their cases can lead to huge financial settlements or judgments, usually involving insurance companies. PI lawyers work for contingency fees, meaning they only take a percentage of the money they recover for you in court, and it will cost you nothing if you lose. The typical contingency fee ranges from 33%-40%. For this reason, it is important for you to know how to choose the right personal injury lawyer, because they all basically charge the same fee, but a good lawyer can make all the difference when it comes to winning your case and recovering a large financial award.
Bankruptcy lawyers help you file for bankruptcy or work through your bankruptcy to help you get out of debt. There are different subsets of bankruptcy lawyers who represent the debtor (the person or company filing for bankruptcy) and the creditor (the ones who are owed money by the debtor and are trying to recover as much of their money as possible during the bankruptcy). There are also lawyers who specialize in different types of bankruptcy. The most common types are Chapter 7 bankruptcy lawyers (Chapter 7 is when an individual or a company wants to liquidate/dissolve their assets in order to eliminate their debts), Chapter 11 bankruptcy lawyers (Chapter 11 is when a company [or individual within a company] wants to restructure their debts to get back on track), and Chapter 13 bankruptcy lawyers (Chapter 13 is a different form of chapter 11 for individuals where you restructure your debts to get on a more affordable payment schedule, and you can still keep most of your assets). Many bankruptcy lawyers can handle different types of bankruptcies but some just specialize in one type of claim. Make sure you find a bankruptcy lawyer that is familiar with handling situations like your own.
Civil Litigation Lawyer
A civil litigation lawyer is a very general term that encompasses many other more specific areas of law, including real estate, employment, business, and more. Civil litigation lawyers will typically handle any type of litigation, or lawsuit, that is non-criminal. Therefore, anything from a landlord issue to a breach of contract is handled by these lawyers.
Digital Media & Internet Lawyer
The development of the Internet opened up a whole new realm of law. Digital media and Internet lawyers focus on all sorts of legal issues that come into play with our use of technology and the Internet. Everything from the website terms and conditions that govern our use of the Internet, to privacy issues, copyright laws and issues with pirating of music and movies, and protection of children from online predators falls within the area of digital media and Internet law. This area of law, like the industry in which it operates, continues to evolve and change rapidly with new technology.
Entertainment lawyers deal with all sorts of entertainment issues, mainly relating to entertainment contracts. They draft and review licensing agreements, management contracts, contracts having to do with royalties and any other aspect of the entertainment business you can imagine. If you live in Los Angeles or New York, entertainment law is popular, but becoming an entertainment lawyer is one of the hardest things to do because of high competition. Most entertainment lawyers have previous experience working as a different type of lawyer.
An immigration lawyer will help with anything relating to bringing a family member, employee, or individual into the United States from another country. Most immigration lawyers’ practices rely heavily on businesses since they require employment visas in order to bring employees to the United States from overseas. There are a plethora of forms to file with each government entity involved and complex laws to be followed in order to employ a non-citizen.
Legal Malpractice or Professional Responsibility Lawyer
This is a very niche subset of lawyers, and there are not that many that focus on these areas of law as their specialty. Legal Malpractice or Professional Responsibility lawyers usually sue or defend lawyers when a lawyer has violated their duties to a client (i.e. committed malpractice) or when a lawyer needs defense against a former client who is suing them. Lawyers, similar to doctors, accountants, government officials, etc., have a strict set of industry specific rules they must abide by while practicing law. When they actually violate or are accused of violating any of these rules, professional responsibility lawyers and legal malpractice lawyers come into play. Sometimes these lawyers are employed before anything actually goes wrong just to make sure that what is about to be done by a lawyer is actually allowed.
Real Estate Lawyer
Real Estate lawyers assist with any legal issues related to real estate and property. Like business lawyers, real estate lawyers are distinguished between transactional vs. litigation. There are also many differences between commercial real estate and residential real estate, as well as other types of personal property, so most real estate lawyers specialize and focus on one of these areas. Much like business lawyers, real estate litigators go to court to argue if a contract or purchase/sale agreement was violated, or when a tenant or landlord breaks a law and must be handled accordingly. Real estate transactional lawyers, on the other hand, solely deal with the negotiation of real estate transactions and drafting documents surrounding those negotiations.
So, now you know a little more about what types of lawyers there are. If you are looking to hire a lawyer, it’s important to figure out how to find the right lawyer for your needs. Although there are many overlapping practice areas, each type of law is different and you will want to make sure to get a lawyer that specializes in the type of legal service you need. Doing otherwise is risky and can create unnecessary legal problems in the future.