Types of lawyers: roles and qualifications

The path to become a lawyer may seem clear-cut: obtain a Juris Doctor (JD), take the bar examination, and begin practicing. But with so many different types of lawyers, deciding what kind of law you want to practice may not be such an obvious decision.

Depending on your interests and the kind of work you hope to do, certain areas of law may appeal more to you. Understanding the roles and responsibilities of the types of lawyers that exist can help you pursue the specialty you are most passionate about.

1. Bankruptcy lawyer
2. Business lawyer (corporate lawyer)
3. Constitutional lawyer
4. Criminal defense lawyer
5. Employment and labor lawyer
6. Entertainment lawyer

7. Estate planning lawyer
8. Family lawyer
9. Immigration lawyer
10. Intellectual property (IP) lawyer
11. Personal injury lawyer
12. Tax lawyer

1. Bankruptcy lawyer

Bankruptcy lawyers are experts in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, and handle insolvency issues for their clients. Bankruptcy lawyers generally specialize in either consumer bankruptcy or commercial bankruptcy. In consumer bankruptcy, lawyers represent individuals or creditors; in commercial, they represent corporate creditors and debtors. However, the scope of work for bankruptcy lawyers in either specialization is the same, as both navigate solutions for financial restructurings, plan confirmations, and valuation disputes. Clerking or interning at a firm that has a bankruptcy practice is one way to figure out whether a future position in this field suits you.

While not required, some states offer bankruptcy law certification to further distinguish lawyers’ expertise in the field.

2. Business lawyer (corporate lawyer)

Business lawyers, also known as corporate lawyers, handle legal matters for businesses and ensure that all company transactions occur within the scope of local, state, and federal laws. Common legal work includes mergers, acquisitions, formation or dissolution of businesses, patents, intellectual property, and liability disputes. Day to day, a business lawyer may conduct legal research, write and revise legal documents, and negotiate contracts. 

Some law schools allow students to pursue a business law certificate in addition to their JD, and receive advanced training for a corporate law career. Upon graduating and passing the bar, business lawyers typically work at a corporate firm or as in-house counsel for a sole company.

3. Constitutional lawyer

Constitutional lawyers deal with the interpretation and implementation of the U.S. Constitution, balancing the interests of government institutions with the interests of individuals. Responsibilities of a constitutional lawyer might include challenging the constitutionality of a piece of legislation, representing individuals in discrimination suits, or providing constitutional law expertise at a university. Constitutional lawyers may be involved in civil rights cases and some argue legal issues before state supreme courts or the U.S. Supreme Court—a rare opportunity for lawyers in other fields. 

Depending on the school, law students may be able to obtain a constitutional law certificate or pursue advanced studies by taking a required number of related courses. While not required for a career, future employers may see it as a strong commitment to the practice area.

4. Criminal defense lawyer

Criminal defense lawyers advocate on behalf of those accused of criminal activity and ensure that their liberties and basic rights are fairly upheld within the justice system. A criminal defense lawyer may work as a public defender or as a private attorney. In either position, their job is to leverage the law to the advantage of the accused. They must protect the interests of their client within the bounds of the law. Criminal defense lawyers may appear in court more frequently than other types of lawyers, especially if a case goes to trial.

 A number of state bar associations offer specialty programs in criminal law, allowing those who are passionate about trial advocacy to receive certification as a criminal trial lawyer. 

5. Employment and labor lawyer

Employment and labor lawyers broadly handle the relationships between unions, employers, and employees. They deal with issues around workplace discrimination, harassment, wage and hours regulations, benefits, and pension security. While the responsibilities of employment lawyers and labor lawyers tend to overlap, labor lawyers focus mostly on union-management relations and collective bargaining, while employment lawyers address matters in non-union workplaces.

Just as with other specialties, many law schools offer a specialization certificate in employment/labor law for students who take a minimum number of courses in the area, but it is not required for employment. 

6. Entertainment lawyer

Entertainment lawyers represent athletes, artists, musicians, actors, and other media-related clients or brands. They help to protect the intellectual property of their clients, which can include lyrics or a comedian’s routine. Additionally, entertainment lawyers may negotiate contracts and fee arrangements, secure talent releases, act as a liaison between agents or venue owners/staff, or oversee membership into unions and guilds. 

You’ll find a number of law schools offer certificate programs or classes in entertainment law, even at the LLM level.

7. Estate planning lawyer

An estate planning lawyer is well-versed in the intricacies of property rights, wills, probate, and trusts. They provide legal advice and assistance to ensure client assets passing both inside and outside the will or trust are handled correctly, while also ensuring that tax and legal issues are properly addressed. Deciding how to provide for various family members is a delicate process, so estate planning lawyers may use questionnaires to help clients evaluate their assets and liabilities, and aid them in their decision-making.

Estate planning lawyers may pursue additional certification—most commonly the Chartered Trust and Estate Planner (CTEP), Accredited Estate Planner (AEP), or the Certified Trust and Fiduciary Advisor (CTFA) certification

8. Family lawyer

While many people may think of family lawyers as divorce attorneys who handle the division of marital assets, child custody, and alimony, family law extends to many more issues. Any domestic relations or family-related issues including adoption and guardianship, paternity, juvenile delinquency matters, and child welfare fall within the scope of a family lawyer. Typical responsibilities of a family lawyer may include drafting contracts or negotiations, writing prenuptial agreements, counseling clients on legal options, or resolving familial disputes. Family lawyers can work at smaller law firms specializing in family law, or at nonprofit organizations.

Some states offer board certification in family law or child welfare law for those who want to demonstrate verified knowledge and expertise in the area, but it is not required.

9. Immigration lawyer

Gaining citizenship or legal status can be an intimidating process. Immigration lawyers play a pivotal role in providing guidance to individuals and families navigating the necessary requirements to live, work, or study in the U.S. Sometimes, immigration lawyers may even assist refugee and asylum seekers. Employers and employees participating in work-visa programs may also use immigration lawyers to assist in the process of gaining legal work status.

Some law schools offer certificate programs that allow students to specialize in immigration law. However, even schools that do not offer a formal certificate may recommend suggested courses for interested students to take. Immigration lawyers may work in a variety of settings, from firms that specialize in immigration law to government agencies or nonprofit organizations.

10. Intellectual property (IP) lawyer

Intellectual property (IP) lawyers protect and enforce the rights and creations of inventors, authors, artists, and businesses. IP law encompasses copyrighting, trademarking, patenting, and protecting trade secrets for tangible products like inventions, and intangible ones like brand names, slogans, or symbols. Lawyers in this field have three main responsibilities: the first is to counsel their clients on the best way to protect their intellectual property; the second is to protect their intellectual property by registering a trademark, copyright, or patent; and the third is to enforce intellectual property rights against infringement.

Both law schools and state bars may offer either specialty programs or certificates to specialize in the field.

11. Personal injury lawyer

Personal injury lawyers work primarily in civil litigations, representing clients who have sustained an injury. Most often, these injuries stem from car accidents, medical malpractice, product liability, or workplace accidents. Personal injury lawyers must prove that the responsible party—typically another individual or a corporation—is liable and owes damages to their client. Many of these cases are settled out of court. 

Personal injury lawyers follow the same educational path as all lawyers who earn a JD and pass the bar. However, personal injury certifications are less common, but some states, like Texas, do offer it.

12. Tax lawyer

Tax lawyers understand the ins and outs of tax laws and regulations, and work in a variety of settings. These settings can include corporations, law firms, accounting firms, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies. Their responsibilities include tax planning, interpreting tax law (and its effects on their clients), and a great deal of research. Due to the complexity of tax laws and how frequently they can change, tax lawyers must closely follow tax law developments, court opinions, and IRS rulings.

Some tax lawyers pursue a Master’s in Taxation to further specialize their knowledge and stay up-to-date in their practice. 

Frequently asked questions about different types of lawyers

With so many types of lawyers, you may find yourself with a few questions about which path is right for you. Below are some common questions related to the different specialties.

What types of lawyers are there?

While we’ve outlined some of the most common types of lawyers in this guide, there are many others to consider depending on the industry or specialization you may be interested in. For instance, personal injury lawyers may specialize in niche areas like medical malpractice or claims against pharmaceutical companies. However, additional types of lawyers include contract lawyers, environmental lawyers, traffic lawyers—and the list goes on.

What are the types of trial lawyers?

Trial lawyers represent clients in both civil and criminal cases. Their primary job is to argue the facts of a case before a judge or jury on their client’s behalf. In court, trial lawyers may argue motions, meet with judges, or select jurors. Outside of court, trial lawyers may review files, interview witnesses, or take depositions. Criminal defense lawyers and constitutional lawyers may also act as trial lawyers.

What are the types of government lawyers?

Government lawyers can be found at the federal, state, or local level, and in all three branches of government. They represent the interests of the government—or citizens as a whole—rather than individuals or corporations. Government lawyers may work in Attorney General’s offices, governors’ or mayors’ offices, in executive agencies, public defenders’ offices, or in state legislatures.

What are the types of criminal lawyers?

There are two main types of criminal lawyers: prosecuting attorneys (also referred to as district attorneys) and defense lawyers. Prosecuting attorneys represent the government against which an alleged crime was committed, whether on the local, state, or federal level. Defense attorneys represent the defendant accused of a crime.

What do corporate lawyers do?

Corporate lawyers handle legal matters for corporations and ensure that all business transactions are in compliance with the law. They may work on mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property, and negotiations. They provide counsel to their clients, conduct legal research, and write or revise contracts.

Do all types of lawyers go to court?

No, court proceedings are costly and time-consuming, so legal matters are sometimes settled outside of court. There are many types of lawyers that rarely (if ever) go into court, as the scope of their work does not require it. These may include estate planning lawyers, labor lawyers, personal injury lawyers, and bankruptcy lawyers.

What type of lawyer should I be?

This depends on your area of interest and career goals. Think about what type of work you would enjoy doing daily, and the coursework that interests you most—certain law degree specializations may pique your interest more than others. It’s also important to consider your strengths. Some types of lawyers may benefit from strong interpersonal skills; others rely on their analytical abilities. Refer to the types of lawyers listed above to help you better understand each type.
If you’ve ever questioned what you can do with a law degree, you’ve likely realized there are many different possibilities. While this guide provides insight into the responsibilities of the most common types of lawyers, you might also be wondering about other factors like job outlook or lawyer salaries. Carefully consider the factors most important to you.

Last updated November 2023