What do lawyers do?

A lawyer can serve in several roles. Here are some examples, but in practice most lawyers do more than one of these, sometimes even simultaneously:

1. Advocate

Here, by “advocate,” I mean somebody who tries to advance their client’s interests in some way, typically involving (at least to some extent) persuasion. The classic example is in court, especially in something like closing arguments: a lawyer advocates for their client by persuading the judge or jury that their client deserves to win their case.

It doesn’t have to be in court though. It could be in front of a licensing board or some other administrative body.

2. Counselor

This is more “behind closed doors.” The role of a counselor isn’t to persuade, it’s to advise. Often, a client calls up a lawyer and says: “So and so just happened. I want to end up with an outcome like such and such. What are my options?” This is the typical case where a lawyer steps into a counseling role.

This could happen in just about any area of law. Just for some examples, the “so and so just happened…” could be:

  • I inherited a house, but I want to sell it and minimize my tax burden.
  • I slipped and fell in a restaurant. I don’t care who, but someone needs to pay my medical bills.
  • My two children fight constantly. In my will, how can I fairly divide my estate between them, without needing them to cooperate at all (or to the least possible extent).
  • I just invented a new widget. How do I market it?
  • I was fired under so-and-so circumstances. Is that discrimination?

3. Mediator / Neutral Third Party

Obviously, judges are lawyers. Additionally, there are “alternative dispute resolution” options that involve a private lawyer who serves in the role of a judge. The advantage over the court system is that it’s often cheaper.

4. Negotiator

This might sound a little bit like the advocate, but it’s a different skillset. An advocate has to convince some authority on some point of law. A negotiator has to find an acceptable stopping point for two parties whose interests only partially overlap (if they overlap at all).

5. Guardian

From time to time, a lawyer ends up in custody of property, documents, information, or even people. (In the case of a lawyer having custody of a person, the lawyer is usually called a “guardian ad litem.” This usually shows up in the context of divorce, parental incarceration, parental death, etc.) The lawyer’s role as guardian is to keep whatever it is safe, secure, secret (if applicable), etc. In the case of a guardian ad litem, the lawyer also has to look out for the best interests of the child. (Charles Slade, Former mathematician, current patent lawyer)