A lawyer or attorney at law is an individual licensed by the state to advise clients in legal matters and represent them in courts of law and other legal agencies. Most countries today require professional law advisors in their juridical systems. Lawyers have many names in different countries -- including "advocate," "attorney," "barrister," "counselor," "civil law notary", and "solicitor" -- and many of these names indicate specific classes or ranks of jurists.
Increasingly, in the United States in particular, lawyers have taken over functions that used to be (and in some countries, still are) performed by other professionals, such as the civil law notary or even by non-professionals.
The role of the lawyer can vary, in some countries, this person is often required to lead or manage criminal investigations. In the UK this task is the responsibility of the police forces.
Colloquially, in the United States, lawyers are called attorneys. In fact, almost anyone can be an attorney; (see for example attorney-in-fact) strictly speaking, an attorney is similar to an agent, a person who has been formally empowered by someone else (a "principal") to act on behalf of the principal. Lawyers are "attorneys at law," authorised to plead cases on behalf of their clients.
Lawyers in the U.S.
The United States Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (1 (http://www.bls.gov/oes/2001/oes231011.htm)) estimates that in 2001, there were 490,000 practicing lawyers in the U.S.
It is frequently said that there are more lawyers per capita in the US than in any other country in the world. This statistic is misleading because it is difficult to compare numbers of law professionals between different legal systems because the roles of these professionals vary and some of the work that is done in the United States by a lawyer is performed by several different types of professionals in other countries.
In order for a person to be admitted to the bar for the first time, all U.S. jurisdictions require that the applicant take and pass a bar examination.
In addition, all but a handful of jurisdictions require that the applicant have earned a law degree from an A.B.A.-accredited law school.
Some jurisdictions permit the admission of an applicant who is already admitted to the bar of another state. This sort of admission may or may not be dependent on whether the jurisdiction to which the applicant is already admitted offers reciprocity to other jurisdictions, i.e., whether the jurisdiction itself allows attorneys in without admission. Some states zealously pride themselves on the exclusivity of their admissions process and therefore do not offer reciprocity of any kind.
Other jurisdictions allow admission to presently-practicing lawyers upon the successful completion of a limited examination on procedure and/or ethics.
United States District Courts (Federal trial courts) condition their admissions policies on those of the state in which they are located. Generally speaking, a Federal District Court will admit an lawyer to practice provided that he or she is already admitted to practice in that state. Thus, for example, a lawyer admitted in California may automatically be admitted to the bar of a Federal court in California, but could likely not automatically gain admission to a Federal court in neighboring Oregon.
Other U.S. Federal courts, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, or the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals have open admissions policies, allowing bar admission to attorneys licensed anywhere in the country.
The degree awarded by U.S. law schools to graduates is the degree of Juris Doctor or J.D. (occasionally mis-Anglicized to Juris Doctorate). In systems following the English practice the equivalent degree is the Bachelor or Laws, or LL.B.
Graduate law degrees may also be obtained. A Master of Laws, or LL.M., is awarded after completion of a specialized program of study -- often in esoteric subjects such as taxation or trial advocacy.
The ultimate law degree obtainable is the S.J.D., or Scientum Juris Doctor, literally "doctor of juridical science". This should not be confused with the "doctor of laws" degree, or LL.D., which is usually awarded for honorary purposes.
What constitutes the practice of law?
A person who has a Juris Doctor (or LL.B.)but is not admitted to any bar is not a lawyer. However, federal courts often allow law students to act as "certified student attorneys" after the satisfactory completion of their first year of law school and the completion of particular second- and third-year courses such as Evidence. In systems that follow the English practice a person who has completed the course of study but is not yet admitted to the bar may practice under supervision in Articles of Clerkship usually called an Articling student. Otherwise, engaging in the kind of work customarily done by lawyers, without a valid, current license to do so, is the "unauthorized practice of law." In some jurisdictions, the definition of the practice of law is quite strict; persons have been successfully prosecuted for publishing do-it-yourself will forms and for representing special-education children in federal proceedings as specifically allowed by federal law.
For instance, in some states, real estate closings may only be performed by lawyers, even though the lawyer's role in a closing mostly involves notarization of documents and disbursement of settlement funds through an escrow account.
Paradoxically, some jurisdictions will allow a non-lawyer to sit as a judge, usually in lower courts or in hearings by governmental agencies, even though a non-lawyer may not practice before these same courts.
Lawyers in the U.K. and common law countries
In the United Kingdom, Australia, and several other common law countries, there are generally two kinds of lawyers - solicitors and barristers. Solicitors may practice before lower courts, but their main (and traditionally only) work is outside the courts, in such areas as legal advice (which may be highly specialist), property conveyancing, wills and estates.
In the UK criminal investigation is done by the Police, HM Customs and Excise, Inland Revenue, Trading Standards Officers and other state organisations (which may, or may not, employ a solicitor or barrister). The prosecution of those criminal cases is done by either the local council, or more usually the Crown Prosecution Service (which does employ a number of solicitors and barristers) and the cases are heard by lay magistrates (who are not lawyers, but who are assisted by a clerk with legal qualifications), or by a Judge (who is legally qualified). Coroners will either be a solicitor, barrister, or medical doctor.
Barristers may practice before lower, superior and high courts. Traditionally (and still for major cases) both a solicitor (for advice) and a barrister (for representation) were required for legal representation before the courts.
Certain common law jurisdictions - for example, Malaysia, Singapore, Sweden, Canada, and certain states in Australia have a fused legal profession, whereby lawyers practice as both barristers and solicitors.
Lawyers in Poland
As Poland's law system is based on continental civil law, situation in that country is much different than in common law countries.
First of all, any person who possesses Master's degree in Law is called lawyer (prawnik). However being a lawyer does not necessarily mean that one have the privileges usually attributed to attorney in United States. Due to such dualism in Poland there exists two classes of lawyers.
Lawyers admitted to bar associations
Five jurist's occupations require prospective candidates to apply for internship, pass admission to internship exam, finish three years internship, and finally pass appropriate admission exam. Those occupations are occupations of:
prosecutor (prokurator) - legal representative of prosecution and supervision over police investigations,
notary (notariusz) - whose job consists of mixture of civil law notary and notary public duties,
barrister (adwokat) - whose main function is to represent persons before court in both civil and criminal trials,
counselor (radca prawny) - strange remain of pre-1989 situation, when each of state-owned enterprises has its own counselor. With diminishing number of such enterprises, counselors are now very similar to barristers, but they can represent their clients only in civil cases.
Once admitted to bar association of one occupation, jurist can move to other occupation with little hassle.
The major obstacle in becoming of one of those jurists is to pass admission to internship exam. Such exams are performed by appropriate regional bar associations (in cases of prosecutors and judges by appellate district attorney and appellate district court respectively). These exams are the toughest exams in one's career, and after them prospective jurists don't need to be afraid of failing the admission exam.
While admission to internship in prosecutor and judge profession are commonly regarded as fair, admission to notary, barrister and counselor's is regarded unfair. Regional bar associations have no interests of admitting new members, and often allow an extraordinary low number of new interns (often one or two) for each year. It is said that those professions are inherited, since only son or daughter of an barrister can become one. Even president of Barrister's National Bar said in television interview that he prefer son of barrister for being admitted to internship, than others. Additional exams for those occupations are often ridiculously wide and can include questions about movies directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Given that situation, Constitutional Tribunal in February 2004 struck down law giving those bar associations rights to performs exams as unconstitutional. This however may mean that no admissions to those occupations may take place in 2004 since Sejm didn't create new law.
Only members of those five occupations can write certoriaris to Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal in cases in which they themselves are sides. All others must use the services of barristers or counselors.
Similar privileges have habiliated Ph.D.s in Law. They can join any bar association without exams, and can write certoriaris to Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal.
Lawyers not admitted to bar associations
Due to reasons described above, many lawyers do not practice law in strict sense. They find their job in public administration (which has its own highly legalized proceedings), police (which prosecute small crimes), tax services and similar governmental agencies.
Because in Polish law, as an agent can act any person, some lawyers do what in UK is being done by solicitors. So specialized persons write legal agreements, perform negotiations, or execute debts.
Additionally, since company can be represented in civil court by its own employee some small and medium companies do not employ barristers or counselors but instead rely on in-house lawyers not being admitted to bar.
In recent case, when local bar association tried to prosecuted woman (MA in law), for giving legal advice without proper qualifications, the Constitutional Tribunal struck this down crime saying that having MA in law is indeed a proper qualifications.