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A guide to UK and US legal personnel

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Graduate recruits first join law firms as associates. After several years they will generally go on to become partners. As the name implies, salaried partners earn a regular salary. This will be higher than that earned by the associates, but often not as much as the monthly income received by the full partners. Full partners share in the profits of the partnership, but also share the losses.

Associates and partners will often have access to the services of a paralegal. Generally speaking, a paralegal works independently under the supervision of a lawyer and uses knowledge of legal concepts and procedures. A legal secretary, on the other hand, assists attorneys and paralegals with tasks that do not require knowledge of the law. Many legal secretaries also perform some paralegal duties. An individual must graduate from law school and be licensed as an attorney in order to practice law as a lawyer. Lawyers supervise paralegals and legal secretaries and are ultimately responsible to the client for the quality of the legal services delivered.

Not all lawyers choose to work in a partnership, preferring rather to practice as sole practitioners. Such lawyers commonly deal with a range of issues, whereas lawyers working in a large practice might specialise in one particular field of law.

In the UK and some commonwealth countries, qualified lawyers who work at law firms are called solicitors. Solicitors do not have rights of audience in the higher courts, and will instruct barristers who carry out the advocacy work during a trial. However, such contentious work is often only a small part of the work of a solicitor, and most of the work undertaken by larger commercial practices will be non-contentious work such as drafting contracts.

In the US, qualified lawyers are called attorneys. All attorneys are able to undertake court work, although larger US law firms will often have a litigation department staffed by lawyers who specialise in court work.

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