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What Are the Different Areas of Law?

When a newly sworn attorney opens a law practice, they have to decide what area of law to practice in. Although law school teaches a little about every possible area of law, an attorney only focuses on one or two legal practice areas during their legal career. This allows the attorney or law firm to give clients the best legal representation in their chosen area.

There are a few general legal areas, such as criminal law, civil law, and family law. Within those areas are many subcategories and specializations. When clients need an attorney, they should look for an attorney with experience in the specialization they need.

What Are Legal Practice Areas?

A legal practice area is the category or subcategory of law that an attorney practices. Criminal law and civil law are types of law, and DUI defense and personal injury law are practice areas within the two areas. Practice areas have subcategories, like personal injury attorneys specializing in motorcycle accidents.

State laws and the American Bar Association (ABA) regulate how an attorney practices or specializes in various categories. Some states require attorneys to get certified or complete additional courses with the bar before they can call themselves specialists or certified in a particular field.

Legal Practice Areas: A Partial List

These are some common legal practice areas you may need help with. Other practice areas are less common, such as antitrust, which involves commerce and trade, and entertainment law, which covers the arts and entertainment world. Most people won't need those more exotic legal providers. Some of the ones you may encounter include:

Business Law and Corporate Law

Business and corporate law covers a wide array of business-related laws and regulations. Business law attorneys work for everyone, from small business owners to government agencies. Some subcategories of business law include:

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Criminal Law

Criminal law covers every violation of the penal code, from traffic infractions to capital offenses. Prosecution, defense, trial, and sentencing all fall under the criminal law umbrella.

Other types of law may fall into the criminal law orbit if the offenders have committed a serious offense, including:

  • Environmental law
  • Civil rights law
  • Human rights violations

These cases may result in fines rather than incarceration. If the charges are criminal, they are brought in criminal courts. Violations of environmental or civil rights laws are often federal crimes and are filed in federal court.

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Estate Planning

Estate planning is also known as wills and trusts. It involves planning the disposition of one's assets after death (a will) or before death (a trust). Estate planning may include advance directives, powers of attorney, and "do not resuscitate" (DNR) orders. Health care and special-needs trusts are part of estate planning.

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Family Law

Family law practice is an extensive practice area. Legal services provided by family law practitioners include:

  • Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements
  • Divorce and legal separation
  • Child custody and child support
  • Parenting plans, visitation, paternity, and reproductive rights
  • Adoption
  • Court order modification

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Immigration Law

Immigration lawyers work with businesses that sponsor foreign workers and immigrants seeking visas or temporary work cards. Some attorneys assist government agencies who screen detained immigrants seeking asylum or naturalization. Because of the changing laws on both sides of the border, immigration lawyers are in constant demand.

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Employment Law

Employment attorneys may either work for the business owner or company as an in-house counsel or for employees in the private sector. Employment attorneys working for the company keep companies in compliance with labor laws and workplace regulations. Attorneys representing workers assist with harassment charges and wrongful termination claims.

Employment and labor lawyers represent either employers/businesses or employees. A lawyer representing an employer might help the business comply with a new labor law. In contrast, a lawyer representing employees might help a client file a lawsuit for harassment or wrongful termination.

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Personal Injury Law

Thanks to their relentless advertising, personal injury lawyers may be the best-known of all attorneys. Personal injury cases cover more legal territory than almost any other practice except business law. A personal injury attorney may take cases involving:

  • Medical malpractice and health law violations
  • Negligence torts
  • Product liability claims
  • Slip and fall injuries
  • Vehicle accidents
  • Workers' compensation claims
  • Wrongful death

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Real Estate Law

Real estate law sometimes gets overlooked. People forget they need an attorney until they discover something is wrong with the deed to their property. Whenever legal documents change hands, an attorney reviews the documents and ensures everything is correct. Real estate attorneys handle foreclosures, evictions, title searches, land grants, and land use regulations. If the land contains natural resources or borders any federal land, environmental lawyers may be involved.

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Bankruptcy Law

Any attorney may request permission to appear in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but representing a client in bankruptcy court requires a thorough knowledge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The legal issues facing someone filing bankruptcy go beyond understanding the allowable deductions and which debts may be discharged. Anyone contemplating bankruptcy for business or personal reasons should search carefully to find the most experienced attorney in their area.

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This barely scratches the surface of legal practice areas. The legal profession has expanded to accommodate any particular area that needs legal interpretation and advocacy. Many of these branches straddle the gaps between two other areas.

For instance, tax lawyers may work in business law, bankruptcy law, and property law. International law regulates businesses, governments, immigration, and environmental law.

FindLaw's Learn About the Law section describes each legal practice area and includes links to the lawyer directory.

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