Chances are, if you’re here, you’re thinking about becoming a lawyer or are one and want a bird’s eye view of the different areas of law.
There are many types of lawyers as well as several ways of distinguishing groups of lawyers in Canada and the USA. Because Canada’s and the United States’ legal system operates under the common law system of law, the various practice areas are very similar.
In this extensive guide, I kick off by setting out some broad groupings or classifications. This is followed by a listing of many distinct types of law grouped under the main practice areas.
Broad Legal Classifications
Solicitor vs. Barrister
The first break down in lawyer classification is solicitor vs. barrister.
While these two terms aren’t so distinct like they were 100 years ago in Britain, the terms are still used in Canada to a certain extent. More important, the distinctions still apply.
Solicitors don’t go to court to litigate. They may go for applications or administrative purposes, but they don’t conduct trials.
Barristers, historically, are the trial lawyers.
While there is some crossover, typically, lawyers fall into one or the other arm. Trial lawyers love litigation; solicitors prefer document preparation and generally staying out of the courtroom.
Both types are an integral part of the legal system in Canada and the UK (and the USA, although these terms are not used in the USA at all).
Civil vs. Criminal vs. Administrative (Regulatory)
Another legal practice dichotomy is civil law vs. criminal law. Civil pertains to non-criminal matters. Criminal matters involve the state while civil is strictly between two or more private parties.
Regulatory also involves the state (government) but falls outside of the criminal code. There are many, many government regulations in both Canada and the USA that is enforced by lawyers who practice regulatory law (aka administrative law).
Household Consumer vs. Corporate
And yet another dichotomy is what is referred to as household consumer vs. corporate lawyers. Household consumer lawyers serve persons outside of the corporate sphere while corporate attorneys serve the business world. Examples of household consumer lawyers include family lawyers, criminal defence lawyers and personal injury lawyers.
Specific Practice Areas
Types of lawyers can be further broken down into several classifications, within which are even more specific attorney practice areas. These days, lawyers typically niche down into specific practice areas. It’s been a trend over the last 30 years. The days of the generalist lawyer are coming to an end, except perhaps in small towns.
Specific Practice Areas
I. Family Lawyers
Family lawyers is the current term used for attorneys who handle divorces, child custody and other family matters. While the term “divorce lawyers” is still used, it’s too restrictive. Same with “matrimonial lawyers”.
A divorce attorney provides legal representation associated with all aspects of marriage dissolution. A divorce lawyer handles divorce proceedings themselves as well as all issues raised during the course of a marriage dissolution case, from property division to child custody and everything else in between. Divorce lawyers represent one of the largest cohorts of attorneys in the United States and other countries around the world.
2. Child Custody
There are attorneys that focus on representing clients in child custody disputes. Child custody, and the associated issue of visitation or parenting time, represent a legally complicated and emotionally charged area of the law. A lawyer who focuses on child custody representation can be involved in divorce proceedings themselves as well as in post-divorce disputes pertaining to children.
3. Child Support
During and after actual divorce proceedings child support oftentimes is a contentious issue. Consequently, a specific niche in the legal profession has evolved that consists of attorneys that represent clients in regard to child support issues.
4. Legal Separation
A majority of U.S. states have statutes that permit legal separation. This type of proceeding has all of the earmarks of a divorce, with the exception that a marriage does not terminate. There are a smaller cadre of attorneys that include a focus on legal separation in their practices.
Attorneys practicing in this area of the law represent mothers, putative, and sometimes a state agency in establishing the legal paternity of a child born out of wedlock. A paternity attorney also assists in associated matters that include the rights of a father, child support, and child custody or visitation or parenting time.
An adoption lawyer represents an individual or couple desiring to establish legal parentage with a minor child. In addition, there are adoption attorneys that represent pregnant women who desire to find adoptive parents for their unborn child.
II. Criminal Lawyers
I get a kick out of the term “criminal lawyer” because it reminds me of the Breaking Bad TV show bit where a criminal defence lawyer is not just a criminal lawyer, but a “criminal lawyer” as in a shady lawyer (Saul Goodman character now the main character in the spinoff show “Better Call Saul”).
a. Criminal Defense
A cohort of lawyers practice more generally or broadly in the area of criminal defense. A generalist of this nature is likely to take on less serious crimes than those that specialize in specific areas of criminal law.
7. DUI Lawyers
While impaired driving is not as common as it was 50 years ago, it’s still a big problem and thousands of people are arrested for impaired driving charges every year in Canada and the USA. Because the stakes are high, it’s also a significant practice area of many criminal defence lawyers, many of whom focus exclusively on this area of criminal law.
8. Drug Crimes
A significant number of attorneys in the criminal defense arena specialize in representing clients charged with drug crimes. Drug-related crimes represent a significant number of all criminal cases prosecuted in the United States.
9. Violent Crimes
There is a segment of the criminal defense bar that focuses on representing clients charged with violent crimes including assault, battery, and certain types of homicides. Stalking-related crimes oftentimes are included in this category.
A segment of the criminal defense bar represents clients charged with homicides. These attorneys represent clients charged with different degrees of homicide from manslaughter to first degree murder. There is a subset of attorneys in this area of practice that represent clients facing the death penalty.
11. Sex Crimes
When it comes to types of lawyers practicing in the United States, a cohort represents clients charged with different types of sex crimes. This category of legal counsel includes attorneys charged with sex crimes against children.
12. White Color Crimes
Lawyers representing individuals charged with white collar crimes is yet another category within the criminal defense bar. Examples of white collar crimes include embezzlement, securities fraud, bank fraud, money laundering, and an array of other offenses.
13. Juvenile Offenders
The juvenile offender system is significantly different than the adult criminal justice system. Thus, there is a category of legal practice consisting of attorneys that represent lawyers that represent alleged juvenile offenders.
14. Domestic Violence Defense
Domestic violence is a significant issue in the United States. As a consequence, there is a cohort of lawyers that represent people charged with domestic violence. These attorneys typically represent clients in restraining order cases as well.
15. State Public Defenders (USA) / Legal Aid (Canada)
State public defenders represent individuals unable to afford private counsel who are charged with crimes on the state level. Most criminal charges arise from violation of state laws.
b. Prosecutors / Crown (Canada)
On the other side of the criminal law coin is the prosecution side. Many “criminal lawyers” prosecute crimes on behalf of the government.
16. State Prosecutors (USA) / Crown Prosecutors (Canada)
State prosecutors prosecute people charged with violations of state criminal laws. They work in offices of district or state attorneys as well as in offices of state attorneys general.
17. Federal Prosecutors
Federal prosecutors prosecute individuals charged with federal crimes. They work in the offices of United States Attorneys.
18. Federal Public Defenders
Federal public defenders is a segment of the bar that provides representation to individuals charged with federal crimes.
III. Corporate Lawyers
19. Business Law
A broad category of attorneys is that associated with business law. This cohort consists of attorneys that provide different types of representation on behalf of businesses and the owners of business ventures.
A cadre of attorneys in the broader category of business law focus on contract preparation. There are sub-categories within the contract cohort as well, including real estate agreements, business contracts of different types, employment contracts, and other type of agreements.
21. Contract Dispute
In addition to lawyers who specialize in preparing contracts, there are attorneys that practice in the realm of contract disputes. These lawyers represent clients that are at loggerheads in regard to the terms and conditions of an existing contract.
A corporate attorney typically attends to the day-to-day legal affairs of a business enterprise. A corporate attorney also oversees other lawyers retained to represent a corporation in regard to a specialized legal matter.
23. Business Formation
There are lawyers that specialize in business formation. These lawyers assist in the initial establishment of corporations, limited liability companies, partnership, and other types of legal entities.
Lawyers that practice in the area of securities law represents clients involved in issuing stock as well as clients charged with violating securities laws. Attorneys practicing in this area also work for federal and state securities agencies.
25. Patent, Trademark and Copyright
Many companies file for patents, trademarks and enforce copyright as part of their business. Tech companies seek out patents on their technology. Pharmaceutical companies obtain patents for their drugs. The list goes. These protections are wildly valuable and so obtaining, protecting and enforcing these protections is a big area of corporate law.
IV. Tax Lawyers
26. Tax Planning
An area of legal practice involves tax planning. This includes lawyers who assist individuals and businesses in regard tax planning and strategies.
27. Tax Defense
There is a segment of the U.S. bar that includes attorneys involved in tax defense. These lawyers represent individuals and businesses facing allegations of tax law violations.
V. Employment Lawyers
28. Employment – Employer
Another area of the U.S. bar features lawyers that represent employers in disputes of different types with employees. Issues can include a wide range of issues associated with the employer-employee relationship.
29. Employment – Employee
Conversely, there is a segment of the bar consisting of attorneys that provide representation in different areas for employees that have issues with their employers. These issue include wrongful discharge.
VI. Civil Litigation
30. Civil Rights
A cohort of U.S. attorneys represent clients inn cases involving civil rights issues. In addition, civil rights lawyers are also on the staffs of governmental agencies on the state and federal level.
31. Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment has become an issue widely reported by the media in recent years. A group of attorneys specialize in representing clients in sexual harassment cases, which typical involve claims against employers.
32. Appellate – Civil
A segment of lawyers in the U.S. represent clients in appeals in civil lawsuits. This group is further divided between lawyers that pursue state and federal appeals. In addition, a smaller set of these attorneys practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.
33. Appellate – Criminal
There is another group of lawyers that represent clients in appeals in criminal cases. These include attorneys on the state and federal level as well in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
34. Constitutional Law
While not a well-known area of law, constitutional lawyers litigate matters that challenge laws which implicate the constitution. Often these matters are appealed and so most lawyers who practice this law are seasoned appellate lawyers.
VIII. Administrative Law
Many state agencies have administrative proceedings. These can be complicated and have significant consequences. Thus, there are attorneys that specialize in administrative law.
35. Social Security / Disability / Canada Pension Plan (CPP) Claims
Social security attorneys represent clients pursuing claims for disability from the Social Security Administration in the USA, disability insurers and the Canada Pension Plan in Canada. As an aside, there are lawyers that work in this area for the agency as well.
IX. Personal Injury
36. Worker’s Comp – Employer
Worker’s compensation claims are commonplace in the United States. A segment of the U.S. legal profession works on behalf of employers defending such a claim.
37. Worker’s Comp – Employee
Work comp attorneys specialize in assisting clients in filing and pursuing claims arising from workplace injuries.
38. Insurance Defense
There are attorneys comprising what is known as the insurance defense bar. These are lawyers associated with insurance companies that defend lawsuits filed in personal injury and similar types of cases.
A significant percentage of the U.S. legal professional identify as personal injury lawyers. They represent people injured because of the negligence of another party.
40. Car Accident
Of the lawyers practicing in the personal injury arena, a large number specifically represent victims of motor vehicle accidents.
41. Slip and Fall
Another segment of the broader personal injury bar consists or attorneys representing people injured in slip and fall cases of different types.
42. Product Liability
Yet another component of the larger personal injury attorney cohort are lawyers that represent clients in products liability cases. These are claims arising from injuries or damages associated with a defective product.
43. Wrongful Death
Wrongful death attorneys sue negligent parties for causing wrongful death. Their clients are family members of the deceased.
44. Nursing Home
Nursing home injury attorneys represent people injured in different types of care facilities.
Injuries caused by dangerous or defective medications are relatively commonplace. A segment of the personal injury bar represents people with these types of claims..
46. Medical Devices
Medical devices represent the focus of attorneys in another segment of the personal injury bar. Devices can include everything from a heart pacer to crutches and a myriad of items in between.
47. Class action
Class action law is a type of injury law that involves a group of people all victims of the same cause. Instead of litigating dozens, hundreds or thousands of cases individually, class action lawyers get the matters certified as a class so all claims can be litigated as one big case. Examples include environmental catastrophies caused by pollution (showcased nicely in the movie Erin Brokovich) and defective drugs that injury many people.
FYI, class action cases can arise from stricly financial harms (i.e. not necessarily personal injury). An example is a company that erroneously and systematically overcharged thousands of customers.
X. Malpractice Law
48. Medical Malpractice
A major segment of the U.S. bar is that consisting of medical malpractice attorneys. These are lawyers that represent individuals that suffer personal injuries because of the negligence of healthcare providers of different types.
49. Legal Malpractice
A legal malpractice lawyer represents a person injured as a result of the negligence of an attorney.
There are lawyers that practice in the bankruptcy arena more broadly. They take on clients pursuing different types of bankruptcy cases.
50. Consumer Bankruptcy
Consumer bankruptcy lawyers represent individuals seeking relief from consumer debt.
51. Business Bankruptcy
Business bankruptcy attorneys represent businesses seeing bankruptcy relief.
52. Farm Bankruptcy
Specialized proceedings exist in regard to farm bankruptcies. A segment of the bankruptcy bar represents these individuals and businesses.
53. Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
A Chapter 7 bankruptcy lawyer represents clients seeking a discharge or elimination of responsibility for existing debts.
54. Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
A Chapter 13 bankruptcy attorney represents clients seeking a court-ordered debt repayment plan.
XII. Wills and Estates
The estate planning bar is a significant segment of the legal profession. These lawyers work with clients in developing a suitable estate plan. Attorneys practicing in this area assist in drafting will, trust agreements, powers of attorney, and related documents.
55. Estate Planning
These lawyers draft wills, powers of attorney, living wills and trusts. It may be a simple will or can be complex trusts.
56. Probate Proceedings
There are attorneys that represent clients in probate proceedings. These include the probate of a will as well as challenges to wills and trusts.
57. Estate Litigation
Estate litigation lawyers focus on lawsuits dealing with estates. For example, a son who is left nothing in a father’s will may hire an estate litigation lawyer to sue the estate.
XIII. Real Estate
A segment of the U.S. bar represents clients with an array of different types of real estate issues. These can include everything from the drafting of real estate sales contracts to addressing title issues.
58. Real Estate – Residential Transactions
As is the case with other broader legal categories, there are attorneys that focus their representation in the real estate law area on residential sales transactions. This includes drafting appropriate residential real estate sales agreements.
59. Real Estate – Commercial Transactions
Commercial real estate law can be highly complicated. As a consequence, there are lawyers that specialize in representing clients involved in commercial legal matters, including drafting sales agreements.
A group of U.S. attorneys represent clients in regard to title issues. These clients include people facing title issues during the course of a real estate transaction. It also includes clients with title issues with real estate they currently own. These attorneys also work for title insurance companies.
61. Landlord and Tenant
An element of the overall real estate bar represents clients in landlord and tenant issues. Attorneys practicing in this area tend to represent either landlords or tenants.
Immigration attorneys assist clients with charges brought against them concerning allegations of violating U.S. immigration and naturalization laws. Attorneys practicing in this area of the law also represent clients in obtaining a legal status to be in the United States.
62. Government Agency
A segment of the U.S. is made up of attorneys that work for a myriad of governmental agencies. This includes agencies on the federal, state, and local levels.
63. Corporate in-house
While most companies retain law firms to handle legal work, the same companies also hire what are called in-house lawyers who liaise with the law firm and handle plenty of the legal issues companies face.
XVI. Poverty Law
Poverty law is an umbrella term for lawyers who help the underprivileged. It can encompass criminal law, landlord tenant disputes, constitutional matters, administrative matters involving the government and more. Essentially, they work either on their own or in a clinic helping people who have important legal matters but don’t have the money to hire a lawyer.