There are two main divisions of lawyers, civil and criminal. Civil lawyers handle cases dealing with domestic issues, such as wills and estates, divorces and adoptions. Civil lawyers also handle cases involving tax law, corporate law and personal injury. They also handle constitutional law.
Criminal lawyers handle cases that involve crimes. These include major felony cases, such as homicide, as well as traffic violations and cases involving juveniles. Within the specialty area of criminal lawyers the attorney will either prosecute the case or defend the case.
Prosecutors are one of the different types of lawyers that work for the state or federal government. They research criminal cases and argue against the defendant in court. They may also offer plea agreements for the defendant. A plea agreement means that the defendant admits to a lesser crime in exchange for a reduced sentence.
The defendant is represented by a defense lawyer. A defense lawyer is a type of attorney that either works for himself or as part of a larger law office. They are not employees of state or federal government. They will defend their client in court, and can negotiate with the prosecutor for a plea agreement.
If the defendant cannot afford to pay for a defense attorney, the government will provide him with one. Sometimes the attorneys provided for low income defendants work for specific legal aid organizations. Other times the defender will be an attorney with his own practice or working for a firm that donates a particular number of hours each month or year to pro bono, or non-paying, work.
Civil lawyers are the lawyers that provide help with real estate transactions, divorce agreements and child adoptions. While many of us may spend the rest of our lives without needing a criminal attorney, most of us, at one time or another, will use a civil attorney.
Often, in smaller communities, there are general practice attorneys. These attorneys do not work for a state or federal government as a prosecutor, but they handle all other aspects of law. They draw up paperwork for divorces, represent clients in front of the Internal Revenue Service, and defend clients in criminal cases.
In a small community there may not be enough of any one type of complaint for a lawyer to specialize, and by offering a wide range of services the lawyer can meet his own financial needs as well as the needs of the community.
Attorneys do not specialize in their field in law school. All law students receive a broad education in both criminal and civil law, and the bar exam they must pass requires knowledge of both. The only specialized licensing required is for patent attorneys, who must pass a patent bar exam as well as the standard bar exam for their state.