When we think ‘attorney’, we usually picture a dapper young man in a three-piece suit, or a hair-up, strict young woman in a power blouse, talking up a storm in a courthouse. TV and Movies have painted a picture of the modern attorney as these fiery, powerful, superfluous, and morally-upright heroes that defend the innocent and condemn the guilty. Their lives, while filled with documents and trial dates, are glamorous, and most of their days are spent thinking about what to say and how to say it in court.
But, of course, a lot of that is just smoke and mirrors: most trial lawyers spend their days either talking to witnesses in their office, doing research on laws in their office, holding court meetings with other lawyers and a judge, doing more research, filing document after document pertaining to court procedures, etc. etc. You get the picture. In essence, it’s less Harvey Specter and more Saint Ivo of Kermartin, the Patron Saint of Lawyers, who spent most of his life serving the poor and studying.
What is a Staff Attorney?
But here’s the thing: sure it might not be the most glamorous, but there are a lot of lawyers out there who actually prefer the research life. These people, known as staff attorneys, are very much happy doing all of the background work that trial lawyers dread doing. In some firms, people have to go through being a staff attorney before they’re ‘promoted’ to a trial lawyer. Technically, the two are pretty much the same: they both graduated from law school, both have passed the bar, and both are experts in law.
The only difference, however, is that trial lawyers go to court proceedings, and staff attorneys usually don’t. The latter is more focused on keeping the legal gears of their organization working seamlessly. It’s not as glamorous, but it’s just as important. Sure, they’re not one of the types of lawyers that make the most money, but they still earn a respectable amount.
And that’s what a staff attorney does, pretty much everything and anything paperwork-related. They usually work in law firms, but you’ll find staff attorneys in commercial corporations, governmental departments, schools and universities, not-for-profit organizations, and so on and so forth. They usually leave the more specialized legal fields to law firm attorneys, but in essence, staff attorneys are pretty much the jack-of-all trades in the legal world.
But What Exactly Do Staff Attorneys Do?
Pretty much any legal paperwork that their organization needs, and then some. This also means that the day-to-day activities of a staff attorney will vary depending on what their organization does and what they need for that moment. Given that, however, there are some common things that staff attorneys do on a regular basis:
- Performs factual and legal research and analysis for their organization’s legal needs
- If working for a government body and/or government official, staff attorneys will attend legislative committee meetings, and help prepare legislation
- Develops and conducts in-house presentations for training or professional development
- For labor lawyers, staff attorneys will draft and review contracts, employment agreements, and a wide variety of legal correspondence as their organization requires it.
- Advises executives on the potential legal ramifications of proposed organizational policies and procedures.
- Protects an organization’s rights in its interactions with external parties
Staff attorneys are at the disposal of their chosen organization, so if they need any kind of legal proceeding to be processed, the staff attorney is their guy or gal.
What Credentials Do Staff Attorneys Need?
As we mentioned earlier, the requirements to become a staff attorney do not vary all that much from trial attorneys, which means that, for them to practice, staff attorneys will need:
- Juris Doctor degree
- State Bar admission
- And, ideally, 3 years of prior associate-level experience in a particular area of expertise
Of course, if you want to differentiate yourself from the rest of the herd, you’ll need to develop some critically important skills that are necessary for you to excel in your position, such as:
- Exceptional skills in negotiation and interpersonal communication
- Above-average interpersonal communication skills, including negotiating agreements between parties
- An extremely close attention to detail and meticulous research skills
- Always updated with legal issues pertinent to the organization you work for (keep yourself updated on new laws and precedents, etc.)
- Excellent persuasive argumentation, both in oral and written form.
How Much Do Staff Attorneys Make?
This is where it gets interesting: because staff attorneys are usually hired by government and/or private institutions, their salaries differ wildly from, say, law firm attorneys or trial attorneys. This means that it’s not a simple question of ‘how much do lawyers make an hour’, but rather, ‘how much would a staff attorney make in X industry’.
On average, a staff attorney working for the U.S. judicial branch could earn around $100k in a year, while a staff attorney for, say, a community legal aid program could earn anywhere between $40k to $70k a year. Private firms, on the other hand, will vary wildly in terms of how much they’ll be compensating their staff attorneys, depending on the volume of work they give, and the kind of work they’ll be doing.
Federal court staff attorneys, on average, get paid more than staff attorneys in law firms or private organizations specifically because they do mountains of paperwork on a daily basis. On average, a trial attorney will be working on several cases, usually around 2 to 3, at any given time. For each of these cases, they’ll be filing multiple paperwork and documents pertaining to judicial proceedings to their respective court houses. Guess who works on these documents: staff attorneys.
But how do lawyers like staff attorneys get paid? They’re usually kept on retainer, or paid an hourly rate. Unlike trial attorneys, they don’t usually have access to a flat rate or a contingency rate.
So yes, staff attorneys differ from trial lawyers, both in scope of work and salary. But their expertise needs to be on par, if not better, than the hotshots talking up a storm in court.