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- Job Description
- Top 10
- How to Get There
If you like to stand up for people, think through problems logically, and convince others to see things your way, this career may be for you. Lawyers are experts in the laws of their country and state. They work to uphold existing rules, argue for new rules, or fight to change rules they think aren't fair. They study past cases and give legal advice, argue for their clients' rights, and help determine the outcome of arguments. Lawyers try to see many sides of the same story so that they can convince the courts that their side is the best one.
There are all kinds of arguments and all kinds of lawyers: corporate, real estate, divorce, entertainment, criminal, and more. The best lawyers are cool under pressure, think fast on their feet, and know a lot about history and politics.
SUPREME DREAMS: The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. It is made up of nine judges who are appointed by the President of the United States. The Supreme Court's verdicts affect the interpretation of laws in all other courts in America. Here are ten landmark Supreme Court decisions.
1803 - OUR WAY OR THE HIGHWAY: Marbury v. Madison marked the first time that a law passed by the United States Congress was overturned by the Supreme Court on the basis that it was unconstitutional. This important decision gave the Supreme Court power over the United States Congress - it served as a warning to politicians.
1857 - FREE AT LAST?: In Dred Scott v. Sanford, a former slave who was taken to the free territories by his owner, argued that, once freed, it was not constitutional to return his family to slavery. The case lasted about 30 years before Scott lost, but the controversy around the decision played a big role in the growing fight to end slavery that led up to the Civil War.
1876 - STICK TO YOUR GUNS: The United States v. Cruikshank enforced the rights of American citizens to keep and bear arms. This right is reexamined all the time because - while it allows citizens to possess guns for their own protection - the incidence of illegal gun possession is very high in our country, and aggressive or accidental gun violence often results in victims' deaths.
1925 - SPEAK FREELY: Gitlow v. New York marked the first time the constitutional right to freedom of speech was formally challenged and enforced. The right to free speech protects citizens from being arrested for speaking out even when what they are saying is unpopular.
1940 - ONE NATION ... UNDER GOD?: Cantwell v. Connecticut marked the first time the free exercise of religion was formally challenged and enforced. This right was the hope of the first American settlers who left England to escape arrest for unpopular religious beliefs. This case upheld that our citizens could worship freely. This protection is also referred to as "the separation of church and state."
1954 - SEPARATE BUT EQUAL?: Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas marked a famous step toward the goals of the civil rights movement, declaring that it is unconstitutional to send kids to separate schools based upon their racial differences.
1962 - GRACE UNDER FIRE: In Engel v. Vitale, the court ruled that school-led prayer in the public school system is unconstitutional. This means that religion may not be taught in public schools; the right to free exercise of religion protects citizens who aren't old enough to vote for themselves - kids!
1963 - A FIGHTING CHANCE: Gideon v. Wainright overturned a guilty verdict on another case based on the fact that the accused did not have a lawyer. Because of this case, any citizen accused of a felony crime is now guaranteed a lawyer to be paid for by "the people" - tax-paying American citizens.
1966 - THREE RIGHTS MAKE A WRONG?: Miranda v. Arizona reversed a guilty verdict, freeing Mr. Miranda from his sentence because he did not know his legal rights at the time of his arrest. This reversal established that, when arrested, citizens must be told they have 1) the right to remain silent; 2) the right to an attorney; and 3) the right to know that anything they say can be used against them in court. No one told Mr. Miranda these things, so the court let him go because he confessed without knowing he could remain silent. These rights are now called the Miranda Rights.
1973 - TOUGH CHOICES: The decision that ended Roe v. Wade protects a woman's right to choose to have a legal abortion within the first three months of pregnancy. The court made this verdict through an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee to the right to privacy. This famous case is still very controversial.
How to Get There
Who's the Law In This Town?
- Pay attention in your language arts and history subjects in school, especially American and English history.
- Keep up with politics and current events; important legal battles show up in the news all the time. (Ask your teachers or parents when you don't understand the issues in these cases, and if they can't help, do research in the library or on the Internet.)
- Ask your teacher about arranging a field trip to your local courts or to meet some real lawyers.
- Join the debate team to get better at thinking on your feet and building a convincing argument.
- If you're spending time on the Internet, try some of these keywords with your favorite search engine: "AMERICAN HISTORY KIDS," "KIDS LAW," "KIDS GOVERNMENT," "LANDMARK CASES," "THE SUPREME COURT," "THE CONSTITUTION," "THE BILL OF RIGHTS," "CIVIL RIGHTS," "BLACK HISTORY," "WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE."
The Case: Jack v. Jill Jack wrote a story and read it to Jill, who thought it was really cool. Jill offered to draw pictures for the story and help make the story into a book. Jack accepted the offer. Jack wrote down all the words and Jill drew all the pictures.
Jill bound the book together and Jack sewed a nice cover onto it. When they showed their finished book to their Uncle Bill, he offered them $10 to buy it. They accepted. Now, Jack and Jill cannot agree on how to split the $10. Jill thinks that she should get at least half of the money, or $5. Jack thinks that he should get more than half and no less than $7.
The Process: Three people - Jack's lawyer, Jill's lawyer and the judge - will help determine a fair split of the $10.
First, the lawyers should prepare their cases by considering the facts, developing their arguments, and taking notes so they can present their cases to the judge clearly and logically.
Next, the lawyers should present their points to the judge aloud, using their notes as reference. The judge should keep a tally of important points and questions, and should weigh both sides carefully before making a decision.
Finally, the judge should explain how and why the final decision was made.
Extension: Switch roles and do it again! Lawyers need to be able to learn from past cases and make the best argument no matter what side of an issue they are hired to represent.
See if you can argue the case differently than it was argued the first time. (You might decide that you and the other lawyer want to agree on some additional details that clarify or change the case.) Can you bring up new points? Can you offer a compromise? Go get 'em!
Q & A
Q. What was the coolest case you ever worked on and why was it so cool?
Peter L., a lawyer in Columbus, OH, says:
Last year I worked on what is called a "test case" involving housing discrimination. The object of a test case is to take the protections of a given law and apply them to a group of people, or to a set of circumstances, that weren't originally protected by that law. In my case, the organization that brought the suit wanted to take housing discrimination laws and apply them to allow recovering addicts who are living together to buy the same type of homeowners' insurance that a traditional family can, and to do so at the same price.
Though insurance is not the most exciting topic, the case had important implications. The insurance company wanted to prove that the law was not meant to apply in this way, while the organization for recovering addicts wanted to prove that not applying the law in this way was discriminatory. It was a very important case for both sides.
Our team worked long hours and many late nights crafting arguments and preparing our client's case. We were surrounded by books and papers, living off of coffee, carryout food, and whatever the vending machine had left at 3:00 am. It was totally exhausting and totally cool ... we were true legal warriors!