The United States is a society based on the rule of law, and that means that lawyers are accorded a certain social status, but in return also bear tremendous responsibilities. The job duties of attorneys vary dramatically based on the area of law they practice in, but regardless of their specialty, all lawyers have ethical responsibilities to their clients and to society as a whole.
Codes of ethics for lawyers are promulgated by the American Bar Association and state bar associations, and tend to be very similar in their key tenets. One important point is that lawyers have a duty to make sure that everyone has access to a competent lawyer. A second key ethical consideration is to respect the law and maintain professional standards at all times, and to report violations by other lawyers to the proper authorities. Another important point in a legal code of ethics is the duty of a lawyer to not disclose any information about a client except as required by law, commonly known as the attorney-client privilege.
Duties of Criminal Lawyers
The job of a prosecuting attorney is to represent the "people" and work to convict those charged with crimes. The job of a criminal defense attorney is to defend those who have been charged with crimes. But despite their diametrically opposed roles, prosecutors and defense attorneys have similar job descriptions. They both have a duty to carefully examine the facts of the case and decide what evidence to present and how to best present it to convince a judge or jury. Furthermore, a defense attorney has a duty to present the best possible defense for a client regardless of her personal beliefs about the client's guilt or innocence in the case.
Duties of Tax Lawyers
Tax lawyers have a much different set of duties than criminal lawyers. Their main job is to advise clients regarding calculating taxes, appropriate deductions, tax shelters and so forth. Many tax lawyers also act in an advisory capacity regarding the tax consequences of investments or other financial decisions. Tax lawyers sometimes work with litigation attorneys in representing clients against the IRS in court.
Duties of Patent Attorneys
Patent attorneys, sometimes called intellectual property attorneys, work with patent, trademark and copyright holders to help them file for and protect their rights. Patent attorneys often have an educational background in a specific area such as medicine or electrical engineering as well as law, so they have a real understanding of the technology being patented or litigated.