Numerous federal and state laws in the U.S. are designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous companies, ensure that customers get the products or services they pay for and punish false advertisers.
For example, so-called “lemon laws” vary from state to state but typically mandate that anyone who unknowingly purchases a defective car or other consumer good is entitled to repair or replacement.
These kinds of laws and regulations, which are meant to promote honesty and transparency in the marketplace, fall under a specific legal specialty: consumer protection law.
What Does a Consumer Protection Lawyer Do?
Consumer protection lawyers often initiate class-action lawsuits against major companies that have misled or harmed consumers, and they sometimes provide legal advice to businesses on how to comply with government guidelines.
When representing consumers, these attorneys typically pursue cases on a contingency basis, meaning they get paid only for the cases they win or settle. They may receive direct compensation from the defending companies as opposed to being paid by their clients, and they generally work in solo practices or at small law firms to reduce operating expenses.
According to LawCrossing, a legal jobs website, the average salary among U.S. consumer protection lawyers is $117,800 — comparable to the median salary for all lawyers, which was roughly $128,000 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries may be lower for those working at nonprofits.
Stuart Rossman, director of litigation for the National Consumer Law Center and former board co-chair of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, says it takes courage and persistence to advocate for people who have claims against big and often powerful firms like banks and insurance companies.
Rossman says he launches lawsuits against “some of the largest companies in the world” and that this sort of litigation is an uphill battle. “You have to have a pretty thick skin,” he says. “I lose a lot. When you tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t win all the time.”
Consumer protection lawyers have to be “pretty darned stubborn,” he says, but the job also comes with unique rewards, including “a poignancy and a very special passion that comes from representing people who have no one else to represent them and are dealing with fundamental necessities of life.”
Signs That a Law School Excels at Preparing Consumer Protection Lawyers
Students interested in this field should look for law schools that offer classes on consumer protection law — not all schools do. It’s also beneficial if the school has a consumer-related law school clinic such as a landlord-tenant or housing law clinic where students can get practice handling customer disputes, according to experts.
“Look on the faculty to see if there are professors there who do research in these areas, since they may be good people to talk about consumer protection with,” recommends Daniel Wilf-Townsend, an associate professor of law at Georgetown University in the District of Columbia.
Steps to Become a Consumer Protection Attorney
Take a variety of relevant law school classes and study hard.
Many aspects of law are useful for consumer protection attorneys, including banking and finance law, according to experts in the field. There isn’t a strict J.D. curriculum for a future consumer protection attorney, and a variety of law school courses apply to this career path, experts say.
Wilf-Townsend — whose expertise includes consumer protection law, civil procedure and federal courts — suggests taking a class on legal remedies, which covers the forms of restitution that victims of wrongdoing can be given. A course on aggregate litigation, the practice of combining cases from multiple parties into a single lawsuit, could also be beneficial, Wilf-Townsend says.
Antitrust law — the area of law that dictates how companies can compete fairly in the U.S. economy — is an important topic for a potential consumer protection attorney to study, Wilf-Townsend says.
According to Rossman, courses on contract law, torts, civil procedure, evidence law, corporate law and tax law could be helpful. Classes about how to choose a legal venue for a court case or how to decide which law to provide as grounds for a lawsuit would apply to a consumer law career, he says.
Get as much practical experience as you can during law school.
In addition to signing up for law clinic courses that address consumer protection issues, future consumer protection attorneys can do externships and internships with government agencies, law firms or nonprofit organizations that handle consumer protection cases, experts say.
At the federal level, several agencies routinely handle consumer protection issues, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch, the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Regulatory Affairs and the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
State attorneys general offices also typically have a department that focuses on consumer protection.
The National Consumer Law Center offers student internships, and so do other consumer-oriented nonprofits and law firms.
Join a student club that relates to the field or a consumer law professional association.
Law student organizations that focus on consumer protection law may bring in informative speakers and host seminars and conferences, Rossman says. During law school, students can start to get involved with national professional organizations for consumer protection lawyers, he adds.
The National Consumer Law Center provides entrance fee discounts for national conferences to new lawyers, has special training programs for recent law school grads and provides manuals for people entering the consumer protection legal field, Rossman explains.
“Being able to be part of a larger community of people who are doing the same thing, to have the mentorship, to have the support (and) to have the resource sharing that takes place is very, very important,” he says.
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What Consumer Protection Lawyers Do and How to Become One originally appeared on usnews.com