Law
Legal Services
Sectoral analysis of U.S. trade and competitiveness in legal services. 

Legal Services

Legal Services

Overview

Business establishments in the legal services industry provide expert advice in all aspects of the law, including contract, corporate, criminal, family and estate, tax, and tort law. Transnational firms typically offer international business services in securities, immigration, mergers and acquisitions, tax, intellectual property, and labor law, among others. In addition to specialized legal advice, law firms generally provide legal services such as litigation, document production, and legal filings.

Law firms typically divide their activities into two fields: transactional and litigation matters. Transactional law includes commercial and private activities that require the preparation of contracts and filing with government authorities, while litigation includes civil matters, such as commercial disputes, personal and property damage, and criminal matters. Law firms are also involved in business operations and strategy. Due to the multiplicity of federal, state, local, and tribal government laws and regulations, lawyers have to specialize, often in one category only. Key legal specialization areas include antitrust, bankruptcy, commercial, criminal, estate, labor, mergers and acquisition, intellectual property, international, real estate, securities, tax, and tort.  Expertise is also in high demand for heavily regulated industries such as banking, telecommunications, and transportation.  

Domestic Regulatory Environment

In the United States, the legal services industry is regulated at the state level. The bar associations administer state bar examinations, which determine the professional qualifications of practitioners and make rules concerning recognition of practitioners from outside the State. The bar associations also administer rules of professional conduct applicable to lawyers. One exception to state regulation of lawyers is the specialized bar practicing before the U.S. Patent Office, which is regulated by the Federal Government.  

International Environment

The barriers facing the U.S. legal services industry in expanding abroad are primarily regulatory. Foreign countries have associations similar to U.S. bar associations, which regulate the profession, and often restrict the access of foreign lawyers. Market access barriers include nationality requirements for lawyers, restrictions on movement of professional personnel under a country’s immigration laws, prohibitions on incorporation and other restrictions on the legal form that legal practice foreigner lawyers can take. National treatment barriers include restrictions on forming a partnership with local lawyers, rules on the use of international and foreign firm names, and residency requirements. The GATS Secretariat has noted that qualification requirements often represent an insurmountable barrier to trade in legal services.  

Trade in Legal Services

The United States has had a growing surplus for trade in legal services over the past decade. Exports of U.S. legal services reached $13.4 billion in 2019, along with $4.5 billion in imports, leaving a trade surplus of $8.8 billion for the sector. 

Line chart showing legal services exports, imports, and trade balance from 2010 to 2019.

A majority of U.S. trade in legal services is with European countries. The United Kingdom is our lead trading partner in this sector: The United States exported $2.6 billion in legal services to the UK in 2019 and imported $1.5 billion in legal services, resulting in a trade balance with the UK of approximately $1.1 billion. 

Other leading export destinations for U.S. legal services include Canada (with U.S. exports of $1.2 billion), Japan ($1.1 billion), and Germany ($1 billion). Many exports go to the European Union region as a whole, with $3.1 billion in U.S. exports directed towards the 27 EU member countries in 2019. 

Bar chart showing the top export markets for U.S. legal services in 2019.

Canada, Germany, and Japan are also key source countries for U.S. legal services imports. The United States also has trade surpluses in legal services with Canada ($880 million), Germany ($792 million), and Japan ($623 million). The European Union overall also remains a top import source in this sector. 

Bar chart showing the top import markets for U.S. legal services in 2019.

From a regional perspective, just under half of U.S. exports in legal services are directed towards Europe, while 52 percent of U.S. imports are sourced from Europe. The Asia-Pacific region is the second largest regional partner, with 28 percent of U.S. exports and 31 percent of U.S. imports. 

Pie chart showing U.S. legal services exports by region in 2019.
Pie chart showing U.S. legal services imports by region in 2019.

Please click here to access the full data for these charts

ITA Resources
Rachel Minogue
Accounting, Legal, and Management Consulting Services
Rachel.Minogue@trade.gov
202.482.2991