Figuring Out Which Practice Area is Right For You Part I: Research

“What kind of law are you interested in?” Does this question flummox you? Don’t be ashamed if it does. It’s not uncommon for law students to have trouble answering this question, including 3Ls. Yet, if you have been reading my blog for long, you are probably starting to get a sense that committing to a practice area as soon as you can really helps your job search.

So if you find yourself unable to really articulate the practice area you’re interested in, what can you do? This blog post talks about how you can research practice areas and this one talks about taking action to realize your best practice area fit.

Prioritize what is important to you in your day to day work life

In this blog post, I talk about how there are five things you can get out of your career but you can only get a maximum of four of them. Consciously ask yourself what most matters to you in your career between work/life balance, good pay, doing good quality work, doing work that benefits society, and liking your co-workers. If work/life balance is the most important thing for you, for instance, pursuing a big law career might not be the best move for you.

As you engage in this thought process, you may be enticed to think about alternate practice areas you had never considered.

Review Practice Area Guides

Sometimes it is difficult to even know what the world of practice areas looks like because they are so many of them. If you want to see a basic list, this practice area list from Super Lawyers can get you started.  To delve further into what a particular practice area involves, check out this Chambers practice area guide, which will give you an overview of each practice area, the main laws that govern them, specific tasks that lawyers practicing in each area perform, quotes from real lawyers practicing in that area about what they do, and current relevant issues in each practice area.

Additionally, Major, Lindsey & Africa has an excellent Law Firm Practice Area Summary with a brief description of each practice area and a discussion of what attorneys like and don’t like about the practice area.

For instance, regarding securities lawyers, the MLA guide states “Attorneys who like this practice enjoy helping accused individuals: this is closest you can get to doing criminal defense work without worrying that your client will go to jail. Client relationships with the individuals and company management tend to be very close. These attorneys also enjoy working in a variety of industries and learning about various companies’ businesses.”

Conversely, the guide states “People who don’t like this practice are frustrated because these cases rarely go to trial. Also, the actions can be frivolous and many times there is no meaningful plaintiff (it is a lawyer-driven industry) so the actions feel biased: defense counsel does a lot of work and plaintiffs make unfounded allegations.”

If you took a LawFit assessment, your final write-up contains a practice area guide with a discussion of how your personality fits each one.

As you read through the guides and find some practice areas that appeal to you, start seeking out more information. Each practice area almost certainly has people blogging about it, conferences dedicated to it, and bar association sections for it. Read those blogs, read reports about or attend those conferences, and go to those bar association section events. Most importantly:

Ask yourself these 10 questions

Major, Lindsey & Africa (MLA) developed the following 10 questions to ask yourself as you’re considering your career path. If you want to go over your answers and what they mean for practice area fit, meet with a CDO counselor and we’ll go over the answers with you.

  1. In your career, do you mostly want to engage with people, things, ideas, or money/business?

Some lawyers primarily engage with things in their job. For example, the MLA speaker said that her husband is a construction lawyer, he has legos all over the house, and he likes to stop at construction sites just to see the cranes. In his job, he interacts primarily with things.

If you want to mostly engage with ideas, you like it when the answer is “it depends.”

It is a sign that you may want to pursue a career where you primarily engage with money or business if you pondered going to business school instead of law school or are good at math.

  1. Do you want to create or enable?

Creators are the coaches and QBs whereas enablers are the kick returners. Creators call the shots. A good question to ask yourself when determining which one you are is: what happens when there is a party? Are you saying “let’s have a party” or “I’ll bring the beer.” If you’re hosting the party, you’re a creator. If you’re bringing the beer, you’re an enabler. Similarly, if you’re in a big group of people trying to get somewhere and you are usually the one who calls the uber, you’re a creator.

  1. Do you mind facing moral conundrums in your practice?

Do your friends come to you asking for advice? Do they expect you to cry with them or be their rock?

  1. Do you want to be the expert or a generalist?

Experts like to know and generalists don’t mind saying “I can find out.” Generalists know a little about everything while experts know a lot about one thing. Experts are prone to suffering from imposter syndrome if they are in a generalist role.

  1. Do you prefer to analyze grey areas or have concrete answers?

Concrete answer people will like areas like tax, administrative law, and securities. Grey area people will like litigation. If you like knowing the concrete answer, litigation might not be for you. You might find that tax law or bankruptcy law, practices governed by codes with clear rules, are a great match.

  1. Who do you want to help and how?

Law is a service profession so you are going to help someone. Who is that someone?

  1. Do you mind dealing with emotionally charged situations?

If you don’t want emotionally charged situations to be a major part of your practice, then family law probably isn’t for you, for example.

8. What relationship do you want to have with your clients?

What kind of dog do you have? The Rottweiler barks and keeps people off the lawn but doesn’t expect a treat for doing it. Is that you or is it really important for you to get positive feedback and know how much you’re appreciated? How do you take feedback? Can you handle being a necessary expense (family law) or do you want to be part of the team (corporate law)? Corporate lawyers get Christmas cards from clients and trophies for closing deals. Family lawyers do not. No one is happy to call a divorce lawyer.

  1. Are you comfortable with an adversarial practice?

Are you conflict able vs. passive aggressive? Smaller bars will minimize the aggressive aspect of litigation. The smaller a city or town is, typically the less aggressive the attorneys are.

  1. How important is a predictable schedule?

If you want a predictable schedule, consider a career in tax law or trusts and estates. If a predictable schedule is not as important to you, you might like litigation, working in-house, or bankruptcy, among other options. How much do you like change vs. routine?

Eliminate Obvious Options

Start with MLA’s first question: in your career, do you mostly want to engage with people, things, ideas, or money/business? If you know you want to pursue a career that mostly involves money or business, you have gone a long way in eliminating several options. Now, you can focus in on the practice areas that deal with money and business, which is just a few of them, significantly narrowing the field. If you know that you want to interact with numbers as infrequently as possible, you can take tax law off of the table. If you know you want to be able to provide clients with concrete answers rather than having to say “it depends” most of the time, you know that litigation is not your best fit.

You don’t have to know the exact practice area you want to pursue right now but give yourself credit for eliminating options and getting closer to the right answer. I hear many students say that they are “open to doing anything” but once you look through the practice area guides and think things through, you will start to see that is not the case. If you didn’t like an externship or your summer job, that is good information to have. Talk to the CDO about why you didn’t like it and we can help you find a practice area that you will like. Not liking something is useful information.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start by crossing options off of the list first.

Talk to the CDO

There is a lot of information in this blog post and Part II on taking action. I get it. If you just want someone who you can speak with and download all of your thoughts to, schedule an appointment with one of us. As we talk about what you did and didn’t like about your summer job, practice areas that appeal to you from the practice areas guides, and things you have learned from attorneys you have spoken with, we can use those data points to have a productive conversation about different practice areas that might fit with you.

A practice area you like is closer than you think but you have to devote time to the research process to get there. If you’re feeling stuck, a CDO counselor is just a phone call or email away.

To get more information on finding which practice area fits with you, read “Figuring Out Which Practice Area is Right For You Part II: Taking Action.”

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