The legal profession is filled with ample practice areas to select from. Choosing a particular practice area earlier in your legal career, rather than later, can reduce unnecessary stress in the job hunting process and maintaining a position thereafter. Many online sources offer beneficial tools and guidelines for picking an area of practice early on; this article summarizes some of those methods and provides an insight on their use in practice from a first-generation law student’s perspective.
First, several online sources recognize that “[s]electing a practice area is probably the most important factor affecting an attorney’s long-term career success, and is something law school often fails to prepare you for.” Thus, choosing the right area of practice is an essential element to your success. Broadly speaking, you can be a lawyer in the public sector, government, or private sector. Start thinking of which—public or private sector—you are more passionate about and just remember that even within each sector, there are countless niche practice areas: transactional law, criminal law, personal injury law, tax law, family law, etc.
What Areas of the Law Even Exist?
Oh man, so many.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
Aviation and Aerospace
Class Action/Mass Torts
Closely Held Business
Creditor Debtor Rights
Criminal Defense: DUI/DWI
Criminal Defense: White Collar
Employment & Labor
Energy & Natural Resources
Entertainment & Sports
Estate & Trust Litigation
Estate Planning & Probate
Food and Drugs
Intellectual Property Litigation
Legal Aid/Pro Bono
Legislative & Governmental Affairs
Media and Advertising
Mergers & Acquisitions
Native American Law
Personal Injury – General
Personal Injury – Medical Malpractice
Personal Injury – Products
Schools & Education
Securities & Corporate Finance
Social Security Disability
State, Local & Municipal
How Do I Find An Area of Practice For Me?
Choosing an area of practice starts with focusing on three things: (1) your interests, (2) your abilities, and (3) your needs. While this is not an exhaustive list on how to choose your field of practice, these factors will get you thinking about what type of work would be meaningful to you and sustainable for the long-term. This process will come naturally, even if slowly: finding your interests should excite you, rather than bore or scare you away.
Find an area that truly interests you and do not be afraid to explore areas you find perplexing. Assess your interests by how your class readings on the various subjects make you feel as a preliminary measure. For instance, I enjoyed my 1L Contracts class and how it made me think; it was challenging but not overly difficult or frustrating.
If you have worked prior to starting law school, then you can also draw from your past experiences as indicators of your legal interests. Think about which part(s) of your old job(s) did you enjoy? What made you leave that industry? For example, if you worked with a family law attorney and absolutely dreaded dealing with the sensitive nature of the cases then you know to stay away from family law as an area of practice.
Even if you did not work prior to starting law school and have not encountered the law until law school then draw on why you wanted to become a lawyer in the first place. Is it your passion to help others or maybe the idea of litigating and advocating in front of a judge or jury?
Advice here varies because no one thing will apply to all first generation law students. I hate to say choose an area that complements your “natural abilities” because I believe practicing in any area of the law takes effort and time regardless of your “natural abilities.” So, to keep it simple and useful, I recommend finding an area that comes “easier” to you. What do I mean? Well as a first gens, the law in general is foreign and may not come “easily” to us, but look for legal topics that you grasp faster and easier than others.
Choose an area that helps you manage your time and efforts, value your time and realize that you can work hard and smart at the same time. For example, if you are writing a brief and composing the language or proper grammar is overly challenging to you, maybe being a litigator is not your first choice, because being a “good” writer eases the burdens of being a litigator. With that being said, remember that no one lawyer will be good at everything they do, but truly excellent lawyers are likely good because they work tirelessly and develop a deep interest in their practice. Aim for a balance between your interest and your ability (and recognize that it will take time).
Figuring out which topics you grasp with ease comes from saying yes to different opportunities as they arise. For example, most schools offer moot court competitions, write-on for journals and law reviews, research assistant positions, and opportunities for judicial internships. Applying to these opportunities will help you love a particular area of the law, or perhaps eliminate that field early on.
This factor is not as complicated as finding your interests and abilities. For one, what is your financial need? Are you in law school because you need financial stability and will graduate with large amounts of debt? Will you have many family members depending on you financially? If that is the case, then being in a low paying position after law school may slow you down in meeting your financial needs.
Next, what are your emotional, social and esteem needs? Think about which practice area would give you personal satisfaction and longevity in that field. If you are a person that wants to dedicate your legal career to helping others and giving back to your community, BigLaw might not be your first choice.
There are so many legal practices and areas of the law to choose from, you will easily be able to find one you will love and one in which you will thrive.