As you progress through law school, you will probably take more than a few classes that pique your curiosity and make you wonder if you could practice in that field. But when you graduate, you will be faced with a choice of practice areas.
Here are some thoughts about how to choose an area of law practice:
Your law school education has value for more than practicing law. Remember that practicing law means representing clients. But you can still help clients without practicing law. In fact, only about 63% of law school graduates get jobs that require state bar admission. The remainder tries something else, at least temporarily.
Some jobs that involve the law but do not involve the practice of law include:
The U.S. has over 1.3 practicing lawyers. You should not feel like you need to practice law after you finish law school. If you can find a career you love and use your education, you can ignore the pressure to join all the other lawyers practicing law.
If you do decide to practice law, you should understand what is important to you and make sure your practice area can accommodate those priorities. For example, you should not push your personal life to the side if it is important to you merely because of your chosen practice area. Similarly, if you have family commitments or medical issues, you should make sure you and your family can take a leading role in your life.
Some practice areas have regular hours and allow you to make a comfortable living while leaving you plenty of personal time. For example, an estate planning lawyer spends most of the day writing will and trust documents and rarely appears in court. An estate lawyer might never go to court with the right firm, leaving court appearances to the litigators.
Some practice areas are very issue-specific. For example, if you have a fire burning inside you to help victims of domestic violence, you have a few practice areas open to you including:
Surveys routinely place lawyers among those with the most stressful jobs along with surgeons, police officers, and paramedics. Practicing law is stressful because the best lawyers take their clients’ problems and make them their own. When these lawyers lose a case, it feels like they were the losing party, not just the losing party’s lawyer.
Moreover, young lawyers are pressured to work long hours, often allowing their lives to become ruled by the billable hour. Peer pressure and financial pressure forces lawyers into a lifestyle that many probably would not choose. As a result of the stress they experience, lawyers have some of the highest rates of suicide and drug and alcohol abuse among professionals.
This stress is compounded if you do not enjoy your practice area. As you go through the process of how to choose an area of law practice, you should eliminate those that you will not enjoy. For example, many people have had bad experiences with insurance companies. For them, representing insurers would compound their daily stress because they would hate their jobs.
Moreover, some lawyers are better suited for high-pressure situations than others. Some enjoy working long hours and staying productive. Some have particular interests that they will push to advance and will take any job to advance them.
For example, some personal injury lawyers are genuinely concerned about the well-being of their injured clients. When a doctor injures someone through medical error, some medical malpractice laywers enjoy taking on the doctor’s insurer to help the injured person obtain the compensation they deserve. These lawyers can take joy in their job and feel appreciated. This will go a long way to reducing on-the-job stress and keeping you happy.
A big part of enjoying your practice area will be your aptitude for it. If you have an aptitude for the skills needed for your practice area, your job will become easier as you develop and grow in your practice. So, while you go through the process of how to choose an area of law practice, think about what you do well and where your interests lay.
Thus, someone interested in finance and accounting could be a very good bankruptcy attorney. In fact, you probably would not even need to be a math expert to practice bankruptcy law. You will have accountants and other financial experts help you crunch numbers.
But having an interest in finance and helping debtors find a way out of financial trouble will help you enjoy your job and develop expertise. As you get better at your job, you will enjoy it more, and vice versa. Eventually, you will become an expert in debt negotiation and derive great job satisfaction from doing it well.
At the same time, you should also be realistic about what you do not do well. If you have no interest in, or aptitude for, medicine, you should probably avoid becoming a car accident attorney. Car accident lawyers must be able to read an x-ray and talk to medical providers to understand the extent of their clients’ injuries. If you get squeamish when talking about medical issues or do not know your metatarsals from your metacarpals, you will probably not enjoy this practice area.
The U.S. has a huge need for lawyers. But not all practice areas are created equally. When considering how to choose an area of law practice, some factors you might consider include:
Lawyers who represent clients must pass the state bar examination wherever they practice. This includes clients who are corporations, individuals, or organizations. For example, a product liability lawyer who files class-action suits against companies that make defective products must be admitted to the bar because the class consists of individuals.
Beyond the ordinary qualifications that all lawyers must meet, some lawyers must meet additional qualifications. For example, the U.S. Patent Office requires patent lawyers to have a degree in science or engineering. Patent lawyers must also pass a special test called the patent bar exam before practicing in patent cases.
Similarly, lawyers who want to practice in multiple states usually must pass a bar examination in each state. After a certain period of practice, some states will waive the bar examination. But any lawyer who wants to practice multistate litigation or multistate business transactions should be prepared to take and pass a couple of bar examinations.
Finally, some courts require additional admission. The U.S. Supreme Court requires admission before a lawyer can argue before the court. To be admitted to specialty courts, a lawyer usually must have a clean disciplinary record in their home state and have a sponsor who is already admitted to the court.
When deciding how to choose an area of law practice, make sure you meet all the qualifications or have the commitment to meeting those qualifications.
One of the most underrated considerations in how to choose an area of law practice is the day-to-day activities of a lawyer in that area. For example, litigators spend a lot of time in court. Someone with performance anxiety or stage fright might not be able to work as a litigator.
But litigators rely on other lawyers to help them prepare for court by drafting motions and memoranda, preparing exhibits, and deposing witnesses. These lawyers might not plan to spend their days in court but can still be involved in litigation.
Conversely, many transactional lawyers spend all day in an office drafting documents. Patent lawyers, estate lawyers, corporate lawyers, and real estate lawyers might appear in court only occasionally.
Stil other lawyers have a mix of court appearances and transactions. Personal injury lawyers spend a lot of time corresponding with insurance companies. But when a settlement is not reached, they will file a lawsuit.
Thinking about how to choose an area of law practice can seem like an irreversible decision. But keep in mind that every lawyer has the tools for almost any practice. Choose something you enjoy, and if it does not work out, you can always change your area of practice.