Graduating Law School? How to Choose an Area of Law Practice

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:

Consider “None of the Above”

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:

  • Legislator or legislative staff: Legislators at the local, state, and federal levels write laws. They need to understand how their legislation meshes with existing laws and whether their laws will withstand scrutiny by courts.
  • Judicial clerks: Judges do not handle their entire workload alone. Most courts employ judicial clerks to help judges conduct legal research and write legal decisions and opinions.
  • Law professor: New lawyers need training, and law professors often have little or no legal practice experience. But they do have sharp legal minds and a desire to publish their legal analyses.
  • Arbitrator or mediator: Many arbitrators and mediators have private practices on the side. But many parties would prefer an arbitrator or mediator for their case who has no similar cases or potential conflict of interests. For example, an employee going to arbitration against a former employer might prefer an arbitrator who does not make a living representing corporations against their employees.
  • Private investigator: PIs often work with a state or federal criminal defense lawyer to gather evidence to exonerate someone accused of a crime. PIs who have a law degree know what evidence is needed and how to gather it legally.
  • Legal journalist: Many publications that cover current events have a legal journalist on staff to help interpret legislation and court decisions for their readers.

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.

Understand Your Priorities

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:

  • Public interest law: Public interest lawyers work for charitable organizations and public interest groups to improve laws and represent underrepresented groups. A public interest lawyer could help a domestic violence victim obtain a protective order against an abuser.
  • Prosecutor: Prosecutors enforce the laws by bringing criminal cases on behalf of the government. Although the county or city prosecutor’s office must take whatever cases the police bring to them, some lawyers within the office might develop a special talent for certain cases, like domestic violence.
  • Criminal defense: This practice area might not immediately spring to mind when you consider how to choose an area of law practice that protects victims of domestic violence. But in many cases, victims of domestic violence are bullied or manipulated by their abuser into committing crimes. Likewise, some domestic violence victims self-medicate with drugs or alcohol and get arrested.

Understand What Makes You Happy

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.

Understand What You Do Well

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.

Understand the Marketplace

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:

  • Pay: Some lawyers are better paid than others. A criminal defense lawyer who takes cases from the public defender’s office will fall on the low end of the scale. In contrast, an antitrust lawyer who defends multi-billion dollar corporations will fall on the high end of the scale.
  • Demand: The market will demand lawyers in some practice areas more than others. And this demand will shift over time. When the economy is bad, a mergers and acquisitions laywer might be very busy as large companies buy up failing businesses. When the economy is good, a securities lawyer who helps private companies with initial public offerings (IPOs) will be very busy.
  • Lateral movement: Most lawyers begin their careers with law firms. But most lawyers will eventually move to another firm or open their own firms. However, lateral moves will be easier in some practice areas than others. There are many personal injury firms, so a personal injury lawyer might easily move from one personal injury law firm to another. But there are many fewer firms in international trade law, which might inhibit lateral moves.
  • Location: Some practice areas are concentrated in particular geographic locations. Entertainment law firms are concentrated in a few cities like LA and New York, while lobbying law firms are concentrated in Washington D.C. Conversely, some practices can be found in any state in the country. For example, workers’ compensation insurance is mandatory for employers in every state except Texas. Someone who wants to represent roofer employees in workers’ comp cases can work in almost any city in the country.

Understand the Qualifications

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.

Understand the Day-to-Day

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.

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