How Do I Find the Right Practice Area for Me?

In law school, as early as you can, take the time to explore different practice areas so you choose your career with intention and find a practice area that speaks to your strengths and interests (and gives you joy!). While it’s important to have focus, it’s also important to be agile enough to embrace new fields and opportunities that you didn’t even know existed.

According to this article in the Chicago Tribune, “only 44% of Big Law lawyers report satisfaction with their career.” One of the main reasons for job dissatisfaction is often practicing the wrong area of law (for you). High levels of job dissatisfaction, coupled with demanding work schedules, risk-averse personalities, and immense social and personal pressure, can contribute to mental health issues such as depression, burnout, substance abuse, etc. — another grave concern within the legal industry. Finding the right practice area that aligns with your goals, interests, and values is not just important for professional fulfillment, but it’s also critical to your well-being. 

So take the time to be your own career matchmaker.

TIPS:

  1. Start with 2-3 different practice areas that interest you – research the field, read about what the practice area entails, find out what classes your school offers for this practice area, figure out which firms/companies specialize in the practice area, and make a list of attorneys/professionals to reach out to.
    • Start by gathering contacts in your alumni base (both undergrad and law school) that practice in your targeted area. Speak with your career services center for attorney recommendations. Use the search parameters on LinkedIn. 
  2. Speak to practicing attorneys in different practice areas, both in-house and at firms.
    • If you know you want to move to a different city after law school, consider reaching out to attorneys in your future market to start building your local network.
    • Consider how this practice area is practiced at a firm and in-house – tease it out further by considering what it would look like at a big firm vs. mid-sized firm vs. boutique firm, big company vs. mid-sized company vs. startup, etc.
    • For example, practicing trademark law at a tech company is different than at a consumer products or retail company. And practicing trademark law at a tech company is different than at a law firm. The priorities, budgets, and tasks are different.
  3. Get the perspective of multiple attorneys for a practice area – different things will resonate with different people.
    • Don’t forget to ask your professors and deans for advice.
    • Be discerning about whose advice you take. Understand that everyone has a unique story and journey, and just because someone had a certain outcome doesn’t mean it can be easily replicated and that it will work for you.
  4. Ask the attorneys: what a typical day looks like, what kinds of tasks they do, what challenges they face, what they like/dislike about their practice, how this practice area interacts with other areas, what personality traits are best suited for this practice area, what skills are needed to succeed in this practice area, how automation will affect this practice area, etc.
    • Ask the attorneys what resources (books, podcasts, websites, social media accounts, etc.) they recommend and who else they’d recommend speaking to.
    • Ask if it’s possible for you to shadow them for a day or two.
    • Don’t forget to follow up!
  5. Take all the relevant classes. Don’t just focus on taking classes that are tested on the Bar Exam; take classes that interest you or you’re curious about. Take experiential classes like clinics. See if you can take interesting classes at the Business School, Medical School, etc., if applicable.
  6. Sign up for newsletters that are specific to your practice areas of interest.
    • Follow relevant accounts on social media.   
  7. Set up an internship/externship in the area of interest – this is the best way to see the practice area in action.
  8. Attend webinars, CLEs, conferences, industry-specific events, etc. to network and to learn more about the practice of your targeted area.
  9. Do an independent study or write a research paper that allows you to dive deeper into an issue. Or write an article for an external publication. 
  10. Read through the archives of Mentor in Law to get advice about the different practice areas from practicing attorneys – so far, I’ve covered public international lawemployment lawacademia, and health law (and 6 more below).

A few things to consider:

  • Are you more interested in a transactional role or litigation?
  • Consider your strengths/weaknesses (can’t emphasize this enough!) and your likes/dislikes. Try taking a strengths test such as High5 or CliftonStrengths.
  • What skills do you want to learn?
  • Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
  • What are your personal and professional priorities? Short-term and long-term goals?
  • What classes did you like and not like? And why?
  • Your interests may change as you move through your journey – embrace it.
  • What may interest you theoretically, may not interest you in practice – the best way to figure out if you’re truly interested is by talking to practicing attorneys and doing an internship in the relevant field.
  • If you decide after doing an internship that a particular practice area is not for you, don’t be afraid to move on and try another one. Think deeply about what you liked and didn’t like. 
  • If you have multiple interests, consider how you can connect the dots between them.
  • What will this practice area look like in 5, 10, and 20 years?
  • What practice areas are in demand currently?
  • Are there certain industries you want to focus on? What issues and skills are specific to this industry?

The reality is that you likely won’t know the nuances and intricacies of a certain practice area and whether it is a true fit until you are actually practicing, but the more research and work you put in up front to narrow your options, the better off you will be. Figuring out what you don’t like is just as important as finding what you do like, and will take you one step closer to finding your perfect fit and professional fulfillment.

Links:

– Careers in Law…What’s Right For You?, LSAC
– Everything Law Students Need to Know About Choosing a Practice Area, Turco Legal

Read the full September 2020 issue here and sign up here. Archives can be found here.