How to decide which type of lawyer you want to be

Building a successful Law Career - Part 7

Deciding which area of law to work in

For law students and newly qualified lawyers, choosing the area of law they will work in is a major career decision which will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

It’s incredibly important that you make the right decision but how can you do this before you have any real experience of working in the law? Here are some suggestions to help you make the right choice.

First thing – don’t rush the decision! You’re probably going to be practising law for 30 or 40 years so it’s important to start off strongly in the right direction – in a field of law in which you can succeed.

Whilst law firms generally suggest that they provide services across a vast range of legal and practice areas, you will find that most lawyers specialise in just one area – or even a subset of one.

How much control newly qualified lawyers have over the specialisation process varies and can depend on the type and size of firm they joined as trainees, and which practice areas they experienced during training.

You will find that economics plays a big part in which departments have vacancies available. For example, during an economic downturn there will be less demand for M&A lawyers and construction industry lawyers, but more demand for litigators and insolvency lawyers. It’s unlikely, therefore that you will be able to choose from the wide range of specialisms which the firm claims it deals with. You’re more likely to be forced to choose from those areas which the firm is currently busy with. You can exercise some control however, by researching the law companies you are interested in, gaining work experience wherever possible, and making targeted applications based on your preferences.

1. Research

Before digesting the huge array of specialisms in the legal profession, you need to ask yourself whether you’re broadly interested in commercial law (where you would act for companies and organisations), family/private client law (where you would act for individuals), or criminal law (where you would defend or prosecute people accused of crimes).

The practice areas that a firm offers will be determined by the type of client it serves, so think about the type and size of firm you would be comfortable in. Law companies range from small high-street firms working locally, to global corporations, themselves serving huge numbers of multinational corporations. Which would suit you best?

Look at the important departments within a firm – these are the ones which are most likely to have vacancies. You will need considerable luck, and possible connections, to find employment in a small niche firm staffed by just a few lawyers.

Firms’ websites offer an insight into this – look at how many lawyers make up each department, which departments produce a lot of briefings, and which recent deals are covered most prominently. You could also call, or email, the recruitment team to ask how practice areas are weighted. HR managers like to see this sort of interest in their company from prospective applicants. It shows the applicant is making a considered choice when applying for a job with the company – not just sending out hundreds of CVs in the hope that somebody is interested.

2. Work experience

When I qualified, I thought that planning law was the area I wanted to specialise in, based on the fact that my father worked in the construction industry and I knew something about visiting building sites. It took me less than three months of working in the area of law to know that it was not for me. It did not give me the opportunity for constant appearances in court, and the opportunity to argue legal points and question witnesses. Something which I rapidly came to love, once I had fallen, almost accidentally, into the role of a public prosecutor whilst hoping for the right law job to come along.

The point about my little story is, the only way to know for certain whether a practice area is right for you is by gaining some first-hand experience. This is why work experience in a law office is an unbeatable way to find the career that suits you. It doesn’t even have to be in the practice area which most interests you. Even if you decide that the areas you experienced during the placement were not for you, it is useful because you know not to apply for jobs in that field in the future.

It may sound surprising, but vacation scheme jobs are probably the most valuable form of work experience because they are so intense, as they tend to cover multiple practice areas over the course of a few weeks. You can experience a brief snapshot of lots of different types of legal work without being stuck in a post, which you quickly understand is wrong for you, wasting weeks, if not months. Another advantage of these holiday schemes is that they are an important part of the recruitment in many firms, with successful placements typically ending in an interview for a training contract.

There are, however, many other useful forms of legal work experience available and all of them are beneficial. Don’t hold back. Don’t sit around waiting for something to happen. Take the initiative and contact local high street firms to ask if you can help out for a couple of weeks, or even just shadow one of the lawyers for a day or two – you can learn a lot about what might be an interesting area of work by talking to lawyers about their jobs and watching them work. It will also get you noticed by the law company. A few words of warning here – make sure have done your homework on the firm before getting in contact, you might be asked why you want to come to their office rather than their rival down the street AND, once you are in their office, be pleasant polite and respectful – don’t ruin your chance of future employment with them by being difficult or a know-all AND – whatever you do – don’t date any member of the staff!! You want to come over as a responsible, interested, intelligent, prospective employee, not Jack the Lad, or a femme-fatale who may cause problems later with inter-office relationships.

Apart from law companies there are also local advice offices dealing with family law, crime, immigration and human rights – they will probably be happy to accept you as a volunteer at a law centre of the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau, if you feel this area of law would be interesting to you.

There are also lots of opportunities for direct contact that you don’t have to organise yourself – open days, presentations and university law fairs, for example – that enable the well-briefed candidate to find out more about what it is really like to be a certain type of lawyer.

3. Training

With extensive research and some legal work experience under your belt, you will be well equipped to target your applications at firms operating in the areas that really interest you. When you start training is when the specialisation process really begins. Training contracts are usually divided into “seats” in different departments, both contentious and non-contentious law, so here is where you will find out, if the reality of working in your chosen practice area matches your expectations.

The final stage of the specialisation process can be competitive. Remember that the reality of working in a practice area may be very different from what you imagined, so don’t exclude all types of law in favour of just one area. You may end up enjoying things you never thought you would, and finally work as a different type of lawyer than what you imagined when you were a student.

Don’t tie yourself to one rigid idea for your career path. Some people begin training contracts thinking they have to be certain type of lawyer, or qualify into a certain area. That’s wrong, but what you find you really enjoy could be something unexpected. Try as many different things as possible. Don’t worry about mapping every twist and turn of your path too early. Your law career is going to last 40 years, take a little extra time at the beginning to make sure that you set off in the right direction

Here are five tips to help you determine your future practice area:

  1. Assess your abilities. When deciding on an area of specialization, consider your strengths and weaknesses. You may have strengths that lend themselves well to a certain area of law, such as excellent public speaking skills, which are important for litigation but, if you view public speaking as one of your weaknesses and prefer to work directly with clients on a one-on-one basis, transactional law might be the path for you.
  2. Consider your background. Your previous education and work experiences may sway you towards a specific area of law. For example, a business degree may help you to better understand areas of law dealing with corporations. A science background, such as a biology or geology degree, may be useful in a career in environmental law.
  3. Follow your passions. Many legal professionals pursue a specialization that aligns with their personal interests. If you feel strongly about improving access to legal counsel for under-represented communities, for example, a public defence attorney is just one of a number of jobs you may want to consider.
  4. Network. Speaking with attorneys who specialize in different areas of the law can provide you with invaluable legal career advice. Ask them how they selected their specialization and what they enjoy most about their work. Also, check with them about skills and qualifications they believe are needed for someone to excel in those legal areas.
  5. Use your school as a resource. Your law school can provide a wealth of information that can help direct you to the right place within the legal work place. Speak with your career counsellor about your experience to date, your interests and your ambitions. They can provide insight into different legal jobs and how your qualifications might fit.

Also, ask your counsellor if they can connect you with a mentor who can offer an insider’s view on a particular aspect of law. The mentor’s first-hand knowledge could help you define your path.

Choosing your specialization can be daunting when you’re just embarking on your legal career, but you don't have to figure it all out on your own. Legal career advice from established attorneys, your career counsellor, mentors, and other resources can help you determine the area of law that's best for you.

What if you don’t know which area you would develop into, or what practice suits you?”

Here is my personal tip – My personal suggestion to you in those circumstances: go into Litigation first!!

A Litigation practice allows you to have a basic understanding of legal disputes that can arise between parties, the types of legal avenues available when resolving a dispute. Even if you intend to go into a different general practice of law later on, a basic understanding and experience in litigation assists you to better draft agreements, be more precise with language and advice, because you can better understand all the commercial and factual problems that could possibly arise for your client. If you are intending to go into a niche or boutique practice, then a general understanding of a litigation practice is the first necessary building block.

It is for this same reason that I always advise law students to undertake short stints as “attachment students” or “interns” in law firms during their college breaks or while waiting for their exam results. This way they have some understanding of what is available out there, prior to entering the workforce. Even if it’s not ‘your thing’, try out a short 2-week or 1-month or 2-month period (if necessary ‘for free’ just to get the experience) in different practices – a large corporate firm, a small boutique firm, in different areas of practice. That’s the only way you can actually make a clear and informed choice once you are ready to start work.

Remember – You need to determine what suits your personality, talents and goals. Research online what each area of practice is like and, for your goals, what type of experience it requires (there are too many permutations to list here).

Poor career choices will lead you to either becoming professionally stressed, develop mental illness or worse, cause mistakes in your work, which may lead to a Professional Negligence suit to be slapped against you and your work!

It is always a good idea to work in a field in which you would excel, thus ensuring professional development, growth and, not to forget, professional, personal (and mental) happiness all around. Choosing the wrong specialisation or area of practice (and staying in it) is the one way to ensure you will be miserable and perform poorly. So let me finish with the same message I started with – Take your time to work out what area of law would best suit you and only then, make your choice.

Part 1 - Some general basics
Part 2 - Growing  your own professional client base – Networking Events
Part 3 - Essential skills – The Ability to speak in Public
Part 4 - Writing a successful CV
Part 5 - Giving a successful Interview – What to do and what not to do
Part 6 - Letter writing skills
Part 7 - Deciding which area of law to work in
Part 8 - Seven skills that will land you work experience at a law firm
Part 9 - How to move your career into top gear – Winning quick promotions
Part 10 - The Key to moving ahead in your career – Mastering Legal English!