A path to a legal career is not easy. It entails long years of study and considerable sacrifice. It is an expensive journey, which, for many, requires a heavy amount of loans that will follow them for at least a decade, if not more. In light of this, one would think that a lawyer should know a lot about the different areas of practice in the profession and should have a significant say in selecting the best one for him. Sadly, that is rarely the case.
The reality is that the type of law that one ends up practicing is often as random as where a roulette wheel may stop. Summer associates (do you remember them?) may receive some exposure during their clerkships to different areas, but if they receive an offer of employment, it often provides few options, as they frequently are placed in a department of need. Options are even more limited for those who have to scramble to find a job after graduation. Due to economic necessity, they frequently will take whatever can be found. This includes the growing number of new practitioners who are opting to start their own firms due to sheer economic necessity; for them, there may be little choice at all but to do the type of work that comes in the door due to their need to pay bills.
In addition, there is an important “other category” that is frequently forgotten; namely, those who have worked for a few years and discovered that their practice area does not suit them very well. These lawyers are often stuck, as they may not be able to change practice areas within their firm and normally have limited marketability vis-a-vis other firms. To the extent that a change can be made, it likely may require stepping back a year or two with respect to class year and also may trigger a reduction in compensation. Those types of effects may simply be nonstarters for many attorneys, even though they know that a change needs to be made.
Personally, I did receive exposure as a summer associate to several practice areas and realized that litigation was a good fit. I was quite fortunate that there also was a litigation opening available when I commenced practice. Although I ultimately have shifted to a far different facet of the legal profession, litigation was the right area for me. As I was the first in my family to become a lawyer, and received no guidance in law school about the differences among practice areas, I was truly lucky to have found a good fit.
I know, though, through the work I now do, that many others have not been so fortunate. There are quite a few lawyers who are mismatched in their practice areas and the impact on them has been significant. For some, this has resulted in them becoming quite down, if not miserable, about the practice of law. For others, their ennui has resulted in them resenting their employers, or even bringing their dissatisfaction home to family, friends and loved ones when frustration hits peak levels. Many of these lawyers feel trapped, as they have discovered a key root of their dissatisfaction at a stage where they feel helpless about making a change. For many, they are simply too deep into their careers to be able to retool. For others, making a fundamental change in their area of practice is simply improbable, as they cannot handle the risk, and likely economic consequences, of making a change (even if they could, which is hardly a given).
There is no easy answer here, since, as noted, there still is a fair amount of serendipity in this realm. Nevertheless, for those who do have choices, or have the ability to make a change in their already chosen path, I will explore some factors that can be considered in picking a practice area. In so doing, it is important to note that each of these variables is likely to be weighed differently. For example, a younger, unmarried lawyer who is mobile and can assume great risk will likely have considerably more flexibility with respect to geography, as compared to an older lawyer who is just starting out but has several children who cannot be uprooted from their schools. There are countless other permutations that make this a complex analysis.
It would be impossible to provide a one-size-fits-all personality profile to describe each practice area. Space limitations, and the variability of the human condition prevent such an easy categorization. Nevertheless, there are some broad generalizations that may be helpful to consider.
For example, for those who do not shrink from confrontation, are not lacking in confidence, and have no fear in being front and center, a career in litigation or high-level M&A could be a good fit. For others, who prefer working behind the scenes, enjoy research, and revel in precision, IP prosecution or tax may be excellent areas in which to practice. For some, who enjoy working closely with individuals and prefer a practice that is not extraordinarily deadline-driven, trusts and estates may be their ticket.
I have found that those who like the nature of their work normally have more positive feelings about their organizations and the overall practice of law. I thus recommend getting as much exposure as you can to these practice areas, talking to active practitioners in them, and generally doing your research to better gauge where the best personality fit may be for you.
As one might expect, there are some practice areas that are more concentrated in certain markets. For instance, although oil and gas law is practiced in many jurisdictions, it is not surprising that there are greater numbers of such lawyers in the Southwest and other areas where there are significant energy reserves. Similarly, while one could conduct an international practice in any city, it is not surprising that certain cities (such as D.C. and New York) have proven to be more popular locales for such practices.
The realization that a certain city or region may be best for you is only the beginning of the assessment here. Step two entails a serious evaluation of whether your life circumstances would permit you to move to another region if that were necessary. There may be ties to your current hometown that make such a move quite difficult, as may be the reality that a prospective employer may not pay for the relocation.
Depending on your personal circumstances, it may be imperative that you practice in an area that will be relatively immune to the vicissitudes of the economy, such as the devastating recession that we have endured in recent years. Although we have seen layoffs in all practice areas during downtimes, if there is one particular area that seems to best weather economic storms, it is litigation (and all the variants and sub-practices that define it). Litigation survives, if not thrives, in good and bad times, as the reality is that companies and people sue no matter what the climate may be. There are other areas, such as tax and estates, that will always be in need, as the obligation to pay taxes and planning and dealing with life issues are not forestalled by changes in the economy.
Other practice areas, though, are more cyclical and thus are susceptible to recessions, which could impact your job security. As we saw most recently, real estate and corporate are but two examples of traditionally solid practice areas that were deeply impacted by the sour economy. Depending on how important job security is to you, weighing such an impact is quite important in assessing a practice area fit.
Although some lawyers are fortunate to be in a position where money means little to them, for most others, compensation is important. This may not entail striving to get the absolute highest pay, but, nevertheless, hoping to be paid well may be important, especially since it enables one to take care of essential obligations.
From a practice perspective, specialization often results in higher pay. There may be no better example of this than IP, as the scientific training that is necessary (especially for prosecutors) and the relatively small number of practitioners (although this is changing) have resulted in premiums generally being paid to IP lawyers.
Additionally, it typically follows that practice areas that are able to charge the highest rates normally have lawyers who similarly are paid better than peers. Examples here would include high-end white-collar lawyers and “bet the company” litigators and deal lawyers. There is an important caveat, though, as higher rates do not mean higher pay unless such practices produce higher profits. There are quite a few lawyers, in small and midsize firms, who engage in so-called lower rate practices who make far more than colleagues in Am Law 100 firms. These lawyers reap such benefits because of volume and extraordinary attention to costs.
Some lawyers have an ultimate goal of becoming an in-house lawyer. Their plan is to first practice in a law firm, or for the government, for a few years to gain experience before transitioning to work for a company. For such lawyers, it is quite important to select a practice area that will make you attractive to in-house employers.
In this respect, the two practice areas that best position someone for a move in-house are general corporate/securities work and IP. Most businesses, even though they won’t say this publicly, regard their in-house departments as cost centers. As such, they look to add lawyers who support operations and help to drive revenue. Business lawyers certainly fit that bill, as do IP attorneys, as the need to protect IP and develop new products draw on that expertise, too.
In-house practice does not have the same percentage of litigators as does private practice. This is an enormous frustration for litigators who hope to go in-house. The relative paucity of in-house litigation positions (except for large companies which have such slots) is due to the reality that many companies believe that they are better served by using outside counsel to handle litigation, rather than incurring the overhead and associated costs for having such a lawyer on staff internally.
There are other factors that also come into play, such as which practice areas: (1) are more conducive to working part-time; (2) require more travel and flexibility (which may be problematic for those who need predictability and to stay local); and (3) serve as the best launching pads to make partner. The analysis, thus, is not easy, but the ramifications are significant. It thus behooves you to research this as thoroughly as possible before blindly plunging in to the practice of law. If you had no choice, and begin to feel, early on, that a practice just is not a fit for you, explore a change, as the longer you wait, the harder it will be to alter your course. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.