I am asked by law students and those contemplating law school how they should go about choosing a practice area. They are often intimidated by the broad array of specialty practice areas, including tax practice, environmental law, entertainment law, intellectual property law, appellate practice, employment law, securities law and the like. There are simply so many choices and most of them involve areas of the law with which the student has little or no experience.
The plethora of options makes one's head spin. However, instead of stressing about the end game, I suggest a slightly different approach. Without realizing it, most law students actually already have a pretty good idea of their future practice areas. Like Dorothy in the "Wizard of Oz" most students already have a way to get home without realizing it. The question they need to ask themselves is whether they think of themselves as a "fighter" or a "dealmaker".
As anyone who has ever clerked for a law firm understands, these are the two basic career paths for new lawyers. Litigation is certainly what most people think of when they think of lawyers- disputes and lawsuits. However, the truth is that many lawyers find extremely rewarding careers in transactional law- the art of doing deals.
Certainly there are many other specialized practice areas such as intellectual property law and family law. However, I would argue that pretty much every area of the law, in reality, falls into one of the two (and sometimes both) basic categories- litigation (fights) and transactions (deals). For example, family law matters often have elements of both. The first issue is the fight (the marital dissolution); the second issue is the deal (property disposition). Intellectual property matters, on the other hand, often occur in a reverse order from family law matters. The intellectual property owner either creates or formalizes (through some sort of registration, e.g. copyright) the intellectual property (the deal); the owner then sets about asserting or defending its rights in the intellectual property (the fight). And the truth is, that the basic skillsets required for both paths will serve one's legal career in a variety of ways.
However, and generally speaking, most lawyers "grow up" in their careers by taking one path or the other. And with few exceptions, that path- fighting or dealing- will be the path for the balance of their careers. Law firms today do not have the luxury of "cross-training" new lawyers. You are put to work, a lot of work, and quickly develop and cement your skillset. But once the die is cast, it is pretty difficult for a litigator to become a transactional lawyer and vice-versa.
That said, I was one of the fortunate ones. I was able to practice in litigation (corporate employment law defense), as well as engaging in a rewarding transactional practice (securities law). Even better is the fact that I am able to use both skillsets in my work today, as an in-house lawyer for a large, publicly-traded company.
But I digress; back to the question of deciding on a practice area. Law students trying to decide on a career path should, rather than worrying about their actual specialty, would be better served to do some serious introspection as to their basic likes and dislikes, and strengths and weaknesses. If you enjoy debate and the art of persuasion you might look into a litigation career path. On the other hand, if you enjoy working with assets and are comfortable with things financial, you might lean more toward a transactional practice. At the same time, there are a lot of skills common to both practice areas. For example, as a litigator you may spend a great deal of time on research and writing (which I found personally very rewarding). And as a transactional lawyer, you may spend a lot of time negotiating.
And, more importantly, as I recommend in my book "Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education" (Kaplan/ Simon and Schuster- 2009), talk with lawyers. Find out what they do all day. Be sure and talk to lawyers doing both kinds of work- fights and deals.
Learn as much as you can about the two basic practice areas. Like Dorothy, chances are, you already have the answer to your question.