...but what do you actually do?
October 30, 2007 7:56 PM   Subscribe

Law/ Lawyer Filter: I've decided on Law School, but am trying to decide which area of law to focus on once I get there.

I've found Vault's Law Career Articles pretty helpful, and am looking for other resources/personal insight into what different practice areas are like. Pros and cons, "day-in-the-life," personal anecdotes, you get the idea.

Bonus points for what you think the perception of your practice area is among other lawyers and the general public

To answer some potential questions from the get-go:
-I'm graduating with my BA in December and am waiting for the next admission cycle to apply (Fall 2009 entrance)
-I have researched admissions (gpa, lsat, indexes) to death already
-I have ruled out criminal and patent law (although I'm not averse to litigation in general)
-I am leaning towards bankruptcy or antitrust, but am not informed enough to commit
-I have no concern for work/life balance
posted by doppleradar to Law & Government (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
At the overwhelming majority of law schools, you won't pick any classes your first semester, and in many you won't pick at all your first year. (At mine, you pick two of five for the second semester). If you're sure you want to go to law school, there will be plenty of time to find interests once you get there.
posted by Partial Law at 7:59 PM on October 30, 2007

1) Wait until you've taken some law classes. Every law student I've ever known who had a single area of law they were SURE they'd love...has ended up going into something else after a professor or class inspired them.

2) It sounds like you went straight into college from high school, right? Don't assume you will have "no concern for work/life balance" forever.
posted by InnocentBystander at 8:00 PM on October 30, 2007

What do you like, how smart are you, what school are you going to, law review (I know, you aren't there yet), how willing to work, work, work are you, etc. etc. etc.? You don't even know what you will qualify for, much less what you might like and any area of law changes depending upon whether you are in the top firms, or somewhere else. What do you want from your law career, money, power, intellectual satisfaction, job security, etc.? This question is probably just premature, but it at least needs more information to make in something someone could answer.
posted by caddis at 8:06 PM on October 30, 2007

May I make a suggestion? Before you take the plunge, set up some informational interviews with lawyers who are practicing in the fields you are considering. Buy them lunch and pick their brains for an hour. Often times what lawyers are actually doing isn't what they thought they'd be doing and many are unhappy creatures because of it. I think you really need a clear picture of what the reality of practicing law will be for you and go from there.
posted by 45moore45 at 8:16 PM on October 30, 2007

Best answer: Couple of tips:

-- It doesn't matter that much what classes you take. Certainly, if you're more interested in a desk-bound transactional practice, then take business classes, corporations, real estate, etc. If you're interested in litigation, take remedies, trial practice seminar, whatever evidence classes are offered, advanced tort litigation, etc. But lots of people don't choose their classes with particular care, and they do fine.

-- Try for law review, and don't assume by your first-semester grades that you aren't law review material. Give your all to the law review competition; from what I have seen, it's the single most important credential a law student can have in applying for a job. And if you assume yourself to not be law review material, you are making a mistake.

-- You shouldn't expect to know, this early on, what you want to do in the legal field. Most people in your position have very little idea what any kind of law practice is like, so you might as well wait until you're finishing up your first year to start formulating your career plans.

-- There are a lot of sociopathic creeps in law school --- a lot. Don't let yourself fall into their mental games.
posted by jayder at 8:24 PM on October 30, 2007

Don't even worry about this till you're in law school. You can't pick your first year classes. Lots of people switch practice areas after they start. Focus on the LSAT. Get into a good school. Spend your first year focusing on classes. Get good grades. Worry about what you'll do later.

Once you're actually in law school your career services will put on plenty of "landing your first legal job"/"finding your legal niche"/other crap seminars that you can go to.

Quit worrying about it now.
posted by Arbac at 8:26 PM on October 30, 2007

When I was making plans to enter law school, I too felt that I needed to do lots of research to determine which fields were likely to be my focus. I talked to practicing lawyers, picking their brains; read books and articles and blogs; even read horn books in certain fields that interested me. Made no difference in the end, except that it took me away from other things that would have made a real difference. I too felt that it would be different for me, that I could make a choice, an informed choice, ahead of time.

But even more than the fact that I am working in an area that never even got a minute's consideration (and which I love) is the fact that it just doesn't make a damn bit of difference what you plan to do. The law degree isn't a specialized degree, and your coursework won't have much of an effect on your ultimate path. I took zero courses in anything related to my current field, and a ton in other fields I'll never practice in. The point of law school is to teach you legal research and analysis, sort of the way journalism school is to teach you to research and write. Once you've got that down, it really doesn't matter what field you go into. Good car writers aren't ex-sports-car drivers. They're good writers. Good antitrust lawyers were good law students -- in contracts, criminal law, admnistrative law, the First Amendment, you name it.

So, you haven't gotten a single answer that you're looking for. I am sure this is disappointing, and that you wish we'd just answer the question. But the reality is the answer just won't make any difference. It's not like medicine, where you have to choose a specialty. You don't, and indeed one is likely to be thrust upon you. I encourage you to read, instead, about the most influential lawyers and legal stories because they are what will give you the energy and fire to make a difference in the legal world, whichever corner you find yourself in eventually.
posted by Capri at 8:29 PM on October 30, 2007

I so wouldn't worry about this. Law school isn't like college, you don't pick a major. My family still constantly asks me what field of law I've finally decided to specialize in and I tell them whatever field of law the firm that finally hires me wants me to do. I mean generally you will likely go the transactional or litigation track, but even then there is a ton of cross over. So people are highly specialized, but you would already know that if you were one of those people and really I think they are worse off not better off than the rest of us, as far as getting a job. The best way to discover what you want to do is to do a variety of internships while in law school, which you can do starting your 1L summer. This will more likely serve to eliminate things you hate, than to find things you love, but either way you are getting closer. From what I've seen most people kind of fall into their field, rather than pick one.

Also, the whole I have no work/life balance concern, may god have mercy on your soul. You may think you know what that really means right now, but trust me you don't. Never sacrifice that long term.
posted by whoaali at 8:37 PM on October 30, 2007

Another person chiming in to say you might be jumping ahead of yourself a bit. I only got to choose one class my whole first year and I'm still not 100% sure what I'm going to go into.
posted by harrumph at 8:43 PM on October 30, 2007

Ditto what has been said above about not worrying about it now. I'm a 3L, and I have a pretty specific field that I'm working in (and intend to remain in) mainly because of the influence of a couple of professors I really admired. I wouldn't have predicted that's where I wanted to end up, even after I had two semesters of law school under my belt.

Before I started my first year, I really wanted to have a specialty going in; when I shared that with a practitioner I knew, he told me that much of a field of specialty turns on whatever your first job is out of the gate. I think that's true of quite a number of attorneys; for example I know of someone who is now doing primarily immigration law, who got into it when he worked on getting one employee visa for a corporate client. Now, that's the majority of his practice, and it's not something he would have imagined himself doing going into law school.

Your school may be particularly strong in a particular area of law, or you may take a class in a subject with a professor that really inspired you, which is what happened to me. Law school will give you the opportunity to figure this stuff out, and there will be plenty of time to explore those options later on down the road through extracurriculars (e.g. moot court teams, clinic participation, law review etc.) and individual research projects.

Good luck on your LSAT and your admissions process.
posted by Dr. Zira at 8:52 PM on October 30, 2007

Yep, you will almost always fall into a specialty by accident. Some partner likes your work; he/she gives you more of it, and then suddenly you're a [foo] lawyer for the rest of your life. The keys to success are: (1) a high-functioning ADHD; (2) a keen eye for other people's bullshit; (3) tolerance for administrative minutia; and (4) the drive to be as creative as you can within a thickly drawn box of law and procedure.

When you don't have a work/life balance, by the way, your work suffers and your life sucks. It's all too easy to fall into the trap. But the sharpest lawyer is the one who just got back from vacation.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 9:51 PM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

nthing all those voices telling you to get through your first year and then, after a clerkship/internship, start the decision-making process.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 10:01 PM on October 30, 2007

It's tough to know what kind of law you'll like without being exposed to it. No one likes divorces or taxes but Family Law and Tax end up engaging unsuspecting students. Every 1L wants to be an IP lawyer but the courses turn a good deal of them off. You'll have a whole year of law school before it matters what you take. And even then it won't really matter.

Not-really-on-topic advice I give to anyone thinking about law school:

Spend some of your time between now and the time you send in applications making sure you're going to law school because you want to be a lawyer. You should not go because A) you don't know what else to do with yourself B) someone else thinks you should be a lawyer (mom, dad, or your 15 year-old self) C) you think being a lawyer is a good background for something else, like politics or business or D) any other reason other than "I really want to be a lawyer."

Even people who really want to be lawyers and understand (as well as a lay person can) what being a lawyer is all about have spells of doubt while in law school. People who go to law school to delay entry into the real world or any other reason end up dropping out with a not insubstantial amount of debt or graduate with a ton of debt, marginally qualified for a career they're not sure they want. This can be brutal on one's mental health.

Also, don't buy in to the touted average salaries the schools throw around. Only a small fraction of graduates report their salaries and the top earners are the most likely to respond to the surveys, skewing the numbers well above what the actual averages are.

That said, if you're a 4.0/180 kinda person, go conquer the world. You'll probably be OK no matter what. Otherwise make damn sure you're going for the right reason.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 12:48 AM on October 31, 2007

Best answer: If you are trying to decide what courses to specialize in, don't bother. The hiring season for law students is the very beginning of their second year, and most law schools do not permit electives during the first year. Therefore, if you want to work for a law firm, you will probably be matching up with your future employer before you have ever taken a single elective.

For this very reason, however, it is certainly worthwhile to begin thinking about what kind of lawyer you want to be, since not all law firms practice in all areas. I would start by thinking about whether you would like to be a transactional lawyer (working on deals) or a litigator (fighting out disputes).
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 5:13 AM on October 31, 2007

Best answer: What made you "decide on law school"?

Was it:
  • …an overwhelming sense of morality?Criminal defense. Followed by criminal prosecution. Followed by criminal defense.
  • …the money?Corporate, Insurance, Tax, Securities. If you can do all of them at the same time your great-grandchildren will be driving Ferraris.
  • …a desire to help your fellow man?Elder law, consumer law, liability
  • …the hip, cool lifestyleMedia or entertainment law. Take a few classes in Asshole Management if you go this route.
  • …interest in the world around you?Maritime, International law.
  • …a desire to change the world?Intellectual property, Constitutional law (make law review.)
  • …I have no idea/Just fell into it/Seemed like the "right" pathReal Estate, Estate, Personal Injury, &c
Or maybe something else… Figure out what it was that drew you to the profession. That should help you decide later on what to concentrate in.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:21 AM on October 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here's how you'll decide what you should go into: You'll apply for a million jobs. The one you get offered is what you go into.
posted by greekphilosophy at 5:47 AM on October 31, 2007

I guess I'll chime in with my $.02. Since you have quite a bit of time between when you graduate and when you'll start law school, find work in a law firm (or firms) in the meantime. Since you don't have any legal education yet you'll probably just be a file monkey of some sort, but it can give you a great chance to get at least some sort of a perspective on what the practice of law is like and what sort of work you might want to do. Look at smaller, 1-5 attorney shops and work cheap. I worked in a couple of law firms before I started law school, and it helped a lot in both refining my career goals and giving me a leg up on jobs once I was in school, since I had already done document review and knew how some of the nuts-and-bolts work in litigation went.

I'm a 2L at a T-25 school; feel free to email with more specific questions if you've got 'em.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:12 AM on October 31, 2007

I tell every summer associate we have this same thing: unless you have a particular desire to do some specific kind of law, based on your background or some very specific concerns, then don't worry so much about the kind of law. Worry about the people you're going to practice with. Working with good people who are willing to mentor you in whatever area you choose is more important than picking the right area.

This really only holds for people who have already decided to work at a mid-sized/large law firm. I think that criminal law, family law, and tax all take a special desire to do *that* kind of law.

Also, I did the same thing craven_morhead did, working at a very small shop and learning about a couple areas of the law (maritime, immigration). It was valuable.

You may also want to give consideration to where you want to live after school.

I graduated from a T-10 in 2003; now I work in an AMlaw 200 firm in midmarket. I work with people who went to all different sorts of law schools. If you have other specific questions you can email me, too.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:30 AM on October 31, 2007

Best answer: Read this.
posted by Partial Law at 7:47 AM on October 31, 2007

Presumably it matters somewhat what area of law you want to go into when you pick a law school?

For instance if you're interested in Canon Law you'd go to Catholic University of America, as far as I know, the only joint JD/JCL program in the country. That's an obscure example, but surely the principle is more broadly applicable to at least some specialized fields of study. (JD PhD in government programs, JD MBA programs, etc) But if you don't have a specialized interest than it's probably not important to develop one.
posted by Jahaza at 9:29 AM on October 31, 2007

First bit of advice: don't listen to anyone else's personal advice. (Especially here and places like the Vault, etc. which are full of people who think the goal of law school is to become big firm bitches.)

Figuring out what you want to do in the law has to be a matter of introspection. I can make sort of law sound cool and interesting (with the exception of tax) if you are interested in the law in general. But unless you actually like the area, it won't be interesting no matter the money you make.

Since you don't already know what you want to do, then you are not in the 15-20% of law school students who enter with a passion. You are in the other 80% who went to law school for a multitude of reasons (thought being a lawyer sounds cool; wanted 3 more years of college; likes the law in general; didn't know what else to do; likes to argue; etc.).

As noted above, if you constantly are being introspective and asking yourself what you like about what you are doing in law school and what you hate about it, you will narrow your choices down. But you need to be honest with yourself and seriously decide what you like. Don't be persuaded by what other people say because they have their own preferences and prejudices built in that won't apply to you. And odds are that you wouldn't be able to mirror that person's practice even if it appealed to you.

The other thing to realize is that lawyers often change practices. You aren't likely to find a brain surgeon who changes to being a OBGYN, but you are likely to find some guy who spent 10 years doing personal injury litigation and is switching to white collar defense (know such a person right now).

You can chase money or glory if you want. I think what you will ultimately find is that the vast majority of law areas will make you enough money, so you will be happier if you are doing something you like. Glory will come if you do good at your job, regardless of what it is, and you tend to do better doing what you like.

So think hard about the work you do at law school and decide what you like and what you hate and go from there.
posted by dios at 10:21 AM on October 31, 2007

(Incidentally, I see you are in Dallas, as am I. Feel free to email me, and I can answer a lot of localized questions for you).
posted by dios at 10:24 AM on October 31, 2007

Jahaza, that's true to a very small extent. Aside from a few schools that are particularly good in certain areas, most law school pedigrees are compared without regard to practice area. This is largely due to the fact that most law schools, especially the better-regarded ones, don't teach you the nuts-and-bolts of any type of practice. There's a (somewhat pompous, if you ask me) ethos that law school shouldn't be a sort of high-powered trade school, but that it should teach you to "think like a lawyer."
posted by craven_morhead at 11:38 AM on October 31, 2007

I think what you will ultimately find is that the vast majority of law areas will make you enough money, so you will be happier if you are doing something you like.

I worked in NYC at the DA's office for a small time in the early 90s—the Homicide Investigation Unit (which to this day still has the most badass of all division patches in the city)—and I can tell you firsthand that the ADAs only barely get anything even remotely considered a working wage. Back then it was around $35k. Now it's around $55k. Your options are: roommate, rich girlfriend/wife, Mom and Dad's.

Some specializations of law you've just got to have in your heart.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:07 PM on October 31, 2007

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