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Choosing a Law Specialty: Who Are You and What Do You Want
by Erica Winter
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Graduation season is upon us. And as some college students graduate, thinking of their law school futures, and as some law students graduate, thinking of new careers, they all have one thought in common. After they have walked the stage, taken off the mortarboard and started to pack up their small apartments and drive off to meet their futures, they all wonder:
Am I doing the right thing?
It is even possible that, well after graduation, this same thought is occurring to young attorneys in their first jobs out of law school; or even to older attorneys at a crossroads in the middle of their careers. These days, it is extremely rare, in fact, for an American to choose one job when he or she is 25 years old or so, and stay in it throughout an entire career.
This question of what to do, and whether it's the best thing to do, can be vexing, preoccupying, and difficult to decide.
Let us help.
We spoke to some experts in the field of legal career counseling from some of the best law schools in the country to find advice to get you started on answering this question, and finding work that best suits you. With this expert information, we put together a guide for you to follow - either when the diploma ink is still wet, or years later.
First we're going to look at what specialties are out there; then we'll look at how to figure out what path is best for you.
The good news is that doing work you love feeds your mind and soul. The bad news is: you have to do work, and put in time, to figure out exactly what your vocation really is.
Specialties: You might be surprised.
While doing research for her book, The Official Guide to Legal Specialties (published by Harcourt Legal, and the National Association for Law Placement), author Lisa Abrams talked to scores of attorneys working in nearly every conceivable legal specialty. She found attorneys doing jobs that she didn't even know existed; and she also found people loving work that, on the surface, seemed to be the very definition of "dry."
There were "so many areas that surprised me," says Abrams, who is also an attorney, and the Associate Director of Career Services at the University of Chicago Law School. One example of a surprising law specialty: municipal finance law.
Attorneys working in municipal finance law find funding for public works projects done by cities and local governments, says Abrams. These projects include work on libraries, parks, and schools. One Chicago attorney Abrams spoke with for her book said that working in municipal finance was very rewarding. The attorney felt joy every day on her commute into the office because she passed parks and other municipal projects that her work had helped bring to fruition. Being able to see a tangible benefit to the community was very important to this attorney, and her work suited that need.
Another surprise Abrams discovered was the wide range of specialty options attorneys have in the public interest sphere. While you can do public defender or prosecution work, you can also practice many other specialties within the public service arena. For example, Abrams found one attorney who does environmental poverty law.
Environmental poverty law has attorneys working with people in underprivileged neighborhoods and towns, helping them fend off businesses and other organizations that are harming their local environment - and potentially, local residents' health. This type of work enables an attorney to do environmental law in a way that is not primarily focused on corporate or real estate transactions.
Health care law, Abrams found, is also far more complex and varied than it may first appear. This specialty is a "vast world" of subspecialties, says Abrams, including health care ethics, health worker's employment, health-related contracts, insurance issues, and malpractice law, among others.
There are also specialties that are not what they seem from the outside. Case in point: family law. Many see this specialty as a combination of acting as referee and counselor. However, attorneys Abrams spoke with described most of their work focusing on tax law and divvying up assets. Unbeknownst to many, one of the primary issues attorneys work with constantly in family law is money.
If you want to have a flexible career over the course of your working life, law is a pretty good choice. There are many legal specialties that segue well into others. For example, starting off doing collections gives you good experience to do bankruptcy law, and some prosecutors switch sides and do public defense later in their careers, says Beth Hansen, Director of Career Services at Brigham Young University Law School, Provo, Utah.
This career flexibility is "one nice thing about law," says Hansen.
Some specialty hurdles.
Right off the bat let's be clear: we are not saying that you cannot get a job in the following areas of law, or that you should not try to pursue these specialties. The purpose of showing you the hurdles in front of you is to prepare you for the race ahead, not to make you drop out. We believe in you - if you want to do something, we think you can.
That said - there are some legal jobs that are harder to get than others. And there are some legal jobs that are harder to stick with than others. Here are a few examples, and ways you can prepare.
Entertainment/ sports law and international law are the hardest gigs to get after law school, says Susan McAvoy, Director of the Office of Career Services at the Emory University School of Law, Atlanta. Why? Because those specialties seem most glamorous, are very popular, and there are actually not that many jobs out there to meet demand.
There are more job slots available in health care law, litigation, or really any other area of legal work than entertainment/ sports and international, says McAvoy.
To get a job in entertainment or sports law, McAvoy recommends that you:
Connect with a mentor. Try to find a program in your law school that finds mentors for students.
Network with lawyers who are doing this type of law, sports or entertainment agents, and with organizations for which you might like to work in the future, like sports teams or opera companies. You could intern with these groups, meet people and get experience. This way, when a job opens up, people know you.
Try to find more than one way to get to your goal. You could start out focusing on contract law, for example, instead of entertainment work per se, and get to entertainment that way.
Think in terms of a long range plan. McAvoy knows an Emory alumnus who played baseball in college, loves sports, and wants to do sports law. He knew he couldn't do sports law right out of school, so he got a position at a firm doing litigation, and is trying to build up his sports legal work on the side.
Research your options. For example, the American Bar Association has books on how to get into sports law.
Those five steps are good advice to follow when pursuing any specialty you have set your sights on, in fact.
International law is also tough; partly because it is so popular, and partly because it is more of a "flavor" of specialty than a specialty itself, points out Susan Robinson, Associate Dean for Career Services for Stanford Law School, Stanford, Calif.
Law students often mistake exactly what international law is, says Robinson, thinking that it's all about forging treaties, arguing in front of international criminal tribunals, and that it involves lots of international travel and excitement.
Working on treaties would be a job in the State Department, or other government agency, and involves public international law. Law firms do not handle treaties, or other international government relations.
More commonly, law firms that do "international law" are working with international clients, doing litigation or doing transactions that span the legal specialty landscape.
And, adds McAvoy, only large firms in large cities take in new associates to do international law.
Be fluent in a foreign language, have very strong academic success for the private sector, and add very strong experience for the public sector.
And if you can't get a job at one of those large firms right at the start, try developing the legal specialty that you want to do in the international arena. For example, get experience doing corporate law, and take your domestic skill set to international clients after you have more expertise.
Look at the networking advice given above for getting jobs in entertainment/ sports law, it applies here, too.
And we would like to add:
Think outside the box. If what you want to do is work for international clients, you could do immigration work (we'll heave a more in-depth article on this specialty soon). You could also move to an area of the country with a high number of foreign residents, like Miami, and work with them locally (there's an article on practicing law in Miami on LawCrossing now). Or, you could try to get a job in the legal department of an American company that has international business.
For her book on legal specialties, Lisa Abrams talked with an attorney who works for the McDonald's corporation acquiring real estate for restaurants. International law? Some of the property he helps to acquire is overseas, so his legal practice is international in scope, even though he works for a U.S. company.
Another challenging job to get may seem like a specialty at first - in-house counsel - but is really more of a "where" than a "what." Still, getting a gig as an in-house counsel is tough to do right after law school, since most companies are looking for experienced counsel in these positions, says Beth Hansen.
Another specialty hurdle, depending on the rules in your state: to be a prosecutor, you have to have already passed the bar exam. Taking the exam and getting the results can take six to eight months in Utah, says Hansen, leaving future prosecutors with a long time to cool their heels before they can apply for jobs.
Some firms, especially smaller ones, also require passing the bar before hiring (or some will dismiss you if you do not pass!). So, if you need a job to tide you over while you sit for the bar exam, consider clerking for a judge, recommends Hansen. Clerking experience is highly marketable to employers, and usually lasts for one year.
Possibly the highest hurdle in legal jobs, however, is not one that will prevent you from getting a job. Instead, it is one that might prevent you from staying in it once you've got it.
Hurdles part 2: Money, and public interest law.
Working in a public defender's or prosecutor's office, or as legal staff at some nonprofits, pays far less than starting salaries for private law firms, shows a 2002 study by the three groups National Association for Law Placement (NALP), Equal Justice Works, and the Partnership for Public Service. Recent law graduates sometimes are precluded from pursuing public service jobs because the lower pay rates often do not allow the graduates to repay high student loans.
The report - called "From Paper Chase to Money Chase: Law School Debt Diverts Road to Public Service" - compares starting salaries over time for private vs. public sector work, and also charts the rise in law school debt over the same time periods.
The report's authors found that two-thirds of graduating law students in 2002 were prevented from considering public-service jobs because of law school debt. Over two-thirds of public service groups said they had trouble finding attorneys, and just under two-thirds said that they had trouble keeping the ones they have. Over one-third of graduates expressed interested in working for the Federal Government, but the study found that only 3% actually accepted these positions.
The report says that the 2002 median starting salary for a private law firm associate was $90,000. The median starting salary for a public interest or state and local government attorney was less than $45,000. The study demonstrates that, with $950 per month in loan repayments and other living expenses, a public service salary is soon spent.
The authors of the study recommend loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) as a solution to the problem; and some law schools have these programs in place now. The programs vary from partial to total loan repayment if a graduate fulfills a certain amount of time working for a public service employer.
LRAPs can be a way for you to follow your heart and professional passion, and enable you to pursue it.
If you want to go into public service, our experts recommend:
Check and see what loan repayment programs are available at your law school; or, if you are just at the point where you are thinking of going to law school for the purpose of doing public service, consider the cost of the school in the first place - public schools have far lower tuition than private.
"You have to translate enthusiasm into action," says Marnie Glaeberman, JD, MPH, Director of Public Service Initiatives with NALP, Washington, D.C. It is not enough to want to help. You need to have some focus. Do searches to find groups working on the issues you care about, and then find out how they accomplish their goals.
Don't assume that lower pay means lower competition. This is a "very competitive field," says Glaeberman. If you have an interview with Human Rights Watch, you should know your stuff before you walk in the door.
And, we'd like to add:
Remember: life is long. Consider gathering expertise in a field and putting in your time at a larger employer (a firm or corporation), and then pursuing a public service career. Consider the career paths of Joe Iarocci, General Counsel for CARE in Atlanta, and Lee Coggiola, IBM-exec turned public defender, now Chief Staff Attorney for the South Carolina Court of Appeals, Columbia (see our article on practicing law in Atlanta, and our piece on being a public defender, both in LawCrossing's archives).
It's not just what; it's where.
More than one of our experts pointed out that choosing a specialty is not the only decision you need to make. There is also work environment to consider. You can work at a large national firm, a local firm, a small practice, a nonprofit or government agency, a company or corporation, or even go into solo practice.
Where you are may determine what you do and how much you like your job, sometimes even more so than the actual type of law you are doing. Even within type, a job will vary. Think of this: doing corporate law at General Motors is probably very different from doing corporate law at Starbucks. Make sure you consider place, as well as practice, when you are thinking of what you want to do when you grow up.
Figuring it out.
So, now that you know the inside scoop on what's out there, how do you choose? There are three things you can do to find a satisfying law job that is completely right for you, says Lisa Abrams.
1. You need to have a genuine and sincere interest in the subject you will be dealing with - a "true fascination," says Abrams.
This is rather a challenge, especially since some people who go to law school do so because they are not really sure what they want to do with their lives. A law degree is a good and useful thing to have, but the degree in itself is not going to cure the problem of not knowing what you want. Consider: do you love the business world? Does environmental protection thrill you? Do you want to rid the world of homelessness? Do you get excited about intellectual property issues? The answers could be the gateway to your perfect legal job.
2. You must like the day-to-day tasks involved with the job you are considering.
For example, entertainment law is not all lunching and schmoozing - Abrams knows an entertainment lawyer who spends five or six hours a day talking on the phone. If you don't like doing that, this specialty could get frustrating fast.
Conversely, if you love research and writing, then being an appellate attorney could be your dream job. You do highly sophisticated and complicated research, and spend hours in the library every day.
If you love tax law, you could be a tax attorney - or, remember? - do family law. If you want to defend the Constitution and help those in need, maybe the public defender's office is the place for you. If you want to see happy people every day and not work on the weekends, you could develop a practice in residential real estate law.
There are many possibilities. Do your research. Conduct informational interviews with people who are doing these jobs right now. Is the job all about travel? Arguing? Mediating? Waiting in courthouses? Talking? Researching? Writing? Hand-holding for the rich and famous? Find out before you dive in.
Think about the nuances, too. For example, if you love to discuss things but hate to argue, then maybe a litigation career is not for you after all. "It is critical to know" what an attorney doing a certain job actually does all day, says Abrams, it could make all the difference.
3. "The work has to appeal to the core of your personality," says Abrams.
Having done research into how adults change their careers over their lifetimes, Abrams has found that having meaning in your career becomes more important as you age. Think about the mark you want to make and how. What feeds your soul? Do you need to help people? Solve puzzles? End injustice? Produce a scholarly record? "There is no shortcut" to answering this question, says Abrams. Just think hard about what makes you happy when you do it, and go from there.
After having interviewed many attorneys and worked with many law students trying to figure out the best thing to do, Abrams says, she has found that, for most people who go through law school - never fear! - there is a law job out there for you.
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