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Determining Your Legal Practice Area

published January 18, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left

( 15 votes, average: 4 out of 5)

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Most law students plan to practice a particular type of law after they graduate. Unfortunately, reality soon interferes with dreams. Unlike television shows, where the scriptwriters can program their characters into the most exciting legal situations, the individual attorney often has to take what comes along, and in most cases finds involvement working in areas never envisioned during law school. A law practice evolves from the needs of the clients, not the aspirations of the lawyer. The clients pay the rent.

You may have the potential to be the greatest trial lawyer who ever trod the boards of the bar, but if you accidentally happen to fall into a series of uncontested divorces at several thousand dollars a crack, you will quickly find that is where your expertise and reputation will develop. Each happy divorced person you represent will be a walking ad testifying to your prowess, and each fee you collect will involve you more deeply into your newfound specialty. Once in a while you will get that big trial which you initially envisioned you would have every day of your career; but do not look for it too often. Or it may happen the other way around. Perhaps you wanted to be a big divorce lawyer, yet you find yourself in court every day defending cases for some insurance company. If you do get what you looked forward to, consider yourself extremely lucky—most of your colleagues will be less fortunate.

Some people find that they cannot adjust to practicing a different kind of law from what they dreamed of, and they drift out of the profession. Others discover that the work they always hoped to do, which once looked so glamorous and exciting, becomes drab and even distasteful when they have to make a living at it. They, too, float away.

If you discover that you are one of these unfortunate persons who have a problem practicing law, start thinking right away about changing to another area. It is not the end of the world, and there is no stigma in going into something else. On the other hand, to spend your life at something you are not happy with, when there are other alternatives, is certainly not a desirable situation.

What types of law are open to the new graduate? Essentially, there are three main ways to go: working for yourself, either alone or in association with others; working for someone else, such as a law firm or a legal clinic; and working for an institution such as government, a corporation, a poverty law group, or in a law school teaching post.

For years, the "big deal" in American law schools has been to see how many of the top ranking graduates can get placed as associates with the prestigious gigantic law firms, or receive clerkships with state and federal appellate court justices and federal district court judges. That is practically all the professors and students talk about when job placement is discussed, because these jobs traditionally lead to big money.

The large firms have so much business that they have to hire lawyers to do the work without worrying whether these people bring in any new clients. The work is arduous, the hours are long, and the pay is good. In years past, a competent, hard-working lawyer with one of these firms could expect to become a partner within a reasonable number of years. Today, this expectation is clouded. Big firms have found themselves overcrowded with partners, and there have been quite a few tales lately about infighting and disagreements relating to allocation of profits. Some old, established organizations have split up in public acrimony. Some firms have even established two-track career lines, one leading to partner, one to high-salaried expert associate. Partners in the large firms get six-figure annual salaries, and frequently also receive stock in corporate clients as partial payment for their services.

Young lawyers who get judicial clerkships gain tremendous knowledge and experience as they work up complicated cases for their justices and observe the lawyers of the community in daily practice before the courts. After a few years, they frequently leave for private practice with one of the good medium-size or smaller law firms. Their work for the courts gives them great exposure to the successful members of the bar. Here too, as in the big firms, they are associated because there is too much work for existing members of the firm to handle. Over the years, they build up their own clientele and either bring that with them into the partnership or go into practice for themselves.

Learn the 10 Factors That Matter to Big Firms More Than Where You Went to Law School

If you get on a corporate legal staff, you will be on a course leading to an eventual vice-presidency in charge of the law department. Rarely will you get any trial work of consequence; most of the time that is contracted out to outside counsel. Mostly, you will handle interpretation of agreements, negotiations and preventive type legal advice. The advancement timetable is relatively slow; you may have to wait for the people ahead of you to get promoted, retire or die. The pay is usually good, the hours are better, the fringe benefits are excellent, and the responsibility increases with your years of service. Among the drawbacks are the frequent use of outside counsel to second-guess your important opinions, and the ever-present possibility that some group of outsiders will take over the corporation and squeeze you out.

There are not too many law school teaching positions open. If you manage to obtain one, you will most likely fall victim to the "publish or perish" syndrome. You will undoubtedly have to bounce around from school to school before you get tenure. Salaries are not too bad; that long summer vacation is something no one else in the business has; and as you become known in your field, there is a good opportunity to do consultant work on the side.

Some of the poverty or public interest law firms pay fairly well, but many of them seem to think that you should be paying for the privilege of representing their clients. Responsibility comes early and fast. You may get numerous tiny cases or big class actions with great social implications. But they are your cases. Much of the time, because of the heavy workload, there is no one else around to handle them. Opportunity to go into trial and appellate courts is frequent. A lot of lawyers gain their early experience in these firms and then move out into private practice.

Working for a government agency has many compensations. There is a steady progression of promotions; the pay is adequate, although seldom as high as in big private-sector law firms, but fairly close to the incomes of private practitioners; the fringe benefits and vacations are good; retirement programs are generally excellent; responsibility comes quickly and heavily.

In the federal government area, most entrants get into large agencies where they handle administrative law, house counsel advisory work, statutory drafting and interpretation, and similar activities. The work is often not exciting; the hours are not overtaxing. On the other hand, if you are with the United States attorney general's office, you go into trial and appellate courts to represent the other governmental departments. In a local United States attorney’s office, you handle criminal and civil trials. With the federal public defender, you do straight criminal defense work for indigent clients accused of offenses against the United States. Long hours are balanced by the zest inherent in the work.

At the state levels, there are the attorney general's offices. Most of the criminal work is at the appellate level; however, sometimes when a county district attorney cannot handle a local case for some reason or another, a deputy state attorney general is sent to fill in. The civil work, which usually is much more voluminous, consists of advising state agencies, issuing written opinions, and representing the state and its officials in administrative law matters or when they sue or are sued in their official capacities. Where there is a state public defender’s office, the work consists mainly of writing briefs and arguing the cases on appeal. Again, as in all these active legal offices, there are lots of long hours enhanced by exciting cases.

County district attorney and public defender positions are similar. You work just as hard, but the pay is usually lower. These positions give you fantastic experience in trying criminal cases at every level.

County counsel spots, generally at the same salary as the district attorney's, take care of all the civil law business for the county. Some city attorney's offices will give similar experience, but there are few jobs because most cities retain part-time outside private practitioners to handle this work.

Individuals who are lucky enough to get several years of solid trial experience in a district attorney's office, followed by some years of intensive civil law experience in a county counsel's office, usually wind up as very successful private practitioners in their local com-munities. This is because during their years of public service they receive a great deal of favorable local publicity in newspapers and on television.

A common factor separating all these institutional positions from jobs with small or medium-sized law firms is compensation based on worth. The government, for example, does not have the overhead problems of the small firm; it does not have to exploit you, intentionally or otherwise, to keep you on the payroll.

If you do not make a connection with any of the above groups, then you have the choice of working for one of the smaller firms or opening your own shop. One of the big problems to be aware of is the tendency for a vast number of medium and small firms to take in a young lawyer with the promise (usually honest, but sometimes not) that a partnership will result "if things work out." Many times, however, it does not. The young lawyer feels exploited because of long hours and low pay; the firm feels that there has not been enough work product for the money expended, and they part with hard feelings on both sides. The lawyer gets another job, the firm hires some other new person, and the same thing happens over again. Eventually, the lawyer associates with some other lawyers who have had similar experiences or practices alone.

Let us take a look at the economics of this small firm employment situation, assuming good faith in the initial hiring. Say they give you x dollars a month to start. It is almost a certainty that they will have to lay out another x dollars to pay for your office space, furniture, telephone, secretary, medical benefits, social security and unemployment taxes, and malpractice insurance. They have spent 2x dollars on you before you have brought in a penny. The work you do will have to bring in twice your salary for them simply to break even.

Since the firm is in business to make money, they will expect you to work still harder at the same pay so that they can recoup more from your billable time to the clients. Also, since you are new, you will be working slower than someone with experience. Without your realizing it, or their explaining it, they will feel that you need to put in 3x hours of hard work to earn x hours of pay. It is pretty obvious that there is no way they can take you in as a partner unless you bring in enough business to put you up there in the proprietary class with them—business that you have to share with them until that time because you are using their facilities to take care of it.

Now let us see what happens if you start working for yourself right from the beginning. Every penny you take in is yours. True, you have to pay for your overhead before you can pay yourself, but once that is taken care of, you are ahead as far as you can go. The biggest thrill you will ever get in the law business is the day you get your first big fee which is free and clear of any expenses, and which you know is all yours. The greatest additional compensation from self-employment, one which you cannot put any money value on, is the knowledge that you are your own boss. You call the shots. You give the clients the advice which you know is correct. You handle the cases your way. If you do not like the looks or ethics of a client, you do not have to take the case.

But where do you get the clients? Don't you have to work for someone else to make a living? Even though you cannot really know what type of practice you will be headed for, it is a good idea to keep your desires in mind when you choose electives. Until a few years ago, the law school curriculum was pretty rigid and standardized for the entire three years. Today, you have the opportunity to do a lot of exploration.

What kind of electives should you choose? If your grades are really good and it looks like you might be headed for one of those big law firm or judicial clerkship jobs, you might want to opt for courses like Advanced Trusts and Estates, Advanced Federal Practice, or Advanced Federal Taxation. On the other hand, if you know you are probably headed for general practice, take those courses which will pay off quickest: Advanced Criminal Procedure, Family Law Practice, Advanced Civil Procedure, or Trial Tactics. Most students take many of the same electives, but if you look carefully at what is offered, you may pick up some very valuable knowledge.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

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