Should a Law Student Know What Type of Law They Will Be Practicing During Their First Year?

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We asked attorneys throughout the country if a law student should know what type of law they will be practicing during their first year? Many law students worry about what type of law they should specialize in during their education and even after they graduate. Although it might be beneficial to know what type of law students want to practice, most attorneys believe students shouldn't stress about a particular area of practice. We hope you enjoy their answers.
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I've been guest lecturing at GW and Georgetown Law for the last 6 years, and I'm about to give a webinar on Law in the 21st century for GU alumni and law students. I previously did a panel discussion for NALP, and have mentored many on this question. I firmly believe that students need to go into the job market with an open mind-especially in this economy. Legal jobs are very hard to find, so the more open they are to the opportunities, the greater their chances of success.

There are some key questions they do need to ask themselves-for example, are they into working with people one on one? Are they good story tellers? Does the idea of court excite them? These types are probably more cut out for litigation & working directly with clients vs. someone who is more into contract interpretation, analysis and wants to limit his/her chances of ever going to a court-that would be a person more inclined to do corporate law, or maybe government work.

Someone who does not want to be responsible for generating business should look for non-profit or government jobs, whereas someone that likes the idea of being a rainmaker will enjoy being at a firm that promotes that quality.

-Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.

There is absolutely no way a first year law student should be expected to have a clear understanding of the type of law they will practice. A broad and generalized rumination on whether a law student can see himself working in the private sector or rather in the public interest is perhaps as deep as a first year student should engage the issue. It is only after a law student has had full exposure to an assortment of legal curriculum after the first year that a law student can begin to refine their assessment of what type of law they want to practice. Many important second and third year elective classes like commercial paper, corporations, land use, or criminal procedure are not even taught in the first year and can be a pivotal basis upon which a student decides their career path.

-Matthew Reischer, Esq,


Should a law student know what type of law he/she WANTS to practice?

That can be helpful.

Here's the danger - a law student benefits greatly from having a sense that law school will have direct, practical application after passing the bar exam. If you know you want to practice transactional law and pay special attention to Contracts, Real Estate Law and choose your electives accordingly, that serves a student well.

Where it does not serve a student well is when he/she takes the attitude "I don't need to pay attention in my (fill-in-the-blank) class because I won't be practicing that kind of law."

To be frank, no one knows what kind of law they will end up practicing. A student may know their intentions, but they have no way to know if there will be any openings or unsatisfied demand in that particular area of law. If student planned to do environmental law but there are no job openings in environmental law upon graduation, then either law must be abandoned or another type of law must be practiced.

It is likely that environmental law positions may only be open after climbing the ladder a bit. Someone may find themselves working in civil procedure as a support member for a litigation team for a while before advancing to the kind of law the student wants to practice.

Law school may be a time for additional focus in a particular area of interest. Law school is certainly not a time to let any area of study slip - even if it is only attended to for the purposes of passing the bar exam.

-Scot Conway
California Attorney
CalBar# 159335.

By the time a student makes it to law school, they have already made a sizeable commitment to becoming an attorney, having taken the LSAT, looking at schools and applying, and figuring out how they will finance this advanced portion of their education. Due to the arduous process and substantial effort it takes to just matriculate to law school, generally students enter law school with an idea of the type of law they would like to practice or at least the type of job they would like to have. For example, a job that gets them in the courtroom and in actual trials, or a job that has them at a large firm with the security and benefits those jobs offer.

That being said, the learning that takes place in law school, not only in the classroom but also about oneself, often redirects a student's path. A law school student should have some idea of the type of law they would like to practice, but should keep an open mind to other practice areas and also use the law school experience to confirm their idea of the practice area they would like to get into. The view from the outside of a law practice is very different from the daily activities and responsibility of the practicing lawyer.

-Daniel C. Tighe Esq.

It is very rare for a first year law student to know precisely what area of law that they will commit to during their career.

In my experience, most 1Ls have only a vague notion of what practice areas might interest them... much less any real concept of what the day-to-day life of an associate in that practice area looks like. It is best to keep your mind (as well as your options) open as you proceed through law school and internships.

You really don't get much (if any) exposure to various practice areas during your 1L year as you're laying the foundation with the standard 1L schedule of criminal, contracts, torts, property, civil procedure, constitutional law courses. It isn't until 2L and 3L year that you really get an opportunity to explore more specialized areas.

If you go into an interview after your 1L year and say something like "I want to work in M&A," then you'd better be able to back that claim up with sufficient experience and/or education in that area or you may run the risk of appearing to be a bit naive. It may be better to simply say "I'm very interested in learning more about the various aspects of corporate law."
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Of course, there are always the rare cases where a student went to law school specifically because they want to work in a particular area of law that is of great personal importance to them. For example, I knew one student who grew up in foster care and was eventually adopted by a wonderful family. He knew he wanted to spend his career helping families navigate the laws of adoption and help place children in loving homes. His passion was squarely in family law and adoption law from the beginning, and he followed that passion through law school and into his career.

However, this sort of story is the exception, not the rule, and 1Ls shouldn't feel compelled to pick which area of law that they'll be spending the next 30+ years of their life practicing in. Your best bet is to keep your head down, focus on your coursework, get good grades, and land a prestigious summer internship that will give you exposure to a variety of interesting and challenging work.

-Joshua Craven
University of Chicago Law School, J.D., Class of 2012

Zero reason they should know. So much changes. They shouldn't even know after graduation.


My short answer is no, a law student should not know what type of law they will be practicing during their first year. There are too many factors that go into what type of law an attorney will eventually practice. Background, market forces, mentoring and professors all play a factor in what type of law an attorney will eventually practice. It is more important to find these role models, understand your strengths and then see where that fits into the need of the market. Too many recent grads are coming out into a tough job market and are not ready to be able to fill a need in the market place. These needs fluctuate depending on the political and economic climate. For example, there is a need now for lawyers that understand the healthcare industry and the effects of the affordable care act on it. This need was not around 10 years ago.

Of course there are special circumstances in which the law student has an 'in' to a practice through a family member, friend or other source. But the law is ever-moving and law students should concentrate on their grades, building relationships and learning during the first year, not what type of law they will be practicing if they graduate from law school and if they pass the bar exam.

-Chad T. Van Horn, Esq.,
Founder and partner of Van Horn Law Group, P.A. , P.A.

I believe it can be beneficial for a first year law student to know what type of law they will be practicing because these students can organize and prepare their law school experience to match their career expectations. However, knowing what type of law one will be practicing during its first year of law school is not mandatory or even necessary. Typically, the first year of law school consists of mandatory courses that give students a solid foundation in various areas of law. Therefore, students are not required to know or choose the type of law they will eventually practice. But, in the second and third year of law school, students are allowed to choose the classes they want. This is generally where law students can opt to specialize, though they still do not have to.

When choosing a specialty, it is important for students to consider the area of law that interests them and what field they wish to work in. Students can continue to take different classes to determine what most interests them. Choosing to specialize is an individual decision. However, many law students begin to look for jobs early in their second year and so having a plan of action could be beneficial at that time.

Jackson White

Having a general focus certainly helps. Know what you are interested in and gear your classes toward that area; you'll have less of that 'hopelessly lost in life' feeling. Then again, I took a one semester course on Worker's Compensation and that is the field that I am in today. Law school is much more about training the brain how to spot issues, analyze problems, and come up with clear solutions. Knowing your field of law, especially as a first year, should not be a high priority.

-Josh Turim
Hickey & Turim

The answer to this question would invariably be no. A lot of attorneys switch areas of law, especially early on in their career. When I graduated from Law School, I had no desire to be a practicing attorney, and found myself wanting to go into the legislative field. After a stint in the White House and in the Obama Administration, I changed courses, and for the first time (almost four years out of law school) am a practicing litigator for the first time.

-Jordan Acker of Goodman Acker, P.C., in Southfield, MI

While many first year law students would prefer to know the exact type of law they are going to practice and where they are going to work just months into school, the reality is that most law students will not know the answers to these questions until much later in their law school career or even until after graduation. Most first year law students do not have enough experience with a multitude of legal areas to really know what type of law they want to practice. For example, many first year law students voice their desire to work in sports and entertainment law, but as they progress through school this becomes a much less sought after option as students are exposed to a greater variety of legal areas. Additionally, job opportunities often drive lawyers into a specific area of law.

Jamie Hopkins, J.D., MBA, RICP(r),

Hopkins is a Professor at the American College in the Retirement Income Program. He is also the Associate Director of the New York Life Center for Retirement Income. In addition, Hopkins is a barred attorney in NJ and PA and he holds his Retirement Income Certified Professional(r) designation.

From a career management perspective it's perfectly appropriate to be undecided as a 1L. Although some pursue a JD to expand their roles in areas they already know and enjoy, many 1Ls are not ready to make an educated choice between specialties because they lack the exposure to practice areas and appreciation of how their skills might serve them in different ways. Committing to a specialty when you don't know what you don't know can come across as rash to hiring managers, and choosing too early could shut off avenues that would provide a good range of practical experiences to help inform such an important decision.

-Colleen Torell, J.D., Vice President, Keystone Associates Legal

Absolutely not! The first year of law school is exclusively devoted to teaching law students the law school 'basics' such as torts, property, contracts, and procedure. It is not until the second year of law school that students begin to choose courses based on the area of law in which they want to practice.

-Alfonso Cabañas

About Alfonso

Bi-lingual attorney with transactional experience advising clients with their U.S. and Mexico business dealings. Advising Mexican entities and individuals on structuring their U.S. investment in order to obtain business immigration visa for the entity's CEO or for a private investor. Insurance and Business Regulation focused on holding company transactions and rehabilitation and liquidation oversight. Advising producer and musical groups with their producer, recording, and royalty agreements.

Alfonso Cabañas is the managing attorney of Cabañas Law Firm, PLLC, in San Antonio. His practice focuses on business immigration and business transactions with a focus on U.S. companies investing in Mexico and Mexican companies investing in the U.S. He has served as TYLA vice president, chair, and as a director from 2008-2010. He is a member of the Long Range Planning Committee and has served as vice chair for the National Trial Competition. He is a recipient of a TYLA President's Award of Merit and was named Outstanding Director of the Year in 2007-08.

Cabañas is a former president, vice president, and board member of St. Mary's Hispanic Law Alumni. He served on the San Antonio Young Lawyers Association Board, and is a member of the State Bar Hispanic Issues Section. He has volunteered for multiple TYLA public service projects, including serving as co-producer and Spanish translator for "The Little Voice" and "Healing the Wounds."
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He earned a B.B.A. from Baylor University and a J.D. from St. Mary's University School of Law.

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