Picking the right practice area: NALP Conference 2010 (Part

by Vault Law Editors | May 04, 2010

  • My Vault

Among the panels I attended at last week’s 2010 NALP Annual Education Conference was one targeted at law students and starting associates. “Ten Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Choosing a Practice Area” are questions I wish I’d considered before beginning my career as an attorney. I fell into litigation without much forethought, only because it was suggested that’s the practice for people who like research and writing. What I failed to do was to take ownership of my career — something that the panelists in the “10 Questions” presentation urge students to do via a thoughtful self-assessment. On the panel:

Elizabeth Berner, Recruiting Manager, Southern California, for Jones Day
Matt DeGrushe, Assistant Dean and Dean for Career Services, USC Gould School of Law
Courtney Goldstein, Partner, Major, Lindsey & Africa

Know thyself: Without a self-assessment, Goldstein says, “career satisfaction becomes a gamble rather than a thought-out game plan,” and chances are you may fall into a practice in which you end up miserable, spending “too much time using the wrong hand.” Using a self-assessment tool like Myers-Briggs can help you determine which practice areas will resonate best with your personality, your values and your strengths. For example, are you an extrovert or introvert? Do you prefer being the one in control or are you happiest as member of a team? How do you feel about confrontation or emotional involvement in your work?

Legal news litmus test: Berner noted that it’s important for students to keep up with what’s going on in legal world — get law.com emails, follow current affairs and read trade publications. DeGrushe added that if a student claims they have no time for this, it’s an indication that they don’t really have much interest in this area.

Informational interviews: This seems to me a key resource every student should use in order to find out what it really entails to practice as a litigator or an M&A associate or a land use attorney. Berner advises college students and graduates to speak to lawyers who work in areas they think they’re interested in, to get rid of preconceived notions of what a particular practice is like. Informational interviews are particularly helpful after you’ve done some kind of self-assessment so that you can ask targeted, intelligent questions of the practitioner.

State of the market: What MLA visits schools, they discuss the state of the market in the region and provide relevant information from AmLaw’s Law Firm Leaders Survey — e.g., which practices are expected to see revenue growth, which areas face the greatest challenges and what deal flow looks like.

Once you’ve done some self-assessment, you can use MLA’s 10 questions to consider which practice areas would suit you best.

  1. What do you like to deal with?

    • People: you’re an extrovert. Appropriate areas include employment law and family law. Litigation may not be the best bet if want to deal directly with clients.
    • Things: you like to demonstrate tangible accomplishments. Real estate, for example, might be a good fit.
    • Ideas: you’re more academically inclined, you like creating something new.
    • Money/business

  2. Do you want to create or enable? Do you prefer individual sports, like tennis, golf or track, or do you prefer team sports where you can contribute, like basketball, soccer or volleyball? If you like to be the shot-caller or the rainmaker, you want to create. Servicing partners enable.

  3. Do you mind facing moral conundrums?  We’re not talking professional ethics, but whether you can sleep at night after a day’s work, for example, helping a big developer acquire a piece of Florida wetlands. If you are uncomfortable with moral conundrums, you might want to stay away from areas like environmental, family law or product liability.

  4. Do you want to be the expert or a generalist? This question is key now because of the economy. “Put me wherever you need me,” some associates say, but that can be “the kiss of death,” according to Goldstein, unless the associates have already done a self-assessment; otherwise, they could end up four years down the road in practice ill-suited for them, at which point it’s very difficult to switch. And if your goal is to go in-house eventually, note that most in-house opportunities require a lawyer to be specialist.

  5. Do you prefer to analyze gray areas or have concrete answers? Do you enjoy essay tests or multiple-choice questions? Do you like to massage facts or have straightforward right/wrong answers? If you prefer concrete answers, you might be more comfortable with code-based practices, regulatory work or administrative law, rather than gray areas like family law or litigation.

  6. Whom do you want to help and how? This ties into first question about whether you prefer to work with people, things or ideas. For example, you might help corporations grow (corporate finance) or protect themselves (litigation), help “distressed clients”  in practices like family law or immigration, or represent plaintiffs in class actions.

  7. Do you mind dealing with emotionally charged situations? Do you get personally involved, take work home with you? If so, is that a problem or does it excite you? Some emotionally charged practices include employment law, family law and insurance defense.

  8. What relationship do you want to have with your clients? Do you want to be a trusted advisor or part of the team? This goes not only toward your own personality, but also to the firm’s personality. As Berner noted, law firm environments vary, too; some are more team-oriented than others.

  9. Are you comfortable with an adversarial practice? Or do you prefer negotiation? Generally, in transactional practices, people work together to achieve a common goal, whereas litigation involves direct conflict, with a winner and a loser.

  10. How important is a predictable schedule? Students expect to work hard/long hours, but whether they are predictable or not makes difference. Some practices are more likely to have predictable schedules (appellate, IP prosecution, tax) than others (bankruptcy, M&A and litigation).

More tidbits from NALP Conference 2010 later this week….

- posted by vera

Filed Under: Law

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