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by Mary Kate Sheridan | April 01, 2019

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Deciding to go to law school is one thing; selecting what type of law to practice is an entirely different matter—and a confusing one at that. If you’re not quite sure which firms excel in your desired practice area or even what the differences between certain practice areas are, you’re not alone. In fact, I was on a panel last week on law firm recruiting, and the most-asked question I received afterward was how to research practice areas.

As a law student, you want to sound informed about your future goals, so understanding the differences between practice areas and career paths is important. Below are some tips on researching and understanding the myriad of practice areas out there. 

1. Read.

This tip may seem obvious, but reading about practice areas is a good way to gain an initial understanding of the general tasks and work associated with each area. Various legal websites include practice area descriptions. Practice Perspectives: Vault’s Guide to Legal Practice Areas, for example, includes in-depth Q&As from attorneys who work in top-ranked practice areas, providing insight into what it is like to practice in that area, what kinds of cases and clients they have, and why they chose that area. (Students can access this ebook for free if their school is a Vault member, so check with your career services office for your login). 

2. Speak with Attorneys

You’ve probably heard the term informational interviews, and you also may have wondered if they are any use. I’m here to tell you they absolutely are, especially if you are trying to learn more about your future legal career path. Speaking with attorneys who actually practice in your target areas—or speaking with attorneys across a variety of areas to gain more understanding—is probably one of the most valuable tools you can access. Of course, connecting with those attorneys is the difficult part, but it doesn’t have to be if you use your network. First, sit down with career services and ask if they can connect you with some alumni practicing in your target areas. My experience has been that practicing attorneys are happy to speak with budding lawyers and share their experiences; they were in your shoes once and understand how difficult it can be to choose a path. Another resource is the alumni base from your undergrad. Use LinkedIn or your own connections to see if any alumni are now practicing in your chosen area. Don’t limit your outreach to alumni, however. Network broadly with your own connections and family to see who they know. Finally, if you are interviewing with law firms, don’t be afraid to ask the recruiting teams to connect you with lawyers from specific practice areas—this route will allow you not only to ask the attorneys about their experience in a practice area but also what it is like to practice at their specific firm. And the firms will be more than happy to connect you with their attorneys as you mull over an offer.

 Prepare in advance so that you maximize the time with the attorneys, who will likely have time constraints. Potential areas to explore include, examples of cases, examples of clients, how the practice area interacts with other areas, examples of junior-level work, possible career paths stemming from this area, suggestions for law school classes and internships that can help one prepare for this area, and the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of the practice. 

But also be open to seeing where the conversation takes you, as the attorneys will probably raise topics that you hadn’t even thought about. Also, don’t use these informational interviews to ask for a job; they can be great for building your network which may help with your job search down the line, but their purpose should be to inform.

3. Attend CLEs 

You heard that right. You don’t have to be an attorney to attend a CLE, and spending a few hours learning about developments in a practice area, practice tips relating to a certain area, recent cases in an area, or whatever other topic is available, can help you develop a more sophisticated understanding of the area. And, no doubt, attorneys practicing in that practice area will be in attendance, giving you yet another networking opportunity. Sometimes, CLEs even have networking events attached to them or opportunities to ask the presenters questions, so you may be able to delve even deeper into an area.

4. Seek out other industry events.

Continuing legal education isn’t the only way to get involved with a practice area. Check out your local bar association, and see if they are holding any events relating to your practice areas of interest. Oftentimes, bar associations have student memberships. Also, law firms will sometimes host events, panels, and webinars relating to a specific legal topic—take advantage of those opportunities if they are open to the public. Sometimes the key is thinking outside the box. And if you are interesting in getting to know the ins-and-outs of a particular practice area, you may want to involve yourself in the types of events and classes that lawyers in that area attend.

5. Consult rankings.

It can be confusing selecting the right path for your chosen practice area because it can appear that all of the firms do the same thing. But that doesn’t mean they all excel in every area or that they all focus on the same types of cases. Determining whether a firm is a right fit for your goals in a practice area will be personal to you. But if you are completely lost, a good first place to start is to look at practice area rankings. And don’t limit yourself to one set of rankings—look broadly across multiple publications and see which firms show up repeatedly across rankings. This information can provide a good starting point to continue your research.

6. Delve into the firms’ work.

Once you create a list of potential firms or employers based on your initial research, explore the actual work that the employer does. Look into the kinds of clients it takes on and consider whether those are the types of clients you are hoping to counsel. Also, delve into the recent cases a firm has handled in this area, which can give you a snapshot of the breadth of work, level of work, and patterns of work—if any—that the firm handles. Often, the firm will share recent cases on the press release section of its site or via social media, but you can also find information via legal publications. You also may explore notable attorneys in your target practice areas and at which firm or employer they work.

7. Try a few on for size.

This option may not be possible for everyone, but if you have the opportunity, try working in a variety of practice areas as a student through internships and summer associate programs. Internships can be a great way to explore real legal work and gain school credit for it. And if you work at a firm as a summer associate, the firm may offer the opportunity to rotate through practice areas or accept work from multiple practice areas—if you are on the fence (and even if you aren’t), take advantage of this opportunity to see how the different areas compare. (Some firms do not allow summer associates to work across practice areas, so if that is a priority to you, make sure you choose a firm that will.)

Working in a law school clinic can be another way to gain direct exposure to specific legal work, as well as those practicing in that area, to give you greater insight into whether a particular area suits you.

The reality is that you won’t know what it is like to practice in a certain area and whether it is a true fit until you are actually practicing. But you can put in the legwork now to narrow your options and find an area that you think will best align with your goals.

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