Selecting a practice area is one of the most important first steps in one's legal career. For law students, this choice may seem overwhelming given the breadth of practice areas. At Kirkland, we encourage prospective summers to take a step back and research their options, including speaking with attorneys and peers who were summer associates at the firm, meeting with career counselors at their law schools, and consulting helpful publications and rankings on practice areas.
Understanding where your interest lies prior to your summer can help you maximize your experience. Our summers enter our program assigned to one of four areas—litigation, transactional, intellectual property, or restructuring—and have freedom and support to explore the various specialties within each practice area over the summer, providing them a clearer sense of how to direct their careers when they return as associates.
We asked some of our attorneys for their tips on researching and selecting a practice area. Read on for their insights.
1. Did you go into the summer associate interview process with a specific practice area in mind? How did you research practice areas to prepare for your interviews?
Paige Scheckla (Corporate Associate, Debt Finance): At Kirkland, you need to choose what area you want to practice in prior to coming in as a summer associate. Unlike at other firms where they do a rotation system, we hire people directly into practice areas. That doesn’t mean that you need to know if you want to be a debt finance attorney specifically, but you need to know if you want to be in Kirkland’s corporate, litigation, intellectual property or restructuring departments.
Tushin Shah (Corporate Partner, M&A and Private Equity): During my summer associate interview at Kirkland, I interviewed primarily with corporate attorneys, and really clicked with the people I met. What they said about how the group and the deal world operate truly resonated with me and largely encapsulated what I envisioned for my career. As a summer associate, I was able to take on assignments in a number of corporate sub-areas, including M&A, corporate governance, and asset backed securitization, which led to my decision to focus on private equity and M&A. The firm didn’t put pressure on summer associates to specialize in any sub-groups; instead, one of the goals of the summer program was to confirm you were comfortable in the broader practice group and get a view into some of the practice groups' sub-practice areas
2. What are some resources that you recommend when researching practice areas?
Paige Scheckla: Sometimes it can be hard to tell on various firm websites what kind of practice areas they have and whether they allow summer associates to go between groups or whether they have to stick to one. I believe the best resource here is reaching out to attorneys. Kirkland attorneys are always happy to help. I get emails all the time from students at University of Chicago and UCLA—my alma maters—and I’m always happy to take their calls. Certainly websites like Vault are going to give a good idea of a firm’s top practice areas. Looking at lists that highlight individual partners in a firm, like the Daily Journal’s Top 40 under 40 is also useful because when you see that the top partners are in certain practice areas, that’ll give you a sense of the firm’s leading practice areas. Also looking at the NALP form to determine how many attorneys are in each practice group in any office is truly the best starting point to get a good sense of which firms offer which practice areas.
Tushin Shah: When I was in law school, a lot of the classes—especially as a 1L— focused more on litigation, and they were more theoretical and not primarily geared toward practical application/skills. You have to be cognizant of what it means to be a litigator or a corporate attorney or restructuring attorney (or any other type of law you intend to practice). Classes in law school may not give you a full—or any—picture of what it is like to practice in that area. The way I filled in the blanks was by talking to practicing attorneys at various levels of their careers. I leveraged alumni networks (law school and undergrad) to reach out to as many lawyers as I could, primarily to ask questions and learn about their experiences. I asked questions like what is your day like, what does your practice entail, what are the most rewarding parts of your job, what are the most difficult parts of your job, what is your level and tenor of client interaction, etc. This process helped me confirm my understanding of the corporate practice.
3. What are some useful questions candidates can ask during the interview process to learn more about a firm’s practice areas?
Paige Scheckla: I would ask folks exactly what their day looks like and what kinds of deals or cases they’re working on. A lot of times, a firm bio may say an attorney works in certain areas, but asking them exactly what kinds of tasks they do on a day-to-day basis will give you a sense of what the firm actually does. You should also ask what summer associates get the chance to do.
Tushin Shah: The first thing I recommend doing before asking any questions is making sure you actually research what the firm does and who the attorneys are that you are meeting. I interviewed at firms that were more specialized—for example, there was a firm that was very focused on project finance, which is a very niche industry, and knowing that in advance helped me better prepare and ask the right questions. In terms of specific questions to ask, a good one is ‘I’ve heard [xyz] about practicing transactional law. Has that been your experience?’ Additionally, I found it helpful to understand how deals are staffed and how expectation levels / roles on deals change over time as you progress in your career Another question that I had success with was asking, ‘What was the most trying day you've had in practice, and what is the most rewarding day you've had in practice?’ You get an honest answer, get insight into the culture of the firm and a better understanding of that firm and practice group.
4. How did Kirkland’s summer program help you develop in your practice area?
Paige Scheckla: Hitting the ground running in my desired practice area over the summer really helped me hone the skills I needed to start developing over my 3L year and my first year of practice. Kirkland also has top-notch training, which starts when you’re a summer associate. For corporate folks, we have Kirkland University that offers training specific to tenure. Over the summer, part of that is doing a mock negotiation and revising a purchase agreement—both skills I took with me into my first year at the firm. On top of that, because I was able to select my practice area in advance of getting to Kirkland, I was able to do real work from day one as a summer associate—including doing first-year and second-year associate level work on real deals for real clients.
Tushin Shah: The firm does a really good job of giving ample practice experience and making sure you’re on enough matters without being overwhelmed. I was able to sit in on broader team meetings, client calls and negotiation calls. That exposed me to the soft skills necessary for a transactional practice, and also reminded me that I wouldn’t be sitting in front of a computer drafting documents all day. The firm also did a great job of making sure you get to know a wide array of the attorneys in the broader practice group at every level, and not just the attorneys you’ll generally be working directly with at the start your career.
5. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you tell yourself when you were in law school and deciding your practice area?
Paige Scheckla: Don’t stress. There is going to be a firm that fits what you’re looking for in terms of career goals, desired practice area, and culture, as long as you’re willing to put some time and effort into researching your options!
Tushin Shah: You don’t know what you don't know, and until you actually practice you can't fully understand how a practice will be, so it's important to keep an open mind on alternatives and to simply gaining knowledge. I have seen people, for example, start in litigation and in their sixth or seventh year of practice, they decide it isn't for them and they to switch to corporate. So don’t be afraid to make calls and connect with others to learn more about each practice.