So, you’re going to law school. You know you want to do something meaningful with your life, you know you want to help people, and you know you want an interesting and challenging career. Then out of nowhere someone asks you that dreaded question…
“What type of law do you want to practice?”
It can be a tough question to answer for many law students. But the following tips and advice should help you figure it out.
Related: Start exploring law degrees, certificates, and concentrations.
Don't Let a Lack of Clarity Hold You Back
Most first-year law students enter law school with a desire to “be a lawyer,” but few actually know what kind of law they want to practice after they graduate. That’s often because—while the idea of a lawyer is familiar to most people—what lawyers actually do on a daily basis is not. Add to that mystery the myriad of legal practice areas, types of employers, and legal issues one could get involved with and the average law student is left feeling overwhelmed.
Sound like you? You’re not alone. Take comfort in the fact that you’re in law school to take the classes, get the hands-on experience, and join the extracurriculars that will help you explore all of these issues and gain the clarity you need to make an informed decision about the type of law you should practice.
Turn Your Big Decision into a Small One
If you’re interested in everything from criminal law to corporate law and you are not sure what you want to do, one way to help make your decision is to break it down into smaller chunks. By focusing on the smaller decisions—what elective classes to take, what campus events to attend, etc.—you will be able to piece together an answer that addresses the big question. Building a decision tree can help you break a legal niche down to those smaller pieces too...
Build a Decision Tree
Within each legal practice area there is a decision tree of options that can take you down several different career paths based on the issues you care about, the industry that interests you, the types of employers you want work for, and the kinds of clients you want to help.
For example, someone interested in intellectual property law may want to work at a law firm in the entertainment industry, helping music publishing companies license the copyright to their collections of songs. Or they may want to work in-house at a life sciences company, as a patent associate, filing patent applications.
Whatever the practice area, you can break it down further to get a real sense of the career opportunities available to you.
Here are the decision trees for the aforementioned examples:
- Practice Area: Intellectual Property
- Industry: Entertainment Industry
- Type of Employer: Law Firm
- Type of Client: Music Publisher
- Type of Legal Issue: Copyright, Licensing of Music
- Practice Area: Intellectual Property
- Industry: Life Sciences
- Type of Employer: Corporation
- Type of Client: Corporation
- Type of Legal Issue: Patents, Filing Patent Applications
As you can see, to say that you are interested in “intellectual property” is just scratching the surface of what you need to know in order to find the right job for you. A law student interested in the entertainment issues within IP is probably not going to also be interested in the science aspects of IP and vice versa.
Your goal with this process is to go from your academic understating of a particular area of law and connect it to what it looks like in the real world. By creating a decision tree using these five categories (Practice Area, Industry, Type of Employer, Type of Client, and Type of Legal Issue) you can quickly connect the dots between school and work life. This clarity will allow you to have more effective conversations with alumni and lawyers that you meet during your job search.
Talk to Others
While doing exploring and introspection on your own is a critical part of choosing the kind of law you’ll practice, you should also ask for help and tap into the career resources available to you in law school.
From academic advisors to professors to upper-level students, there are plenty of folks at your law school you can turn to for help. Find the people who share your legal interests and ask them your questions at office hours or over a cup of coffee.
Another invaluable resource: your law school’s alumni. The career services and/or alumni offices at your school should be able to connect you with alumni who practice in the areas you’re considering. You might also meet alumni at campus networking events or speaker panels. Remember, most people will be happy to help you if they can. Sometimes an informational interview is all it takes to help you determine if a particular area of the law is right for you.
Related: How to Write Networking Emails as a Law Student or Graduate
Finally, as you explore your academic and career options, keep in mind that your career goals may shift—and that’s okay. As you go through law school, and especially as you gain firsthand experience in different areas of the law, you’ll develop a clearer picture of the kind of career you want to have. (There’s nothing quite like a law school clinic to teach you what you do and don’t like about a particular type of law!) But with time, effort, and thoughtfulness, you’ll find the kind of legal practice that will bring you personal and professional fulfillment long after you graduate.
Start exploring law degrees and legal career paths.