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Your legal adventure is out there! Considerations for choosing a path in the law

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Career Paths
Need a compass to point you in the right career path? Ask yourselves these questions. (Photo: iStock)

Law students often ask, “how do I know what kind of lawyer I want to be?” Or they see classmates who seem to have career paths charted and planned, and assume that everyone else has “figured it all out.” But the truth is that many law students, even 2Ls and 3Ls, don’t know what kind of law they want to practice or what setting they want to practice it in, and many of the people who seem to have a plan will end up somewhere they couldn’t have anticipated in law school.

Our goal here is to give you some ideas for how to figure out what a fulfilling, successful law career might look like for you. 

What to think about

As you are thinking about what kind of legal career you want to pursue, spend some time developing a list of the most important criteria that will guide your decision.

As you draft your list, remember that you don’t know what you don’t know. Confining yourself to rigid notions you may have brought into law school about what type of law you’d like to practice, or what kind of setting you’d like to practice it in, may be unduly limiting. Of course, some law students have good reasons—whether related to finances, location, family, or otherwise—to be certain about the type of law they plan to practice.

But otherwise, be open to learning about an area of law or a type of law practice that you might not know much about. One of the authors of this piece could never have predicted that she’d end up as a patent litigator, but a series of smaller decisions and an accident of timing put her on that path, and she ended up loving the work. (Aside: feel free to get in touch with Rachel if you want to hear about how someone who hasn’t touched math or science since high school can still be a patent litigator.) 

While you’re brainstorming criteria for a position that would make you happy, think not only about areas of law that might interest you, but also about what you want your practice to look like. Here are a series of questions to ask yourself or discuss with people you trust: 

  • What brought you to law school in the first place? What motivated you to give up three years of your life and make the personal and financial sacrifices involved in pursuing a legal education? What was it that either drew you to law initially or brought you here after exploring other passions or opportunities? What impelled you to go straight to law school as soon as you could, or to interrupt a successful career, or move across the country to get this degree? What did you write about in your personal statement? (Though you may not want to re-read it.) As a 2L or 3L, it can sometimes be hard to remember what brought you to law school in the first place, but there was always a reason. What does that reason tell you about what kind of career you should pursue? 
  • What skills do you want to be using frequently? Do you want to be doing a lot of writing? If so, what kind? Do you enjoy legal research? Do you enjoy negotiating with opposing counsel or presenting a case in court? Would you prefer to have a practice that is mostly transactional work, litigation work, or a combination of the two? While the substantive area of law is important, these questions will help you determine what your day-to-day experience will look like.   
  • Relatedly—but somewhat distinctly—what do you enjoy doing? When do you feel like you achieve “flow” in your work? This happens when you are doing things you likeand are good at. The task has to be difficult enough to keep you engaged but not so difficult that you can’t accomplish it. What are you doing when you notice that you are experiencing flow? Keeping track of when you are “in the zone” can help you identify the kinds of skills that you want to use in your legal practice. 
  • How much client contact do you want? Do you want to have direct client contact—especially as a junior lawyer—or would you be more comfortable with others taking charge of client communications? There’s no right answer here; client contact can be exceptionally rewarding, but it also comes with its own challenges—which vary based on who your clients are—and it’s okay to either seek it out or decide that it’s not as important to you, at least at first. 
  • How important is collaboration? It’s hard to imagine any legal job—or, in 2020, any job, really—that doesn’t involve at least some collaboration, but it’s more essential in certain settings, and depending on your personality, you may prefer more or less of it. Moreover, some law students know that they’re very comfortable working primarily in an adversarial process, while others would prefer to seek out a practice that involves collaboration, deal-making, or alternative forms of dispute resolution.  
  • What kinds of hours are you (and your family) comfortable with? For all that we talk about work/life balance, it’s also true that attorneys work very different hours in some jobs than in others. And this isn’t just about the quantity of hours; it’s also about the predictability. Do you have family or other obligations or hobbies that require more stable, predictable hours? The workflow in some jobs is predictably cyclical; in others, it can be much more random. Similarly, while some jobs offer flexibility as far as what hours you’re required to work, others have much more rigid expectations for when you’ll be in the office and complete your work. How important is that dimension to you?  
  • How much responsibility do you want to have, and how soon do you want it? Some lawyers prefer to have less authority early on in their careers, while others feel hemmed in by not being able to make important decisions independently. Do you want to be able to “run” your own cases or have decision-making responsibility early in your career? Or do you prefer for there to be several layers of decision-making authority between you and the ultimate decision?
  • Relatedly, how much structured training do you want to receive? Is that something that’s important to you? Is it so important that you’d consider going somewhere with extensive training programs for a few years and then moving on to something else? For example, some people join a firm for just a few years on the way to other things, but take advantage of the firm’s structured training programs and formal mentorship opportunities. 
  • How do you feel about multitasking? Do you enjoy multitasking or having multiple open matters, and if so, how many? Or does having many, many balls in the air stress you out? For example, DAs and PDs often have dozens or hundreds of open cases at a time. Some people find that exhilarating; others find it overwhelming.  
  • Is there a particular salary that you need to earn? The reality is that some people will come into or graduate from law school with certain financial constraints or obligations that make certain jobs much less realistic for them—at least at first. Are you in such a situation? Even if you’re not, is there a particular salary that you or your family require to live comfortably? Are you looking at positions that will help you meet that goal, and if you’re not, are you prepared for the financial ramifications of accepting such a position?

Finally, as you consider all of these questions, think of your career as an arc: where you start isn’t necessarily where you end up. These days, very few attorneys stay in the same job (or even in the same kind of job) for their whole careers, so where you want to start your career and where you want to end up could be two different questions. 

What to do

Once you’ve spent some time thinking about what you want out of your law practice, what are some things you can actually do to gather more information about the practice areas that would be a good fit for you? 

First, take classes related to practice areas that you’re interested in. If you’re still interested in that practice area after learning more about the subject, that’s a great sign. That said, don’t assume that a particular practice area won’t be a good fit for you just because you didn’t like a law school class on that subject. Along the same lines, don’t assume that you won’t be good at a job just because you didn’t do as well in a class as you would have liked.

If your law school offers clinics in an area you’re interested in, that’s a great way to get hands-on experience that will help you not only learn more about the subject matter but also gain a better understanding of what that type of practice is like. If your law school doesn’t have classes or clinics in the area you’re interested in, many schools allow you to get that experience by pursuing an externship. Externship programs give you class credit for doing legal work for a variety of different legal employers, including government agencies and non-profit organizations.

Second, if you haven’t already had the opportunity to speak with lawyers about their work, now is a great time to start. It can be intimidating to reach out to someone you don’t know, but many lawyers welcome the chance to speak with law students about their practice. (To prove it, here’s a Twitter thread by @SaraBWarf from earlier this month collecting offers exactly like this!)

If you’re not sure where to start (besides Twitter), consider reaching out to alumni from your law school. We’ve found that alumni tend to be very generous with their time, as they remember when others did the same for them when they were law students. While you shouldn’t reach out to alumni with an expectation that they’ll also help you find a job, the connections you make with alumni (or other lawyers) may help you in future job searches. If you need help connecting with alumni, your law school’s career services office and your professors can often help connect you with alumni in the practice area you’re interested in.

Once you’ve connected with someone in a practice area you’re interested in, try to gather as much information as you can about the work and how that lawyer got into that area. Here are some examples of questions you might ask:

  • Why did you choose this practice area and why have you stayed in this area? What do you enjoy most about this work?
  • What skills are most important for lawyers in this area?
  • Could you describe what a typical day looks like for you?
  • Are there any law school classes or activities that you would recommend to someone interested in pursuing this kind of work?

Next, talk to your professors (and not just “your” professors). Not only can your professors help connect you with lawyers in the practice area you’re interested in, but many of them can also tell you about their own practice experiences. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other faculty, whether at your institution or elsewhere, that have relevant experience. (See also Twitter!) 

If there’s a substantive area of law that you want to learn more about or develop a specialty in, see if you can serve as a research assistant (RA) for a professor at your school who teaches or writes in that area. Not only will this experience offer you a window into whether the intricacies of the law are as interesting to you as you thought they would be, but the experience will be attractive to employers who specialize in the same area because it will serve as evidence of your interest and expertise. (Alternatively, consider pursuing an RA-ship with a professor who is generous and engaging even if you don’t know much about her area of law. Once again, you don’t know what you don’t know.)  

Of course, one of the most helpful—and obvious—steps you could take is to get a job for all or part of a summer working in one of the areas of law you want to explore. But if such a job is unavailable to you for whatever reason, think also about the kinds of skills that you want to build or that will be required in one of the positions you’re eventually interested in, and apply to other positions that will give you those skills. And if a summer job is impossible (and maybe even in addition to a summer job in the area), consider student organizations and pro bono opportunities that will offer that same kind of experience. 

Only you can decide which legal career is right for you. But we hope that this post has given you a framework for how to start figuring out what that is. If you’re intentional about it, have an open mind, and talk to the right people, you should be able to get a sense of what might be a good fit. And remember: your career is long, and if you find yourself in a position that doesn’t work for you, you can always try something else.

Rachel Gurvich and Margaret Hannon Rachel Gurvich is a clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of law, where she has taught first-year and upper-level legal writing courses since 2015. Before that, she was a patent and appellate litigator at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP in Boston. Connect with Rachel on Twitter. Margaret Hannon is a clinical professor at the University of Michigan Law School. She previously taught at Northwestern Law School, where she was the assistant director and interim director of the legal writing program. She received her BA from Binghamton University, cum laude, and her JD from Michigan Law. Connect with Margaret on Twitter.