We all enter new phases of our personal and professional lives. That is what makes life a circle: You end one trail and start another one where you are learning new things and growing as a person.
As a college or university student, you started over after being BMOC in high school. As a senior in high school, you were ready for the world. Then you start college and realize you basically know almost nothing, and you are back at the bottom of the ladder of knowledge, working your way up.
Swim or Drown
I know your head was swimming that first year of college. Adjusting to being away from home, being responsible only for yourself, taking very different classes than ever before, and being in very different social settings than you had experienced before.
And this is all before you even think about what you wanted to major in. You went through a huge process of narrowing down your school choices, and then once you found the school you wanted, you eventually had to choose a major.
Each of these cases involved a lot of information to process, priorities to consider and you could easily either swim in this ocean of information, or drown and give up. But your law career has now moved you to a new decision – What area of law should I specialize in?
Test the Waters – Feet first not Head first
It is always said that it’s better to jump into a pool feet first than to dive in head first and it’s that mentality that will help you choose a legal specialty.
As you start a new phase in your academic life, you have to give yourself a chance. Don’t think you have to make a decision about your specialty before you get into a training program. Very few law firms expect a candidate to already have an area picked out. They do expect you to at least have a general idea, such as whether you want to go into administrative, civil or criminal law.
This part of the new phase should look familiar, because you went through it when you c hose a college to attend, and you did it again when you decided to study law. This is all about being patient, doing your research and looking into your heart. And when you are ready, you will find the right firm that will give you training in several specialized areas within one of these general paths, and you can jump in feet first.
There are a few online personality tests out there that claim to tell you what area of law you should pursue based on personality type. But in reality, every individual is different and can’t be boxed into a certain area just because he or she fits a certain “type.” This comes down to knowing yourself and thinking in the long-term. Like getting married – your partner shouldn’t be someone who makes your toes curl now (though that is certainly nice); he or she should have the personality, character and values that make your relationship comfortable, happy and rewarding. This is what you should think about when you look at the general area you want to practice.
While criminal law is “sexy” and is seen as exciting in the media, you should look deeper at the work itself and not just the dramatic courtroom scenes. Do your research and learn about the pros and cons of each general area of practice and find the good parts that you enjoy and the bad parts that are so bad you can’t imagine doing them for the next 40 to 50 years.
Also, understand that the focus should not be on money – it should be on the quality of life. This means knowing the difference between a satisfying career and just a well-paying job. Make sure you know what you love and do more of that. You can get some clues by some of the classes you have already taken – what classes have you really enjoyed, and what classes would you be happy never to take again?
Lawyers get paid to give advice. But they also do pro-bono work. With that in mind, you would be well-served in your research to make contact with some lawyers in your community, and even a couple of your professors, for insights into the general areas of law practice. You can find them on LinkedIn, for example, and set up a short 15-minute sit-down “interview” with a lawyer or two in each of the general practice areas and ask them pointed questions about the work they do, why they chose their particular law specialty and so forth.
It doesn’t hurt to pick at least one firm in each of the general areas and meet with one of the attorneys at that firm, even if it’s a firm that may consider you for a training program. If you want to improve your chances of getting into the specific specialty you want, you may want to find the largest firm in your area to conduct research with, since those firms will likely have more specialists than smaller firms, which can lend you some ideas as to the various specialties available to you.
Choosing a Law Firm – Larger the Better?
When it is time to consider the firm in which you want to receive training, you may have the question about the size of the firm with which to work. Do you work in a small firm where you will definitely have to be a jack-of-all-trades, or should you work at a larger firm where specialties are more clearly defined and you are moving from one area to the next in a very slow way?
There is something to be said for working at a small firm where you will be wearing many different hats according to the needs of any individual client. If you want to experience all the different types of law, then this might be the best way to approach your training. But if you have narrowed down to a general area – such as administrative law, for example – then you will be better served to work at a firm that specialized in that area and then get training in each different specialty area, so you can see the clear lines between the various areas and you can determine for yourself what each area entails and the differences between them so you can find where you get the most joy and satisfaction.
The Bottom Line – How do you want to serve?
The point to all this is to understand what will bring you the most satisfaction, the area are you most passionate about and thus will be the very best attorney you can be. Practicing the law is about serving and helping people, it’s not about money or fame or anything else. It’s about knowing yourself, how you want to serve and in what areas can you provide the best service. Know yourself, do the research, talk to those on the inside and find the firm that will best fit what you need – whether you need to dabble in many different things, or the firm where you can be very specific in your training s so you gain a deeper understanding of the options available to you and what will light your fire every day.