Some lawyers begin their careers with a path in mind. But, for many, it is not uncommon to start in one practice area and end in another. The list of practice areas is practically endless. In the pages that follow, Student Lawyer profiles lawyers working in five of those practice areas: intellectual property, energy law, health care, environmental law, and bankruptcy. In each, learn why the lawyers chose their practice area, what special skills might be needed, and what advice they have for law students.
Innovation and Information
Although he began his professional life as an environmental engineer, Andrew Halaby did not give much thought to becoming an intellectual property (IP) lawyer when he completed law school and joined the commercial litigation department of a large firm 15 years ago.
“I was more interested in business law than in IP,” says Halaby, a partner at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix. “I did not have any intention of practicing in an area relating to science or engineering or technology at all.”
But while he was a first-year associate at Snell & Wilmer, a partner asked him if he wanted to help out on a new IP infringement case. The issues were diverse and interesting, encompassing patent, trademark, and copyright issues—the three subcategories under the IP umbrella. “I found it suited me,” he says. “I was the associate, so I got a lot of exposure to a lot of different aspects of the substantive law.” And it was his first meaningful exposure to federal litigation.
Since then, he has focused his practice on intellectual property law, bringing and defending cases involving a wide spectrum of innovation, including: medical software, home audio systems, automotive accessories, nanotechnology, clothing and footwear, electronic payment systems, and GPS systems.
“The grand diversity of issues we confront in our practice is what makes it interesting,” says Halaby, a native of El Dorado, Kansas, who received engineering degrees (BS and MS) and a JD from the University of Kansas.
Having an engineering degree is most useful in handling patent cases, Halaby says. But he insists that lawyers can learn much of what they have to know, particularly in trademark and copyright law, without a science background and without having passed the US Patent Bar Exam. However, a lawyer does have to be admitted to the US Patent and Trademark Office to prosecute patents. Halaby is admitted.
“There is no doubt that there can be an advantage to having a math or science or technology background in litigating IP disputes,” Halaby says. “For those who don’t or won’t, they can learn on the job.”
“Trademark is the easiest for a non-technical person to develop a career in. It’s the law of branding. If you like Mad Men (a popular television series set in a 1960s advertising firm) you’re going to like trademark.”
He says he was on automatic pilot when he decided to go into engineering. His father, a Palestinian immigrant who worked as an aircraft machinist in Wichita, Kansas, valued the field. He credits his father and his mother, a teacher who came from a Kansas farming background, for providing him with personal and professional inspiration.
Essentially, patent law involves protecting innovators of new, novel, and non-obvious inventions. A patent must be registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office. Lawyers might represent plaintiffs who assert that someone has stolen their invention, or defendants who are accused of infringing a registered patent, Halaby explains.
Trademark law involves commercial symbolism (think golden arches). Issues that arise in litigation include the likelihood that consumers would be confused by similar symbols or names, where the products are sold, and whether consumers would pay attention to the particular trademark that has given rise to a dispute between feuding companies. Halaby was a fourth- or fifth-year associate during the dot.com boom, which brought him a lot of trademark clients, he says. “The Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act was passed at the turn of the century, which gave trademark owners rights to protect their domain name from cyber pirates,” Halaby says. “So that was an exciting and fruitful time for someone of my vintage who was coming up through the ranks and trying to decide what kind of direction I wanted my career to take.”
Copyright law involves the protection of creative expression, which could include music, art, writing, and photographs once they are “fixed” in a material objects, like a book, sheet music, film, CD, or videotape.
Law students with a combined knack for logic—so-called “left-brainers”—and creativity—“right brainers”—are well-suited for the intellectual property concentration, Halaby says. Self-learners and tinkerers—those who like computers, gadgets, puzzles, inventing, and designing—are also well-suited.
Halaby urges students not to fear technical and scientific language. “There are a lot of fine people and fine lawyers who probably could pursue a productive career in this area if only they weren’t afraid of a language they don’t understand,” he says. “Anyone can accomplish anything they set their mind to.”
Of course, Halaby, an adjunct professor of trademark and unfair competition law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, recommends that students take as many courses in intellectual property law as they can. Skilled proficiency in the core law school subjects, including evidence, contracts, and constitutional law, is also enormously important.
“Those who are well-grounded in the fundamentals are the best off,” he says.
His other piece of advice to students and young lawyers is more general: Develop relationships early in your career and keep developing new ones. Seek advice from practicing attorneys and others who could help in your career development, and also give back—look for people to help, Halaby says.
For those worried about the practicality of their career decisions during this economic downturn, Halaby assures that intellectual property law is a robust business.
“I would put IP and IP litigation up against any other practice area,” Halaby says. “We are living in an innovation and information economy. And those who can comfortably deal with information and innovation will tend to thrive.”
Areas of Intellectual Property Law
Patent law protects innovators of new, novel, and non-obvious inventions.
Trademark law involves commercial symbolism.
Copyright law involves the protection of creative expression.
Tip: Seek advice from practicing attorneys and others who could help in your career development.
Section of Intellectual Property Law
(law student membership is free)
Upstream and Midstream in the Energy Field
Robin S. Fredrickson does deals. Big deals. Deals that sometimes involve hundreds of millions, even more than a billion, dollars.
An energy lawyer at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, Fredrickson buys and sells oil and gas companies and interests on behalf of her clients, which are primarily oil and gas companies. She also facilitates joint ventures in the industry. Technically, she’s a partner in the firm’s mergers and acquisitions department, but her emphasis is in the energy field. She is the co-head of the firm’s oil and gas industry group.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed 20 years ago that I would have been doing this,” Fredrickson says. “But I like it, I’m pretty good at it, and it’s interesting.”
Recognized by The Best Lawyers in America® in oil and gas law,2010–12, Fredrickson had a role in an exceptionally noteworthy industry deal that was reported on page 1 of the Wall Street Journal on November 16, 2011—the same day Student Lawyer interviewed her. A Canadian company, Enbridge Inc., says it had agreed to pay $1.15 billion to ConocoPhillip’s for a 50 percent interest in the Seaway Crude Pipeline System, which transports oil from the Gulf Coast to Oklahoma. Once the deal is finalized, Enbridge will become partners with the other 50 percent stakeholder, Enterprise Products Partners LP, which operates the pipeline.
Fredrickson was one of the attorneys advising Enterprise on the matter.
“It has been a busy year,” she says, after listing a number of other big deals she concluded in the previous six months. In fact, she says, she hasn’t had a flat year since she joined the firm 23 years ago.
Fredrickson’s professional trajectory was, in some ways unconventional, but in others, quite ordinary. Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Fredrickson received a BS in nursing from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio in 1981. But she knew almost immediately that she did not want to be a nurse for the rest of her life. “It’s a very physical job,” she says.
She thought about pursuing a career in medicine and pharmacology, and she sat for three other graduate school admissions tests before taking the LSAT. By that time, she was living in Galveston, Texas, where her parents had moved while she was in college, and she decided to attend the University of Houston Law Center, where she received a JD, cum laude, in 1988. She jokes that her mother insisted that she stop taking tests and do something.
She considered concentrating in health care law, but after a clerkship, she decided that wasn’t for her. So she set her sights on joining Vinson & Elkins, where she had another clerkship, and which was one of the largest and most prestigious firms in the region, she says. After joining the firm, she soon joined the oil and gas group, mostly because she liked the attorneys in the group.
“I tell our summer associates that at least 50 percent of your decision (to enter a particular practice area) should be guided by who you’re going to work for,” she says. “You’re going to work long hours. And unless you really like these people, it’s not going to work out.”
Knowing property law and taking a class in energy law if your school offers it are good ideas. But for the most part, you learn energy law by practicing it.
“What you learn in law school doesn’t give you any idea what it’s like to be a transactional lawyer,” Fredrickson says. “I’ve always joked around with our summer associates, saying that for mergers and acquisitions, you just have to know how to negotiate. It’s like a game.”
She recommends that law students shadow a working attorney in the energy field to get a feel for the practice.
There are plenty of law jobs in the energy field and a number of different sub-categories within the broad concentration area, she says.
The energy business is divided into three categories known as upstream, midstream, and downstream. Upstream refers to the process of extracting gas and oil, most commonly by drilling. Midstream means transporting the crude and natural gas, typically through pipelines. And downstream involves refineries and storage facilities that process and sell crude oil, products derived from crude, and natural gas.
Fredrickson is involved with companies that do upstream and midstream work, and both are hot areas now due to a relatively new and controversial gas and oil extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” in shorthand.
Fracking involves using pressurized fluids to extract oil and natural gas from sedimentary rock formations, mostly from shale, far below the earth’s surface. Critics insist that the process could potentially contaminate groundwater and pollute the air. The process has been banned in a handful of countries but is allowed in the United States.
Natural gas is very cheap today, largely because of fracking. “And it’s clean,” Fredrickson insists. The market for alternative energy is somewhat flat as a result, Fredrickson says.
“A lot of lawyers would love to do alternative energy. It sounds like you’re doing something for the planet and helping the world,” Fredrickson says. “I just don’t think it’s going to be as strong as everyone hoped because you have cheap gas.”
Some upstream lawyers also represent clients who are harnessing alternative energy sources like wind and solar power, but Fredrickson does not. “Those jobs are harder to find. There just aren’t as many opportunities,” she says.
The Three Categories of the Energy Business
Upstream. Extracting gas and oil, most commonly by drilling.
Midstream. Transporting crude and natural gas, typically through pipelines.
Downstream. Involves refineries and storage facilities that process and sell crude oil, products derived from crude, and natural gas.
Tip: Shadow a working attorney in the energy field to get a feel for the practice.
Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources
(law student membership is $5)
On the Other Side of Government
Matthew J. Murer is a walking dictionary of acronyms that represent a mind-boggling number of federal and state regulatory provisions that govern health-care compliance.
As geeky as that might sound, his knack for regulatory issues and his precise knowledge of his clients’ needs have gained him a successful practice in an area that is growing and changing rapidly.
There isn’t much that a health-care client can do without understanding the labyrinth of laws and regulations that govern every imaginable issue that may come up, whether it involves selling a piece of medical equipment or running a nursing home, Murer explains. Apart from actual health issues, there are rules governing billing, confidentiality, licensing, medication, and zoning, to name just a few.
“The regulations are Byzantine,” he says. “They’re so complicated. You cannot be a true health-care lawyer and not understand and have the ability to parse really dense regulation.
“If you took administrative law
class and you hated it, don’t go into healthcare.”
Murer, who heads the health-care practice at Polsinelli Shughart from the firm’s Chicago office, primarily represents assisted-living and hospice facilities, but he also represents hospitals and doctors groups on issues that include general regulatory compliance, life safety code issues, reimbursement, fraud and abuse, and contracts.
On some days he might be advising doctors on forming a large practice group, and on others he may work with a hospital that wants to acquire a new practice group or develop a cancer center. “There’s never a day that is the same as the day before,” Murer says.
“If someone wanted to build a facility in Chicago, I would help them get zoning, a license and help them develop their policies,” Murer says. “We’re always on the other side of government. Government is always against our clients.”
In November 2011, his firm was working on the sale of 10 senior housing facilities in three different states. In those transactions and plenty of others, Medicare and Medicaid drive much of the regulatory scheme. “They’re the 800-pound gorilla that dictates everything,” he says.
The two hot topics in the health-care legal practice today are the federal health-care reform act and the increasing demand on the system from baby boomers. “The baby boomers’ impact is huge on all of health care,” Murer says. “They’re very specific about how health care should be delivered. Everything is a consumer experience; they want it delivered their way. How do you build for a group when you’re not sure what they’ll want?”
That question, coupled with the new federal health-care reform act, which Murer says will add even more federal regulations, makes this an exciting and challenging time for health-care lawyers, Murer says.
Murer got his first taste of health-care law the summer after his first year of law school at the University of Illinois College of Law, where he received his JD in 1994. He worked for a legal-based health care consulting firm, Murer Consultants, Inc., owned and founded by his aunt and uncle in his hometown of Joliet, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
“I loved it,” he says. “I loved the regulations. I loved the clients. Intuitively, I understood the regulatory framework.”
Still, Murer was interested in international law and spent the summer after his second year in Warsaw for the Fulbright Scholar Program. After learning that there was not a huge market for American lawyers in Poland or Russia, he decided to pursue health-care law.
On job applications, he described with specificity the experience he had navigating health-care regulatory schemes, and got a job at the now shuttered firm of Holleb & Coff, practicing health-care law.
During his 17-year career, he has practiced at Duane Morris, LLP, with the majority of the health-care group from Holeb. He also practiced at Schiff Hardin, LLP, and Foley & Lardner, LLP.
When Murer was in law school, there were no health care law courses. Obviously, law students interested in health care should take health-law classes and administrative law and get any clinical experience they can.
There are plenty of jobs in the field, and Murer advises students to focus
on the concentration early, saying “there was a time when you could go
to a law firm and do a little bit of
everything, but firms don’t have that luxury anymore.”
When applying for jobs, it’s important for applicants to be very specific about the skills they have. “There are so many people competing for positions that your résumé has to speak to the person you’re writing to,” he says. “For somebody to say ‘I’m familiar with fraud issues,’ that’s nice, but everyone says that.”
Instead, name the specific code or regulation you’re familiar with, he says. If you’ve worked with corporate documents, highlight that, Murer advises.
“Anything you can imagine in the health-care industry, someone is doing it.”
What Would You Do as a Health-Care Lawyer?
Represent hospitals and doctors groups on issues that include regulatory compliance, life safety code issues, reimbursement, fraud and abuse, and contracts.
Advise doctors on forming a large practice group.
Work with hospitals to acquire new practice groups.
Help new facilities develop policies.
Tip: There are so many people competing for positions that your résumé has to speak to the person you’re writing to.
Health Law Section
(law student membership is $10)
(Section membership required)
What about Environmentalism?
James Brusslan was an environmentalist long before it was fashionable.
An avid hiker, skier, and cyclist since he was a young boy growing up in a suburb of Chicago, Brusslan set off to college with a life goal of preserving the environment. And when he enrolled in a course on political ideology at Tufts University, he was dismayed that environmentalism was absent from the curriculum. “We learned about liberalism, conservatism, consumerism, and I was like ‘what about environmentalism?’” Brusslan says. “To me it seemed so natural that we’re on this earth and we should, as a matter of course, do all we can to preserve it.” His professor says it was an interesting notion, but that environmentalism was not a political ideology.
That was in 1978.
Today, Brusslan has an environmental law practice at Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC, in Chicago, where he uses litigation as a tool to enforce state and federal environmental laws. His targets are mostly private companies and government agencies, he says. Brusslan also represents some of the law firm’s real estate clients on transactional matters related to the sale and purchase of property that may be contaminated.
In addition, Brusslan, who boasts that in 2008 he was the first attorney to become LEED accredited by the US Green Building Council, advises clients on creating energy efficient buildings. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Accreditation involves a course of study and passing a rigorous examination on green and sustainable business practices.
The Journey.After completing college, where he studied biology and psychology, Brusslan considered a career in science or politics, but ultimately settled on a career in law. “I think that I felt that, as a lawyer, I could be most effective in basically using whatever laws there were to help the environment,” Brusslan says.
He enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, where his sense of urgency was heightened. Air pollution was a hot topic in smoggy Los Angeles. At UCLA, he took the one and only environmental law course offered then and held an externship with the Sierra Club in Washington. Today, UCLA and many other law schools have multiple courses and, in some cases, environmental law clinics where students can learn the specifics of the practice area.
When he graduated in 1982, he sent his résumé to state attorney general’s offices throughout the country, but no one was hiring.
When he told family members, friends, and other attorneys he wanted to be an environmental lawyer, “people said ‘what is that? I never heard of that.’”
“There were maybe 200 environmental lawyers then,” Brusslan says. “Today there are several thousands.”
In need of work, Brusslan considered himself a sellout when he abandoned his goal of practicing in the public interest sector and went to work for Mayer Brown in Chicago, one of the largest firms in the city.
But it was there that he learned general litigation skills, the necessary foundation for any number of practice concentrations, he says. “I might be an environmentalist, but the first and foremost thing that anybody has to do if they want to be an environmental lawyer is to learn to litigate,” Brusslan says. “If you don’t have the general skills, you’re not going to be effective. I am much more of a lawyer than an environmentalist, as much as I hate to admit it.”
After a couple of years at Mayer Brown, Brusslan worked for a short time in the Chicago office of the US Environmental Protection Agency, but found it too bureaucratic and returned to Mayer Brown. He has also worked at a boutique firm and as a solo practitioner during his career.
Day-to-Day Practice. Environmental law is a broad practice area, encompassing issues related to air, water, and land. The focus of Brusslan’s career has been on getting companies and government entities to clean up pollution. For example, he represented residents of an unincorporated area of DuPage County, Illinois, in a well-water contamination case, getting damages from some of the 10 companies identified as polluters, and working with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to bring Lake Michigan water to the area. He represented a developer of single-family homes in an effort to clean up a contaminated stretch of the Chicago River. Brusslan has also been involved in cases involving the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), a 1986 law that requires companies to disclose their use, storage, and transfer of certain chemicals. One of his cases involved EPCRA’s right to sue provision and was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1996—The Steel Company v. Citizens for a Better Environment.
What Brusslan does is only one narrow piece of the environmental law concentration. Many lawyers in the practice area represent corporations in determining compliance issues, and defend those that get sued. Still others are involved in the corporate transaction side, advising buyers and sellers of potentially contaminated land. Brusslan does some of this work at his firm.
To law students and young practitioners, Brusslan offers the following advice: “First and foremost, be the very best lawyer that they can be, whether it means that for the first three years they’re working at a large law firm just learning how to write a brief, or a contract.” Even if your ultimate goal is to practice in the public interest sector, a stint working at a private firm or even at a place like a prosecuting attorney’s office handling criminal matters will offer excellent training, Brusslan says.
In addition, Brusslan advises students to keep abreast of environmental issues in the news, sign up as a student member of organizations like the US Green Building Council, and be on the lookout for internships with environmental organizations.
There are many more government jobs in environmental law than when Brusslan graduated and many large firms have environmental practice groups, he says.
When Brussland first join Levenfeld Pearlstein, in 2003, other lawyers at the firm “used to mock me as a tree hunger,” he says. “Then, by 2008, I was like a prophet. Suddenly people cared about the environment.”
“Now I’m back to being a tree hugger,” he says, adding that he suspects the economic downturn is to blame.
Still, the laws are on the books and need enforcing by experienced environmental litigators.
What Would You Do as an Environmental Lawyer?
Work with companies or government entities to clean up pollution.
Get involved in cases involving EPCRA, a law that requires companies to disclose their use, storage, and transfer of certain chemicals.
Represent corporations in compliance issues.
Advise buyers and sellers of potentially contaminated land.
Tip: The first and foremost thing that anybody has to do if they want to be an environmental lawyer is to learn
Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources
(law student membership is $5)
Learning the Bankruptcy Code on the Job
A month after Patricia A. Redmond passed the Florida bar exam in 1979, the current version of the US bankruptcy code went into effect, and Redmond knew she would be an excellent commercial bankruptcy lawyer.
“I was really good at commercial law and bankruptcy and I got good grades,” she says. “It was destined to be a growing field.”
It was less common then for new lawyers to seek out a concentration area immediately after school, but Redmond applied to the firm where she now works, Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff and Sitterson, P.A., in Miami and got a job in the bankruptcy department. She worked as a solo practitioner in the 1980s, but returned to the firm in 1992.
Redmond is currently the chair of the ABA’s Business Law Section Bankruptcy Committee.
She deals mostly in Chapter 11 reorganization cases, sometimes representing entities—corporate debtors seeking protection from creditors as they reorganize—and sometimes representing creditors. The practice combines both transactional work and litigation, and in most states, including Florida, the same attorney may handle both aspects, which makes the practice particularly interesting, she says.
“The practice was so well suited for my personality,” Redmond says. “There is a lot of negotiating involved and it’s a small bar with a high level of professionalism.”
The federal judges, their law clerks, and other attorneys on a case are typically very bright and very well-prepared, Redmond says.
The bankruptcy code is complicated, and most lawyers learn it on the job, although Redmond is now teaching a clinical course at the University of Miami Law School, which is where she received her JD.
There are two basic kinds of bankruptcy—liquidation and reorganization. Liquidation is primarily used by individuals seeking to be relieved from debt in exchange for submitting all of their non-exempt assets to the court and creditors. Chapter 7 for businesses simply means that the business and its assets will be liquidated, Redmond says.
The other type of bankruptcy is reorganization. Individuals reorganize under Chapter 13 and Chapter 11. However, business entities reorganize solely under Chapter 11. A Chapter 11 reorganization may involve a sale of all or potentially all of the assets of the company or it may involve an internal restructuring. “Basically, the strategy is how to fix an entity that is broken.” Redmond says.
In both liquidations and reorganizations, the representative of the bankruptcy estate will investigate, analyze, and bring where appropriate clawback claims. A clawback claim is a claim for avoidance of certain transfers that took place before the bankruptcy was filed. These types of claims have been raised in the bankruptcy case of jailed investor Bernard Madoff’s firm. They are commonly raised in cases when companies have engaged in illegal Ponzi schemes, Redmond says.
Litigation of clawback claims provides lots of opportunities for new and young lawyers to appear before the court in the early stages of their careers.
Such schemes are common in Florida, she adds.
Young lawyers who practice commercial bankruptcy will typically get into federal court within six months of beginning their career, which makes it an attractive choice to many law school graduates.
“A lot of young lawyers come into the field because of the litigation,” Redmond says. “In Chapter 11, a debtor or trustee can’t do anything that is out of ordinary course of business without court approval. So there are a lot of hearings that are very easy, which can send a lawyer to court early to get their feet wet.”
Redmond advises students to take as many corporate finance and bankruptcy courses as they can and to try to learn the federal statute.
Students attracted to the field are those who want to practice in federal court but want to do more than write motions and briefs. “Federal court practice is mostly a writing practice.”
In addition, “they wish to be in court before judges who are smart and will be prepared,” she says of a typical new bankruptcy lawyer. “There are very intellectually challenging commercial issues that get argued and decided by the court.”
In terms of temperament, Redmond says individuals most suited to the practice are those who like a fast pace and are good multitaskers and jacks of all trades.
“It’s exciting and you never do anything that appears on your diary that day,” she says. “We’re not really experts at anything, but the things we learn translate into other areas of the law . . . There are corporate issues, securities law issues; all kinds of things that are separate practice areas.”
The Two Basic Kinds of Bankruptcy
Liquidation, which is primarily used by individuals seeking to be relieved from debt.
Reorganization. Individuals reorganize under Chapter 13 or 11. Business entities reorganize solely under Chapter 11.
Tip: Individuals most suited to the practice are those who like a fast pace and are good multitaskers and jacks of all trades.
Business Law Section
(law student membership is free)
Business Law Section
Business Bankruptcy Committee