Considerations for Deciding on a Legal Career
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.
Otherwise, be open to learning about an area of law or practice 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.
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 compelled you to go straight to law school immediately, 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 is 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 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.
- What do you enjoy doing? When do you feel like you achieve “flow” in your work? This happens when you are doing things you like and 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 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 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 that doesn’t involve at least some collaboration. Still, 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 they’re very comfortable working primarily in an adversarial process. In contrast, 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 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 regarding 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 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 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.
How to Gather More Information on Your Chosen Practice Area
Once you’ve spent some time thinking about what you want out of your law practice, what are some things you can do to gather more information about the practice areas that would be a good fit for you?
Take Classes Related to Practice Areas if Interest
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 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 legal work for various legal employers, including government agencies and non-profit organizations.
Speak with Lawyers about Their Work
It can be unsafe to reach out to someone you don’t know, but many lawyers welcome the chance to speak with law students about their practice.
If you’re not sure where to start, consider reaching out to alums from your law school. We’ve found that alums 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 alums expecting they’ll also help you find a job, your connections with alums (or other lawyers) may help you in future job searches. If you need help connecting with alums, your law school’s career services office and your professors can often help connect you with alums 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 possible 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 there? 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 you recommend to someone interested in pursuing this work?
Talk to 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, who have relevant experience.
Serve as a Research Assistant
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.)
Get a Job Working in Your Chosen Practice Area
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 framework will help you 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.