Choosing Your Litigation Practice Area for 3Ls

Mary Craig Calkins - March 29, 2017

Choosing Your Litigation Practice Area for 3Ls

By your third year as a law student and with some degree of luck and hard work, you should have finished a second-year clerkship or internship, or finished a stint as a summer associate. Other 3Ls have likely shared a variety of working experiences, and you will embark on the interview and job selection process with some foundation for selecting your first position as a lawyer. The following five tips will help your selection.

  1. Consider a specialty area.
    Over the past several decades, we have transitioned to a legal environment where many clients expect attorneys to specialize in a particular area of the law. Fundamentally, clients do not want to pay to educate attorneys in a field of practice. Consider whether your selected practice area will allow you to “know a lot about a little,” rather than “knowing a little about a lot.” Use available resources to learn as much as possible about the areas in which you hope to practice as well as about the firm or firms you hope to join. For example, law firms in which you are interested will have pages devoted to specific practice areas, which describe the kinds of matters you may encounter if you specialize in that niche area.

    In addition, research the types of cases that might arise in a particular specialty area, and whether that area will allow you to become an expert in it. There is a wide variety of litigation practice areas, including antitrust litigation, civil rights matters, products liability, mass torts, securities class actions, consumer litigation, environmental and energy matters, privacy and data security, intellectual property, and a host of other specialties. Visit the Section of Litigation’s website at http://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees.html for a great cross-section of practice areas in the field of litigation, and the substantive and social issues that face good litigators. 

  2. Think ahead to the future.
    In a recent meeting, one speaker reminded us that “the cheese is always moving.” Think ahead to where you want to be in five years and again in ten years. Is the practice area in which you are interested one that will be increasingly viable as you mature into a partner at this—or another—firm? Will the practice area still be viable at all? And will the practice area be commoditized, which could limit your opportunities to practice in areas of interest today? For example, past years have seen the rise of cybersecurity and technology issues, financial technology issues, and increasingly complex intellectual property ideas and protections. Will those practice areas afford a steady stream of business as you mature into a seasoned practitioner? Practicing attorneys can afford great insight, answering why they entered a specific area of the law. Similarly, business professionals who deal with attorneys can advise on how they use attorneys, and sometimes more importantly, what they look for to select a company’s counsel.
  3. Look for practice areas with highly functional teams.
    As you learn about your preferred practice area, you likely will be dealing with firm leaders, partners, other attorneys, and staff who will approach cases as a team. Look at the teams and partners who can help advance your knowledge, but also consider whether those teams and mentors can advance your standing in a firm and in the practice area itself. For example, one partner might be involved in speaking, writing, and bar activities where you can work on developing your professional persona, brand, or name recognition in your area of expertise. Other attorneys at a firm may not be as engaged in activities that will expose you to your field of interest or might provide only limited access to clients, which could be less beneficial to your long-term development.

    To the extent that you have the option, ask to work with a partner who values his or her team and affords opportunities for advancement. And, if you hit a “dead end” after learning all you can from your team, be open to taking on assignments with other teams that can advance your skill, background, expertise, and opportunities. There is a saying among litigators that is equally applicable to a job and specialty search: “You don’t ask, you don’t get.” So ask for the opportunities, assignments, and teams if an opportunity presents itself. If you do not have the opportunity at the beginning of a job, make sure you revisit opinions at the appropriate times. A positive approach to take on new matters is typically something that can distinguish young associates from their contemporaries.

  4. Practice in an area that you enjoy.
    Most 3Ls will remain in the practice of law for many years, or use their litigation backgrounds as a springboard for positions as in-house counsel or company management. No matter what you select, you likely will be engaged in that practice area and develop an expertise over many years. Select a practice area that is challenging and one that will keep your interest as you mature in your career. For example, my practice area—insurance recovery representing policyholders in large, big-ticket cases—is always different. There are fundamental concepts that apply to each problem, such as the separate duties to defend, indemnify, and investigate, but the underlying facts are always changing and complex. It is like playing three-dimensional chess on Star Trek, where the insurance coverage concepts are superimposed over fact patterns, and moves by defense counsel (often not in your control) can change to coverage landscape and recovery. Pick an area where these kinds of challenges and puzzles will make for an interesting career. 

  5. Your practice area sometimes chooses you.
    Finally, in today’s market, not all 3Ls will be able to select the specific practices areas that might be open. Sometimes, you just need a job. The assignments you receive might well define your career path and provide the basis for a practice specialty. My first policyholder insurance recovery case resulted from a random litigation assignment where a party was seeking insurance coverage for a software piracy matter. After my first—and very successful—jury trial, I continued to seek out cases where I could expand my expertise. That decision has held me in good stead for over 30 years.