Follow Your Heart

Dennis P. Rawlinson - March 29, 2017

Follow Your Heart and Mind in Choosing Your Litigation Practice Area

  1. Don't allow your first impressions to mislead you.
    Many of us end up specializing in a practice area as a result of happenstance rather than free will or a calculated decision.

    Some end up choosing a practice area because a well-liked law professor taught them in this practice area. It is generally the case, however, that one or two law professors are the most popular. But that may not mean that the litigation practice areas they teach are the ones that will bring each of us longtime career satisfaction. A law professor's popularity does not guarantee a good career fit.

    Others choose their practice area by first attempting to get hired by the best law firm or a law firm in the most attractive location and then (and only then) developing their litigation practice area accordingly—namely, doing work in a particular practice area because that is the only work available at the law firm.

    Others still select a practice area based on what seems attractive, "sexy," or "romantic" based on the media world. They may be inspired by a television show, such as Law and Order, and therefore serve as a public prosecutor or defense lawyer because it appears to be exciting in their early career. A decade or two later, when they continue to handle the same cases as a district attorney or assistant U.S. attorney as they did as a young lawyer, with little chance of advancement, the attractiveness of the job may have disappeared. Similarly, those who defend criminals may enjoy it early in their career, but after 15 or 20 years representing clients who are usually guilty, the criminal litigation practice area may become less satisfying.

  2. Choose your practice area by following both your heart and your mind.
    It is important that your career path, and your choice of a litigation practice area, be motivated by both your heart and your mind.

    The most successful among us over the course of a career have passion about what we do. Ultimately, we should choose our litigation practice area by a commitment to and a passion for that area. It should be an area of litigation practice that inspires us to work late, get up early, and work harder than others to achieve our desired goals.

    It is not unusual for a lawyer who has selected a litigation practice area based not on heart and mind, but on a law professor, on what practice area seemed attractive, or simply on the assigned work, to simply realize after 14 or 15 years that the lawyer is in the wrong litigation practice area or in the wrong practice area altogether.

    But heart and passion are not enough. We must also choose our practice area by following our mind. By this I simply mean selecting an area of litigation practice for which we have passion, but that we also have a logical reason for pursuing.

    Choosing a practice area with your mind simply matches your passion with your experience and aptitude. One might choose patent law as a litigation practice area based on one's education and experience in engineering. Lawyers with engineering backgrounds and an interest in inventions, mechanical operations, and technology seem to more easily excel at patent law. Other lawyers have experience in or emotional attachment to family law and children's issues. These passions logically connect with and lead them to domestic relations law.

  3.  Make every effort to be exposed to different litigation practice areas to assist you in your ultimate choice.

    If you have the good fortune to land a summer judicial clerkship or a part-time law firm clerkship, use it to practice in different litigation areas so that you can compare and contrast them based on your emotional and intellectual reaction to working in those practice areas. If you think you may be interested in a particular practice area, such as criminal law, patent law, domestic relations law, personal injury law, or labor and employment law, take every opportunity to visit your local courthouse or the local federal court to witness outstanding trial lawyers who practice in those areas. This may be a reason that you decide to serve a judicial clerkship—namely, simply for the opportunity to see outstanding lawyers in varied litigation practice areas try cases and conduct themselves in hearings so that you can develop a sense of which areas will be both emotionally and intellectually satisfying to you over a three- to five-decade career. If you are aware of lawyers who practice in litigation practice areas in which you believe you are interested, don't hesitate to contact them to set up a meeting. Lawyers are always flattered by younger lawyers' being interested in their practice areas. Discussing with more experienced lawyers their daily work, what attracted them to that litigation practice area, and how they selected that particular practice area can be highly helpful and insightful in choosing an alternative practice area.

There's no question that the best way to choose your litigation practice area is to follow your heart and your mind. Doing so, however, requires commitment, discipline, and hard work. Each day, simply ask yourself: "How do I choose the litigation practice area that will be most satisfying for me? How do I best satisfy my heart and mind in choosing and committing to a litigation practice area?" You may find that how your heart and mind ultimately answer such repeated questions is remarkable.