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Taking Risks to Break into Your Niche Practice Area

John Bergstresser

Taking Risks to Break into Your Niche Practice Area
dzika_mrowka via iStock

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I always enjoy watching people’s reactions when I talk about my interests and aspirations regarding space law. “Oh, you mean, like, office spaces?” Or my personal favorite, “Like . . . too much space? Open space?” When in reality, I have a fascination for outer space law. Specifically, I focus on military and national security applications of space. Think less Star Trek and more Star Wars.

There’s no shortage of niche areas that young attorneys can break into. But finding the right niche, and getting there, can take time and involves taking risks.

I did not grow up with a burning passion for space. I didn’t look up at the stars through a telescope every night. I couldn’t tell you the names of famous astronauts or the schematics and technical details of various spacecraft. Some believe that to break into a niche area, you need to be a subject matter expert. I’m telling you, it helps, but the idea that you need to be a subject matter expert is simply not true.

Balancing Confidence and Expectations

I knew space law would require knowledge of international law, treaty interpretation, international contract drafting, secured transactions, and administrative law. While these courses would overlap with my interest in space law, I also chose them because they would still offer me a backup should I ever be unable to break into this practice area. A backup plan that allows you to gain experience in the broader market will ultimately bring you closer to your goal of practicing in your niche area by ensuring you are well-rounded with your knowledge. You should always go into new endeavors believing in yourself, but like all good things that are worthwhile in the end, you need to be realistic when considering your goals right out of law school. Allow yourself time to get to where you eventually see yourself. Just because it may not happen immediately doesn’t mean it never will. Especially with niche areas of law, you may have to create your opportunities.

Seize New Adventures!

I didn’t decide overnight that this was what I would do; I went into law school wanting to do something in education law. When I learned of space law, I was drawn to the history and cultural context behind its creation. The more I learned, the more I became interested, and I wanted to learn more. So, it was then that my career office told me about a grant opportunity to fly to Washington, DC, and attend a space law conference hosted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). I met with other law students who shared a similar interest, networked with other legal professionals, and learned about pressing legal issues in this practice area.

Experience Comes in a Variety of Forms

While the traditional route in law school is to gain experience during summer internships or summer associate positions, I gained experience in the space law and policy sector through a fall internship with the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Through this internship, I saw how law and policy intersect, in addition to being able to work on congressional hearings, committee prints, and even tour a NASA facility. This internship deepened my appreciation for the policy side and provided skills I later utilized in my LLM studies. It doesn’t matter how or when you get the experience. Look for internships, externships, and other opportunities to gain experience in that niche.

Stay Informed and Keep Up

Keep trying to break into your niche, even after you’ve graduated and passed the bar. If finding employment in that area doesn’t work out, try looking into an LLM program specifically geared toward your desired niche area and keep yourself up to date on the newest legal issues.

After graduating during the pandemic, I was unfortunate in that I could not secure a position at any firm, despite passing the bar. Nonetheless, I continued to apply for positions and interview. I also kept myself up to date on legal issues in space and attended a virtual space command conference.

Subscribe to Publications

I stayed current on issues in space law through contacts on LinkedIn, following people who were in the know on the ever-changing space legal environment. I also joined the Air and Space Law Forum of the ABA. However, I just read articles from various news sources:, and, to name a few. In addition to news sources, I explored some podcasts, but there weren’t too many. Additionally, I set up subscriptions on the Federal Register to keep tabs on advisory meetings from the Department of Commerce and NASA. These advisory meetings are more policy-driven than law-driven, but they give an inside look at the agency’s direction and current projects. I would recommend exploring all of these to those interested in this niche area of law.

Attend Conferences

Virtual conferences were another way to get involved in the industry. I attended an international aeronautical conference and the UNL Space Law conference during my internship. Afterward, I attended them virtually and added the US Space Command Legal Conference to that list. While UNL’s conference focuses on both commercial and national security issues in space, the Space Command Conference focuses almost entirely on national security and warfighting issues.

I keep myself apprised of current events and build my knowledge on issues that matter most to the people in charge. I continue to learn about the different legal regimes nations are trying to develop. For example, it was recently announced that the United States would propose a United Nations resolution to ban the testing of kinetic anti-satellite weapons. Staying up to date allows me to have informed discussions with others in the industry and deepen my connection with those contacts.

Don’t Give Up—Persevere!

After multiple unsuccessful job interviews, I took a different approach and researched federal job positions. Many required post-bar work experience, but I found a few willing to substitute the experience if applicants had an LLM, recently graduated, or participated in substantial activities (such as law review, moot court, etc.). This prompted me to look at exploring an LLM degree in Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications from the same university that hosted the space law conference in DC. Relying on my law school experiences and internships, I was the only civilian out of four other classmates to attend their program in person. The LLM allowed me to write a thesis-type paper on military applications in space warfare, attend a space command conference and space law conference, and network with members of the military.

While an LLM is not for everyone (and if it’s not for you, that’s okay!), in my situation, it worked out and allowed me to hone in on my niche area and understand the nuances of space law that I would not have gotten elsewhere.

It’s Never Too Late to Try Something New

Don’t give up on your dreams of breaking into the niche area you want to practice. Don’t be afraid to take jobs tangentially related to your niche area to gain that foot in the door. Don’t be afraid to take the risk.

The LLM gave me a second opportunity to apply for federal careers that will hopefully continue to be a stepping stone toward my goal of breaking into my niche area. Currently, I work for an Air Force component, not space command, and I anticipate being able to move to the component that allows me to practice in my desired niche practice area. Prior to taking this position, I turned down four other federal agencies and a defense contractor.

Breaking into your niche practice area is going to require risks. I can’t tell you how often I felt that gut-wrenching feeling of turning down a six-figure salary with the federal government in DC, all because I thought my dream job of working in Cape Canaveral would happen. Or turning down an offer near my hometown because another agency wanted me but couldn’t extend a firm offer . . . yet.

It was a risk not to have summer jobs. It was risky to miss a week of class to attend a space law conference. It was a risk to pursue an LLM instead of continuing to search for a job. However, I was able to justify it all because I truly believed that the steps I took were steps that would get me closer to the job I ultimately wanted. Don’t be afraid to take the risks that get you closer to the job you want, and don’t be afraid to stay interested in that niche area of law!