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Choosing the Right Practice Area for You: By Tricia McGrath, Esq.

So it’s that time of year - summer associates are arriving at law firms all over the country eager to experience the life of a young attorney.  These lawyers-to-be will be assigned to practices and try to learn all there is to know about their chosen firm through summer events, lunches and assignments.  The most savvy summer associates will use this opportunity to investigate all of the firm’s practices and have a clear understanding of their future path when it comes time to choose their permanent practice area.

As a recruiter, attorneys reach out to me each day in contemplation of a move.  Sometimes they want to make a move that proves to be very challenging given their existing practice area.  Some of these attorneys could have made it easier on themselves had they thought a little more strategically about their practice area selection as a summer and/or junior associate.

To choose a practice area, you ultimately need to imagine the life you want in the future.  To the crystal ball!  There is no way of knowing for sure what life holds and contemplating it at 24 years old might seem daunting – so best to take an honest look at where you would like to be in five and then ten years. As with law firms, there are rewarding aspects to each practice area and each offers its own culture and personality.  Just try to match yourself with the best one for you!

Personality and Work Style – Know Yourself

Like people?  Think that business development and networking are enjoyable?  Certain practices are the home of outgoing, type A personalities.  Mergers & acquisitions is the most obvious example.  Are you more introspective and academic?  You might prefer a tax, antitrust or intellectual property practice.  Like working with individual (non-corporate) clients?  Trusts and estates or family law might be worth considering.  Like to work on large teams?  Deal work or large litigation matters could be a match.  Like staying on the cutting edge of technology?  Intellectual property is a good option. 

While you are summering, endeavor to meet attorneys from different practices at your firm functions.  Ask them to discuss their practices and then consider their personalities.  Do you see yourself enjoying their practice?  Do you share similar personality traits?  Even if you are already a junior associate at a firm, you should get to know as many people as you can at the firm outside your practice.  It is certainly easier to make a practice switch as a 2nd year than as a 5thyear.  Attorneys enjoy discussing their work.  Ask questions, get answers, and contemplate your own personality.

Routine Structure v. Unpredictability – What Will Work for You and Your Family?

 Certain practices are conducive to a routine structure.  As service providers, attorneys generally have to make themselves available to their clients, regardless of the hour, so the word “routine” is a bit of a stretch.  However, some practices operate a bit more “on schedule” than others.  Attorneys in securities practices have often noted that, for securities offerings, they have a calendar of obligations in advance and are able to plan ahead.  If you are an M&A attorney, and a deal comes in on a Friday evening or the day before Christmas, you are working the weekend or through the holiday.  That’s just the reality of the practice.  Certain litigation practices have a bit more predictability though “bet the company litigation” – where the life of the company is on the line - is generally an all-encompassing endeavor.

 It is particularly important for women who think that they might want to go part-time at some point during their career to select a practice where part-time is a possibility.  Many firms will consider part-time schedules for strong performers, but it has to fit within the business concerns of the firm.  Part-time options vary from firm-to-firm, but corporate deal-based practices are generally off limits for part-time given the time demands of the practices.  A deal marches on, even though you are off on Fridays.

Future Geographic Considerations – Where Do You Want to Live?

Many attorneys start their careers in BigLaw in New York City or Washington, D.C., but intend to move on after a few years.  If you know that you would like to settle in a specific region or city in the future, that is very instructive for a practice area decision.  Certain practices are rooted to one geographic region and it is therefore difficult to move from one region to another in the practice area.  For example, most tax-exempt practices are - not surprisingly – located in Washington, D.C.  If you are an associate focusing on tax-exempt matters in D.C., that’s super!  But if you ultimately want to move to Denver or Atlanta, such a practice will not be widely desired there.  You would be better off as a general (corporate) tax associate.  Similarly, if you are a New York investment management associate focusing on hedge funds, your movement could be limited if you wanted to move to Dallas or Cleveland.  If you would like to practice internationally, corporate tends to be much more marketable than litigation.  Note the practice areas at your firm and where the attorneys in the practice reside.  If you know that you want to be in San Diego in five years, find out which practices are hot there and choose accordingly. 

In some practices, you will have a different quality or type of work from one region to another.  A litigator in New York City might not take a deposition until their 4th year, while a litigator at the same level in a Portland firm might already be second chairing a case.  If you know that you would like to be in a smaller legal market, investigate what the area’s associates do and try to replicate that experience as best you can (through pro bono, CLE, etc.) so that you will have the opportunity to move there when you are ready.

Partnership – Do You Want It?

 It is no secret that it is difficult to make partner in BigLaw.  It is a long road and it is not for everyone.  If partnership in a BigLaw firm is something you desire, you should pick a practice where partners are routinely made.  It is “easier” to make partner in a corporate practice where you have clients and are able to put together a book of business, than in a service practice like tax.  Additionally, it can be challenging to make partner in a cyclical practice – because you really need the economy to be in your favor.  You could be the very best bankruptcy associate that there ever was – but you need the bankruptcy market to be “hot” when you are nearing a partner determination and that is impossible to predict.

Law Firm v. In-House – What’s Your Long-Term Pleasure?

 Some practices lend themselves to going in-house and some do not.  There are different career trajectories for each practice.  Corporate associates generally have the option of partner in BigLaw or mid-size law, or an in-house position at a corporation.  Litigation associates generally have the option of partner in BigLaw, partner in a smaller firm or solo shop.  In-house positions for litigators are not as common.  Many litigators choose that practice not realizing that in-house litigation positions are rare and are disappointed in their 6-8th years when they realize that fact.  Spend some time on LinkedIn and note the career paths of graduates of your law school who began their career in BigLaw, and those of former associates at your law firm.  That information can be incredibly helpful for you as you make your practice area selection and craft your career path.  

 The choice of a practice area is an individual analysis of your strengths, your desires and your long-term goals.  It could be the most important professional decision you will make and it will undoubtedly affect your future career.  Spend some time thinking strategically about the pros and cons of each practice and chose wisely!

Tricia McGrath is a Director in the New York and Washington, DC offices of Lateral Link Group, LLC and can be reached at tmcgrath@laterallink.com.

Lateral Link Group LLC is a legal recruiting attorney placement firm and networking forum founded in December 2005 and is the Exclusive Legal Search Firm Sponsor for Ms. JD. The company provides free career services to "Members" in the form of an online job database as well as traditional off-line recruiting and networking services. Lateral Link works with both law firms and in-house legal employers in the United States, Asia, Western Europe, and Middle East

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