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How to find your legal specialism

updated on 25 March 2024

There are lots of different careers in the legal profession. On qualifying, many lawyers tend to specialise in one area of law, which could be anything from intellectual property to clinical negligence to family law. This Feature explores the process of choosing a practice area to specialise in and offers advice on the factors to consider.

Reading time: seven minutes

Law firms do many different things under one roof. The different types of legal services are known as ‘practice areas'. Some (eg, commercial) are relatively broad, while others are more specific (eg, aviation finance law).

Interested in becoming a barrister? Head to the Barristers' practice area profiles!

As you progress through your legal career, you’re likely to specialise in one area or even a subsection of an area of law.

Visit LawCareers.Net’s Solicitor’s hub for insights into the day-to-day work of solicitors at different firms.

The control an individual has over the specialisation process will vary. Some may carefully plot their destiny, but many end up an area of law as a result of circumstance alone.

How do you choose a practice area? Read LCN’s five tips in The Oracle.

The main factors are simple economics. For example, the departments within a law firm that have jobs available when you qualify and as time goes by, whether there’s an over or under supply of lawyers in any given field. Take financial services for example, an area that’s continuously adapting to the economic climate that surrounds it. For example, the recent spring budget and cost-of-living crisis are bound to have had an impact. Financial service lawyers deal with a mix of contentious and non-contentious work, from major M&A deals to debt finance.

Watch this Practice Area Profile on banking and finance to find out more about this practice area.

Starting point: trainee seats

Every career has its starting point and that starting point is influenced by what options are available when you qualify. A typical training contract consists of a series of 'seats' during which a trainee gains practical experience in various departments within a firm.

The idea is that the trainee ends up with a reasonably broad appreciation of the firm's business as a whole – and more importantly, establishes which of these practice areas feels most suitable and could be considered a fitting destination for a first proper job on qualification.

Your choice of practice area won’t be up to you alone. Instead, it’d help if you thought of it as picking from a range of options decided by the firm, which is aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, you must identify the employer that’ll allow you to sample the most appealing set of possible futures.

Find the right firm

There are quite a few types of law firm, so it can be helpful to consider who their clients are to identify the type of firm they are and the work they do. Firms range from small high-street practices serving a local community to international megaliths serving multinational corporations.

The space between these two extremes is filled by a continuum of many firms, gradually serving bigger and bigger clients (from individuals to small local businesses to large regional businesses, to national to international businesses).

Contingent on the types of client they’re set up to serve, firms will generally offer a variety of practice areas. Now it’s a question of thinking about what the different practice areas involve and then identifying which firms do them.

Practice area profiles

The Practice Area Profile section of the website features a host of case studies covering a huge range of legal practices. From these profiles, you should be able to piece together, area by area:

  • what sort of clients are served;
  • what the intellectual and practical challenges are;
  • where people and analytical skills come in; and
  • what sort of matters (ie, cases) you may be involved in.

At the end of each Practice Area Profile, there’s a list of firms that offer that given practice area, so you can quickly build up a picture of which practice areas are seen together within a single firm. From there you can identify a group of firms that boast practice areas that appeal to you and you can park them down for further research.

In terms of practice areas, your next piece of research is to investigate which practice areas are the main departments within a firm. The departments that are the biggest, make the most money and bestow the most prestige on a firm, are more likely to be the ones with jobs available at qualification and to offer a coherent career path.

Conversely, a department that’s effectively a couple of lawyers in a cupboard-sized office offering a few tangential, fringe services to the clients of other departments may not be the perfect route to advancement.

This information can be obtained by looking at a firm's website. What deals does it boast about? Which departments produce a lot of briefings? What are the headcounts?

You can also listen to our chats with these lawyers via the LawCareers.Net podcast.

But you can also ask a question about the balance of the firm's activities to the recruitment team, which will demonstrate that you’re considering the organisation in a sophisticated manner.

Check out our Meet the Recruiter profiles for an insight into what makes specific firms unique.

Work experience

Of course, the only way to work out for certain which department is right for you is by working there. We hear lots of stories about people's expectations being entirely confounded when they went to work in a certain practice area.

There are many examples of reluctant trainees trudging to the tax department only to discover the work was fascinating, while the individual who’s landed a stint doing media and entertainment law discovers that the champagne and party elements of the job they were looking forward to are mysteriously replaced by late nights of a different kind!

Getting this direct experience as early as possible is important. This is where you must start hustling. Clearly, vacation schemes are a core element but you can also get the experience from just watching (shadowing) and talking to lawyers about doing their jobs. So, don’t be shy to ask.

If you’re lucky enough to have personal contacts; use them – if you don’t have these connections, LinkedIn is your best friend and lets you connect with lawyers from law firms or chambers. Alternatively, you could always approach a law firm and ask to see what its lawyers do.

Not sure how to use LinkedIn to your advantage? Read this LCN Says for some advice!

If you’ve demonstrably done your homework and are impressive, this might work. And there are lots of organised times for interaction – open days, presentations and law fairs, for example – that can afford the opportunity for the well-briefed candidate to find out more about what it’s really like to be a certain type of lawyer.

Read LCN’s five tips for preparing for law firm open days, presentations and insight schemes in this Feature.

Hopefully, all this interaction will help you to discover the aforementioned 'fit', be it with a firm or a department. When choosing a firm, you must consider whether this seems the right environment for your skills and enthusiasms. Lawyers tend to spend a lot of time at their offices, so it’s important that you like your surroundings.

Which seat feels right?

This will be defined by several factors, particularly your aptitude for that type of work, which will most likely be linked with how much you enjoy it. There’ll be other factors at play as well – for example, did the individual fit into the team? Solicitors in firms often work as close-knit groups, so getting in isn’t that simple. What’s the dynamic, the chain of command? Is it a boisterous or a reserved environment?

There may also be aspirational considerations – is it a growing practice area? Does it have high status? Is it remunerative? This last may, in turn, hinge on how the firm pays its lawyers – the UK tradition was salary bands based on time served, while the US model often tends towards 'eat what you kill'.

In the end, it comes down to whether you can find yourself in the right environment with the right personalities to realise your goals. There are things you can’t control, but to maximise your chances you must do a lot of research and analysis, be determined, flexible and maybe, with a little luck, you’ll find that elusive fit.

Ellie Nicholl (she/her) is the content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.