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How to find your legal specialism

updated on 29 March 2022

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

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 a career, you’re likely to specialise in one area or even a subsection of one area. The past 20 years have seen lawyers pushed into specialisation far earlier in their careers, and solicitors with what could be described as a 'rounded' practice have become increasingly rare.

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

How much control an individual has over the specialisation process will vary. Some may carefully plot their destiny, but many end up in a certain area through circumstance.

The main factors are simple economics: what departments 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. The pandemic impacted various practice areas differently. Take family law for example, an area that has thrived off covid-19 lockdowns due to the restrictions of travel and being outside. Being at home also undoubtedly increased family tensions, which created more work for family lawyers.

Read this solicitor practice area profile for a deeper insight into family law.

Starting point: trainee seats

While this is getting ahead of ourselves, every career has a 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 feel like a 'fit' and could be considered a suitable destination for a first proper job on qualification.

Your choice of practice area will not be up to you alone. Instead, it would help if you thought of it as picking from a range of options decided by the firm, who are aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, you must identify the employer that will 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 are 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.

Every year, we publish The LawCareers.Net Handbook and conduct in-depth research on the various practice areas. You can read The LawCareers.Net Handbook online or you may prefer to flick through profiles of lawyers in different specialisms in a physical copy of The Handbook.

Order a physical copy of The Handbook now.

Practice area profiles

The practice area profile (PAP) section of The Handbook 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 PAP section, there’s a list of firms offering 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 likely to be the ones with jobs available at qualification and offer a coherent career path.

Conversely a department that is 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 from looking at a firm's website. What deals do they boast about? Which departments produce a lot of briefings? What are the headcounts?

But you can also ask a question about the balance of the firm's activities to the recruitment team, which will demonstrate that you are 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. There are many 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 smug individual who has 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 that firm or barrister’s chambers. Alternatively, you could always approach a firm and ask to see what their lawyers do.

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

If you have 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 is really like to be a certain type of lawyer.

Read this LCN Feature on ‘Law firm open days and insight schemes 2022’.

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 will 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 is not that simple. What is 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 toward '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 cannot control, but to maximise your chances you must do a lot of research and analysis, be determined and flexible and maybe, with a little luck thrown in, you can find that elusive fit.

Christianah Babajide (she/her) is the content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.