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The Oracle

Choosing a legal practice area: five tips

updated on 07 May 2024

Dear Oracle

I’m finding it difficult to identify which practice area I’d enjoy most – do you have any tips on choosing a practice area before qualifying as a solicitor?

The Oracle replies

Reading time: nine minutes

As an aspiring lawyer, choosing a practice area is akin to standing in a sweet shop as a child and being told you can pick only one sweet. It’s an impossible choice, particularly if you’ve never tried any of them (practice areas and sweets included). As with most of life’s decisions, it’s important to make sure you’re informed. With that in mind, we’ve put together five tips based on conversations we’ve had with solicitors working in the profession to ease your worries and ensure you’re not rushing into making such a big decision.

1. Keep an open mind

It’s the advice we hear time and time again from lawyers (solicitors and barristers) and recruiters. “[B]e open-minded”, Ayman Shehata, a lawyer from Charles Russell Speechlys LLP says. You can’t truly understand what life in a particular area of law will be like until you’ve actually tried it. Ayman adds: “I know a lot of people who studied law at university before joining a law firm with a set idea of what practice area they wanted to qualify into, but then change their mind during their training contract.” In fact, Lola Adekoya, a banking and finance associate at Mayer Brown International LLP, found just that. Lola explains that despite an initial interest in contentious law, she “ended up qualifying as a non-contentious transaction lawyer”.

Going into a vacation scheme or training contract with a preconceived notion of the area you want to qualify into might subconsciously limit the opportunities you’re exposed to once there. It’s also unlikely you’ll give each area you experience a chance if you’ve fallen hook, line and sinker for another area of law, and don’t have eyes for anything else.

Of course, it’s fine to have a preference but don’t let this blur the lines when you’re making a decision and saying yes to opportunities. Offering her advice for the next generation of solicitors, Mills & Reeve LLP associate Kate Warren says that “[m]ore often than not, the area of law you enjoy studying may not be what you like in practice and vice versa”, so keeping an open mind is vital. 

You should carry this advice with you as you embark on vacation schemestraining contracts or voluntary work.

2. Get involved in work experience

Being open minded will also play a crucial role in this next piece of advice: get involved in work experience. We know that getting experience in the legal profession isn’t easy and while vacation schemes and training contracts are fantastic ways to get your foot in the door, not everyone who applies secures a place.

That said, there are various alternative ways to gain an understanding of practice areas – for example, consider applying for and attending law firm open days, insight schemes and presentations. University law fairs in the autumn term are also a fantastic way to gain additional insights about a range of employers. If you’re serious about a career in the legal profession, come prepared with questions so you can get the most out of any interactions you have with the law firm representatives attending these events. In this instance, if you’re curious about a particular practice area, find out which firms work in this area and target those at your next law fair.

Obviously, you’ll only get so much information from those conversations. It’s clear that the real winner when identifying a practice area you’re interested in is actually experiencing it in real life.

If you’re lucky enough to secure a vacation scheme or training contract, make the most of it. They’re fantastic opportunities, particularly for someone who’s not yet set foot in an office environment. Laura Bridgewater, a senior associate from Macfarlanes LLP, spoke to us about her experience attending such schemes: “[They were] an important introduction to what the job really involves and a great way to find out if it was something that I’d enjoy and could see myself doing in the long term.”

Speaking from experience, Amber Jenner – a personal injury lawyer at Kennedys – explains how when it came to qualification, “it was an obvious choice” thanks to the experience she’d had on the firm’s training contract.

Meanwhile, TLT LLP partner Kay Hobbs urges aspiring lawyers to use the seat rotation that a training contract offers to not only try to figure out where you want to qualify, “but also where you don’t want to qualify”.

Keeping an open mind and getting involved in work experience ultimately go in hand in hand and will help you to make a more informed and honest decision.

3. Identify your strengths and interests

While the idea of intellectual property (IP) law might seem incredibly appealing, does your skill set match the enthusiasm you have for this area of law? Identifying where your strengths lie can be an activity you undertake at various points throughout your journey into the legal profession. There are, of course, many transferable skills that are applicable to the law in general – we talk about them enough on LawCareers.Net – but each practice area will require a more nuanced set of skills.

Speak to law firm representatives at law fairs and firm open days to find out what skills you need to succeed in the area of law they practise in. For example, thinking specifically about life sciences, Bristows LLP solicitor Charlie French cites “intellectual curiosity and being up for a challenge” as the top skills for success in this area of law, on top of forward planning and time management.

But how do you know what you’re good at? Taking some time to evaluate your experience on a scheme, during a volunteering placement or perhaps on a module at university can be good places to start. What did you perform particularly well at? Where did you not do so well? Which skills did you enjoy honing? It’s ok if you don’t possess all the skills recommended for a practice area because teamwork is a key component of working as a solicitor. Jack Salter of K&L Gates LLP confirms this in his Meet the Lawyer interview: “Some of my colleagues are highly analytical, can delve into the most complex of issues and come up with a solution. Others are exceptional at pleading cases, negotiating, and persuading.” Jack adds: “Take the time to figure out what kind of lawyer you are because each type is important.”

Knowing your strengths, weaknesses and interests is critical to both your decision making and success in the job.

While each area of law requires many of the same skills – commercial awareness, good organisation and excellent communication, to name a few – there are more individual factors to consider. For example, an interest in the nuances of what’s happening with the Unified Patent Court might point towards a career as an IP lawyer, or excellent negotiation skills would be useful in a firm’s energy, infrastructure and resources team.

4. Identify the differences between practice areas

This leads nicely onto the next piece of advice inspired by our conversation with Charlie from Bristows who urges candidates to “look beyond the glossy brochures and get a sense of different firms and areas of law”. She adds: “I think even different departments within the same law firm can be quite different based on the type of work they do, so try to understand as much as you can and get a sense of what you want to do, what you enjoy and what interests you.”

Once you’ve identified your strengths and interests, it’s time to think about the differences between the various practice areas to figure out where you might thrive. Again, this’ll likely involve lots of conversations so make sure you’re being proactive whenever you have the chance to interact with firms. Adam Phillips, a banking and finance associate from Farrer & Co LLP, is of the mindset that “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”. So, conduct research and talk to people – and, who knows, you might find that you “stumble across an area or person that inspires you and that you’d not otherwise have encountered”.

You should also read LawCareers.Net’s Practice Area Profiles to get a glimpse into the world of practising lawyers, solicitors and barristers, working in specific areas of the law, including IPreal estateemployment law and sports.

For example, dispute resolution naturally involves “working off the back of a tight court-mandated structure”, RPC’s Harvey Briggs says. Whereas Tarun Tawakley, a partner on the employment team at Lewis Silkin, outlines the mix of contentious and non-contentious work on offer for an employment lawyer.

While, like Harvey, you could find yourself working around court deadlines on the contentious side, the non-contentious side of employment law might involve “advising on a broad range of employment aspects of transactions, initial public offerings or even commercial deals where employees are likely to transfer from one business to another” – a very different day to that of one being dictated by the court.

Meanwhile, Yetunde Dania of Trowers & Hamlins LLP enjoys the interesting and wide-ranging work she experiences as partner and head of the firm’s Birmingham office. These profiles are a fantastic starting point for making distinctions between the various areas and you can ask yourself whether you see yourself following in these lawyers’ footsteps.

5. Take your time to decide

Our closing advice comes from Amber (a personal injury lawyer at Kennedys), who's keen to emphasise that time is on your side. There’s no need to rush into a decision, particularly if you’re in the early stages of your career (eg, first year of university or doing a non-law degree). There’s a whole load of information to digest before making any decisions, and a lot of conversations to be had. Amber isn’t sure she’d be where she is today without the experiences she’d had – “I wouldn’t have found my passion for working in specialised insurance litigation,” she explains.

Choosing a practice area you’ll likely spend the rest of your career working in isn’t a decision to be made overnight, but rather one that you should make after speaking to people in the industry, understanding your strengths and interests, identifying the pros and cons that come with each practice, and keeping an open mind throughout the whole process.

Turns out, it’s not quite as simple as choosing between Skittles and Haribo after all!

Read LawCareers.Net’s Practice Area Profiles of solicitors and barristers for insights into the different practice areas you could end up qualifying into.