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The Oracle

Choosing a legal practice area: five tips

updated on 28 March 2023

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 prior to landing a job at a law firm?

The Oracle replies

Reading time: nine minutes

Choosing a practice area is akin to standing in a sweet shop as a kid and being told you can pick only one sweet. It’s an impossible choice, particularly if you’ve never been able to try any of them (practice areas and sweets included). As with most of life’s decisions, it’s important that 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. “Keep an open mind”, a lawyer from Ashfords says, because you can’t truly understand what life in a particular area of law will be like until you’ve actually tried it.

Going into a vacation scheme or training contract, for example, 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. Hannah Cockle from Sullivan & Cromwell LLP echoes this: “Even if you think you know what type of work you’re going to enjoy, you may be surprised.”

You should carry this advice with you as you embark on vacation schemes, training 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 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, you should 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 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 and, in the words of family lawyer Jamie Kennaugh from Charles Russell Speechlys LLP, “get as involved as possible”.

Speaking from experience, Sophie Sheldon – a digital business lawyer at Simmons and Simmons LLP – says that heading into her training contract, she was convinced she’d qualify as a hedge fund lawyer or a competition lawyer. These were the areas she found most interesting and she was confident she knew what these practice areas entailed. Looking back, though, she realises she actually “had no idea”. She explains: “The great benefit of the four different seats [on a training contract] was that I saw other things and quickly moved away from my initial plan. Your idea of a practice area can change really quickly.”

TLT LLP partner Kay Hobbs reiterates Sophie’s point and 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 also require a more nuanced set of skills.

Speak to law firm representatives at law fairs and firm open days and find out what skills they think you need to succeed in the area of law they practise in. For example, thinking specifically about banking and finance, Milbank LLP partner Sarbajeet Nag lists “good transactional management skills, as well as the ability to distil the merging of technical legal aspects and commercial aspects – and explain these to clients” as skills required for his practice area. Whereas, Nimmisha Aslam of Russell-Cooke cites empathy as a “crucial skill for personal injury lawyers”.

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. In fact, 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 really critical to both your decision making and success in the job. A training contract is a “brilliant place to find out what your strengths and interests are, so that you can make an informed decision when it comes to qualifying”, family lawyer Jamie says.

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, like an interest in the nuances of what’s happening with the Unified Patent Court that might point towards a career as an IP lawyer; or excellent negotiation skills, for example, that are useful in the energy, infrastructure and resources team with Jack from K&L Gates.

4. Identify the differences between practice areas

This leads nicely onto the next piece of advice inspired by our conversation with DWF Group Plc associate Hosh Mak: “If you’re considering a career in law, it’s important to think about the differences between practice areas. It’s easy to bunch law as just one thing but there are so many areas that you can go into. Different skills, personalities and backgrounds might thrive in different practices so don’t be put off if you don’t quite see yourself as Harvey Spector.”

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 will 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 IP, real estate, employment law and sports.

For example, dispute resolution naturally involves “working towards and around court deadlines and the various stages of litigation”, RPC’s Sean Cannon says. He enjoys having “that level of structure in place”, which not every area of law offers. 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 Sean, 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, Sarah Wray of Charles Russell Speechlys LLP enjoys the breadth of work she experiences as a private client lawyer. Sarah often finds herself “advising on landed estates”, providing clients with “inheritance tax advice on setting up farming partnerships”, for example, as well as grappling with the concerns that come with anti-money laundering, which involves “due diligence and billing”. 

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 Freeths LLP employment lawyer Raj Malhi, who says: “I cannot emphasise this enough, take your time when deciding what type of lawyer you’d like to be.” 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. Raj urges aspiring lawyers to use the time they have to “consider the different areas you could enter and think about the qualities you possess and how they may fit into different areas”.

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.