Choosing a practice area when you qualify as a solicitor
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There are many different kinds of career in the solicitors’ profession. Upon qualifying, solicitors tend to specialise in one area of law which could be anything from intellectual property, to Islamic finance to family law. This article explores the process of choosing a practice area to specialise in and offers some advice on the various criteria to consider.
Law firms do many different things under one roof. Generally the different classes of legal services are known as 'practice areas'. Some (eg, 'commercial') are relatively general, while others are more specific (eg, aviation finance law). Typically as you progress through a career, you are likely to find yourself specialising more and more in one area or even a subsection of one area. Indeed the last 20 or so years have seen lawyers pushed into specialisation far earlier in their careers, and solicitors with what could be described as a 'rounded' practice are increasingly rare.
How much control of the process of specialisation an individual ends up having will vary. Some may carefully plot their destiny, but many more 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 is an over or under supply of lawyers in any given field. A good example might be real estate law - property is a volatile market. During a boom, lawyers will be at a premium, but during a slump they will be being laid off.
Starting point: what seats you do as a trainee
But this is getting ahead of ourselves. Every career has a starting point and what that starting point is influence what options are possible when you qualify. A typical training contract will consist of a series of 'seats' during which a trainee gets practical experience working in a variety of 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 you should think of it more as picking from a range of options decided by the firm. You therefore need to 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. It is helpful to think of who their clients are to work out what kind of firms they are and what 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 type of clients they are set up to serve, firms will generally offer a variety of practice areas. Now it is a question of thinking about what the different practice areas involve and then think about which firms do them.
Every year, LawCareers.Net and LawCareers.Net Handbook conduct in-depth research on what the various practice areas entail. You can see the online version or you may prefer to flick through the profiles in a copy of the Handbook. This section features 41 separate case studies about 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. As the end of each section there is a list of firms offering that given practice are, so you should be able to rapidly build up a picture of which practice areas are seen together within a single firm. From there you should be able to identify a group of firms which boast practice areas that appeal to you and you can park them down for further research.
Thinking in terms of practice areas, your next piece of research is investigate which practice areas are the important departments within a firm. The departments which 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. A lot of this sort of information can be gleaned 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 demonstrates that you are considering the organisation in a sophisticated manner and will also deliver some useful data.
Of course the only way to really work out which department is right for you is through 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 myriad 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 - tiresome and tiring contract scrutiny into the wee small hours!
Getting this direct experience as early as possible is important. This is where you have to start hustling. Clearly vacation schemes are a core element and there is plenty on securing these opportunities elsewhere on this site. But just watching (shadowing) and talking to lawyers about doing their jobs will be valuable. So ask. You may have personal contacts (lucky you); use them - or you might just approach a firm and ask to see what the lawyers do. 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.
All this interaction will hopefully lead to the discovery of the aforementioned 'fit', be it with a firm or a department. When choosing firms, you need to think whether this seems the right environment for your skills and enthusiasms. Lawyers tend to spend a lot of time at their offices, so it is a good idea to like your surroundings.
Which seat feels right?
This will be defined by several factors - especially your aptitude for that type of work, which will most likely be closely linked with how much you enjoy it. There will be other factors at play as well - 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 practice area that is growing? Does it have high status? Is it remunerative? This last may in turn hinge on how the firms pay 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 is all 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 need to do a lot of research, a lot of analysis, be determined and flexible and maybe, with a little luck thrown in, you can find that elusive fit.
Matthew Broadbent is LawCareers.Net's business development director.