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What J.D. Hopefuls Should Know About Areas of Law
Aspiring attorneys should explore fields of law that align with their personalities, experts say.
From family law to environmental law, there are many areas of law that an aspiring attorney can specialize in.(Getty Images)
Anyone who is unsure about whether to attend law school should understand that there are numerous types of lawyers and a variety of ways to practice law.
When people imagine legal career options, the first jobs that typically come to mind are ones that involve public speaking in courtrooms, such as positions as judges and trial lawyers. However, there also law jobs where public speaking is rare and which don't require showing up for court, such as transactional attorney positions that involve negotiating business deals, writing contracts and filling out legal paperwork, lawyers say.
"Law school is unique in that it attracts both introverts (often drawn to the intense reading and writing of practicing the law) and extroverts (often drawn to the spectacle of the courtroom)," wrote Ian Pisarcik, an attorney and alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who contributes to the legal advice website Enjuris.com, in an email. "Fortunately, there are jobs for both introverts and extroverts within the law. For example, extroverts might find themselves at home in a litigation firm, whereas introverts might prefer transactional law."
Aspiring attorneys have a wide array of legal careers to choose from, experts say. Here is a list of some of the many types of lawyers:
- Prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys.
- Appellate attorneys.
- In-house counsels.
- Government attorneys.
- Private-practice business attorneys, including those who work for big corporate law firms.
- Immigration lawyers.
- International attorneys.
- Tax lawyers.
- Sports and entertainment lawyers.
- Administrative or regulatory attorneys.
Law school hopefuls who want to combine their pet subjects with the practice of law should investigate whether there is an area of law that aligns nicely with those interests, attorneys suggest. "When deciding on a career, law students should reflect on their passions outside the law," Pisarcik says. "There are a number of niche areas for students who possess certain passions or experiences; these include animal law, aviation law, entertainment law, internet law and railway law."
Pisarcik cautions aspiring lawyers to beware of choosing which area of law to focus on based on the desire to impress others, since career burnout is a common problem in the legal profession. "This is due, in part, to law students taking jobs based on what is expected of them," he says. "The key to avoiding this problem is, therefore, a healthy mixture of reflection and open-mindedness when it comes to choosing a career."
Sam Adamo Jr., a criminal defense attorney and a managing partner with the Adamo & Adamo Law Firm in Texas, says the key to career success as an attorney is finding an area of law that you enjoy. "In order to make money, a lawyer has to be a good lawyer and in order to put in the time to become a good lawyer, you have to love what you do," he wrote in an email.
Ilana KowarskiMay 10, 2018
Nathan Peart, a managing director in the associate practice group at the international legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, says it is possible to design a legal career based on what type of person you are.
"Tax law is good for people who like to pay attention to detail," Peart wrote in an email. "If you are passionate about social work, there are firms with strong pro bono/public interest cases or that do human rights law – but this field is hard to get into and balance against advancing your career. ... If you want to follow the money, then it's likely going to be in corporate law."
J. Kim Wright, an attorney and the author of two books about how to practice law using a cooperative approach as opposed to an adversarial one, says there are many emerging legal fields that facilitate this collaborative kind of legal practice, which is often called integrative law.
Wright – the author of "Lawyers as Peacemakers: Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law" and "Lawyers as Changemakers: The Global Integrative Law Movement" – says her own career is an example of how lawyers can practice law in a way that differs from lawyer's conventional roles as either litigators or transactional attorneys.
"Right out of law school, I was the executive director of the Sexual & Physical Abuse Resource Center in Florida," she wrote in an email. "I later started my own law practice based on peacemaking approaches. Over the years I have practiced mediation, collaborative law, restorative justice, and Conscious Contracts."
Jeff Sharp, a patent attorney and a managing partner with the Marshall, Gerstein & Borun LLP law firm in Chicago, says that law touches on nearly every aspect of life in the U.S., including most businesses.
"We have a vibrant economy because it's based on rules, and people follow the rules, and the rules are laws and the lawyers are the people who help everyone navigate that," he says.
Sharp says that for someone who enjoys science like he does, a career in intellectual property law can be tremendously satisfying. (IP law is an area of law that allows inventors to claim proprietary rights over their inventions.) Sharp, who describes himself as a "science geek," says his job allows him to "work with the smartest scientists in the world."
Andrew Strauss, the dean and a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law, says prospective law students who are trying to figure out whether law school is right for them have two major hurdles. The first challenge, he says, is that these students often struggle to understand themselves and discover their professional calling. The second challenge, he says, is that most aspiring lawyers aren't experts on the legal profession – they aren't aware of all the legal careers available and don't have a clear idea of what it feels like to work in various legal jobs.
Strauss adds that lawyers can work for a wide array of employers including international intergovernmental organizations like the World Health Organization or the United Nations; federal, state or local government agencies; and private law firms. They can also work as in-house attorneys for nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies, Strauss says.
Strauss suggests that law school hopefuls talk to a variety of types of lawyers and visit different kinds of law offices so they can get a sense of what types of legal careers they find appealing. "You want to open yourself up," he says. "You're not trying to use your analytical mind. You're trying to use your intuitive, feeling mind, and so it's not about restricting the range of options."
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