OCS Hosts Talk On Choosing A Practice Area

BY PAMELA FOOHEY

Monday afternoon, the Office of Career Services hosted two representatives from Major, Lindsey & Africa, a legal search firm with offices across the country, to discuss what questions students should be asking when deciding upon a practice area. The presentation, entitled “Ten Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Choosing A Practice Area,” solely addressed choosing a practice area in a law firm, but the questions likely would prove equally useful in thinking about government or public interest positions. 1Ls comprised about 80% of the attendance.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, this is about the same percentage of associates that will leave the law firms they joined coming out of law school before the reach the level of sixth year associate.

What motivates a person to walk out of one firm only to walk straight into another? One of the major causes of this 78% attrition rate between first and fifth year associates is an individual’s dissatisfaction with an his or her practice area. Yet, there are many happy, satisfied, and successful attorneys that love their practice areas. What can you do to maximize your chances of being one of those attorneys? According to Major, Lindsey & Africa, the best strategy is introspection.

To facilitate this introspection, ten questions with set answers were posed. Each answer choice identified those practice groups best suited to that answer. For example, if you like to deal with people, do not mind facing moral conundrums or dealing with emotionally charged situations, and want to become an expert rather than a generalist, family law may be the place for you. On the other hand, if you would rather deal with money and business, would rather not face moral conundrums, and want to remain a generalist, corporate may be your ideal practice area. For a PowerPoint of the presentation, complete with the ten questions and possible answers and corresponding practice areas, visit OCS’s website.

Unfortunately, once answered, the questions do not magically produce the practice area best suited to your temperament, or even a definitive list of possible practice areas. Many times the areas listed under one answer conflicted with the areas listed under the preceding answer. I may have left investment banking for law school because I would rather deal with ideas than money and business, but my desire to enable my clients, my preference to have concrete answers rather than analyze gray areas, and aversion to dealing constantly with emotionally charged situations seem to be driving me towards corporate practice.

But, as the presenters suggested, it is the act of thinking about these questions that is most beneficial. Identify aspects of a practice that will be especially satisfying for you, focus on what your day in and day out will be like, and, most importantly, take control of the selection process. Do not sit idly by and allow your firm or your friends to pick your practice area for you. As noted at the presentation, it may be possible to choose a practice area that allows you keep your options open, but the drive to specialize, especially at the large law firms many Harvard Law students will be going to, makes this a tenuous fall-back position. It is much better to try to identify what practice areas fit you at the beginning of your career.

In addition to the ten questions, the presenters also spoke about billable hours, distilling the concept to a more enlightening picture. The issue of billable hours is on many law students’ minds, and the presentation tried to make the numbers come to life. On the “lighter” side, logging in 2100 hours of billable hours translates to working approximately 10 hours a day, some weekends, and the occasional all-nighter. Up that number to 2400-2500 hours and expect to work 12 hours a day and every weekend, with the only variable being how many hours you work over a weekend, and expect to be able to pull an all-nighter without using any stimulants. Up that number again to 3000 hours and expect never to see the light of day, to not know what is going in the world or even that there are still other people in the world, and to require other people, like your assistant, to make phone calls to your family and friends to let them know you are still alive.

The presentation ended with questions from students. Notably, if you think you may want to transition to in-house practice a few years into your career, the best way to leave that option open is to go into corporate practice. According to Major, Lindsey & Africa, 80% to 85% of in-house positions are for corporate attorneys. The remaining positions primarily are for employment attorneys, with a smattering of tax attorney positions.

In line with leaving options open, there are some practice areas that require less specialization, such as corporate and litigation. Less specialization, of course, translates to a wider range of options if you decide a particular practice area is not right for you. However, the drive towards specialization increases or decreases depending on the location and size of a law firm.

Overall, the larger the law firm and the geographic area, the more defined practice areas become in terms of expertise. In smaller markets, a law firm may not have many larger issues of the same type coming to the firm, allowing its attorneys to remain generalists. However, even among large law firms in major metropolitan areas, specialization expectations vary. For example, corporate practices in New York are extremely specialized, while law firms based in California want their corporate attorneys to remain generalists. Accordingly, if remaining a generalist is important to you, researching the level of specialization within a specific practice area at your chosen law firm should not be overlooked.

Similarly, if you are gunning for partner, it is important to realize that partnership decisions are based on economic realities in addition to individual performance. If there is not enough revenue to bring in a new partner in a given practice area, no matter how stellar you are, it is unlikely that you will make partner. Before entering a practice area, try to predict what the partnership situation will look like 5, 7, and 10 years in the future. In conclusion, regardless of whether you know you want to transition in-house at some point, or are gunning for partner, practice area selection undoubtedly is important.

This coming Monday, OCS is hosting a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test taking session. The MBTI is a personality assessment designed to identify an individual’s significant personal preferences. Look for an announcement from OCS as the session requires registration.

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