What Every Harvard Law School Student Should Know About Deciding What Kind of Law to Practice

A bright law student whom I mentor recently asked for advice in determining which field of law she should practice.  She articulated the stress that she experienced in struggling to narrow her focus in the legal sector with little actual experience or exposure to different aspects of law.  This situation is one that law students routinely face, and below are some suggestions to help you in your journey.  

You are not alone.  If I had a dollar for every law student (and lawyer) with looming uncertainties regarding what area of law to practice, I could probably afford to retire right now (not that I would, because I actually found a job that was the right fit and honestly love practicing law, and if you follow this advice, you hopefully will as well).

Take the time to connect with others who can guide you in your career explorations.  HLS specifically hires professionals to help you consider your options, and you should take advantage of that resource.  Don’t stop at that.  Talk to professors and practitioners whom you may broadly encounter.  Speak to alumni.  Connect with family friends.  Be as informed as possible.   

Put yourself out there, although this can be difficult, as recent studies have suggested that lawyers are predominately introverts.  We both know you are probably so busy in law school that you are one step away from killing your plant from lack of the time to water it, despite the fact that it’s a cactus.  However, if you can squeeze in a few minutes, go to lectures.  Talk to practitioners to learn about various kinds of law and ask the attorneys whom you meet what they like most about the type of law that they practice, and keep an open mind.   Meet as many people as possible and never discount the possibility that sheer coincidence can later influence your career trajectory, so be open to recognizing possibilities when they are appear.   

As a caveat, carefully consider the advice that others may offer as you plan your career trajectory, rather than necessarily using it to dictate your life choices.  You are the only one living your life, and you should ultimately take ownership of your decisions, regardless of family pressure (even if well-intended).  

Take a variety of courses.   Consider taking courses in subject matters in which you may not have had previous exposure.  You may have assumed your entire life that you would become a divorce lawyer like your cousin, but suddenly a class on sports law might seem fascinating.  Many professionals (myself included) have encountered happy accidents that have led to career success, and without this exposure, they would not have encountered a type of law that best suited them.

Assess your skill set.  Just as no two people are alike, so too your career should be individualized and tailored to your strengths.  If you’ve made it thus far at HLS, you obviously have the talent and tenacity to be successful.  Harness that talent to identify the best suitable fit and make the most of your assets.   

As my wise colleague, David Spellman, suggested when I consulted with him regarding my mentee, the distinction between oral advocacy and more transactional-based work can be a major factor in determining the path of a future lawyer’s career.  Do you see yourself in a courtroom on a regular basis, or would you feel more comfortable based in your office? As a former moot court judge, I know that many students experience jitters during moot court sessions.  This is completely normal; even experienced litigators often get stage fright in the courtroom, and there is always the opportunity to improve.  However, if you know with certainty that practicing in a courtroom is not for you, be confident that you can still be an accomplished and skilled lawyer, and rest assured that there are other avenues for success in the legal field.

Consider what drew you to law school in the first place.  Although you should always keep an open mind with regard to specialization, the type of law that drew you to law school in the first place can be a good indicator of what you want to practice after graduating from Harvard.  

Think about what fascinates you.   Reflect on what kind of law would energize you to get up in the morning and practice.  What do you find academically stimulating; not just mildly interesting, but downright fascinating?  If you dread getting up in the morning for a certain class because you do not connect with the subject matter, that field of study might not necessarily be for you, even if it could ultimately prove to be a lucrative type of law.  Think about what kinds of periodicals from bar associations you would find engaging to read.  What kind of law could you see yourself wanting to practice ten years from today?

Imagine what your dream job would be.  Sometimes, it is easy to lose focus among daily stresses to ponder what kind of job you would want in a perfect world.  Realistically, you will not be a Supreme Court Justice on the day after graduation (if you can make that happen, then lunch is on me).  Once you identify your dream job, consider how to get there.  What types of classes can prepare you for your interview or empower you to shine on day one?   Strategize through exposure to classes and lectures in the subject so that you can see if you would be realistically interested in the subject matter with all its banalities rather than in the glamor of what you may imagine such a career would entail in the abstract.  

If you are a born litigator, courses in trial advocacy can be effective for preparing for that type of career.  If your dream is to work for a federal agency, then administrative law might be worth taking into consideration.  If the concept of sitting through a tax class would bore you to death (although, for the record, some of my colleagues inexplicably find it downright enthralling), then tax law would not be the career for you.  There are so many different types of law out there to discover, and you have only one life to live, so take courses that would prepare you for a career that you will hopefully love.  We both know that you deserve more than to spend your life languidly staring at your office clock every minute of each day and wishing away the precious hours of your life until you can go home after a miserable day at the office.  

Cast a wide net for new opportunities.  Thinking about joining the Jessup Team but not sure if international law is for you?  Considering an interesting 1L summer internship but not certain if working as a prosecutor would ultimately be the right path for you?  Want to work on a project on the First Amendment as a research assistant for your professor, but unsure if constitutional law is your forte?  Seize new opportunities as a law student to test out future career steps and diversify your experiences to make a more informed choice.  

Do not let your classroom performance unduly dictate your options.  Never let one classroom experience destroy your chances at a certain type of legal career if you truly are dedicated to practicing that type of law.  Perhaps a professor’s teaching style differed from your learning style; this shouldn’t adversely affect your ultimate career decisions.  

Consider this personal illustration—my father was a brilliant pediatrician and masterful diagnostician who was beloved by his patients.  His medical school had a policy of not disclosing grades to students and only informing them of whether or not they had passed their courses.  It was not until my father had already trained as a pediatrician and was serving as a Captain and medical officer in the United States Air Force that his records were disclosed and he was stunned to learn that the lowest score that he received in his entire medical school career was in pediatrics, although to his shock, he had scored highest in his entire class year in psychiatry.  When he recounted the story, he softly said that if he had known that his professor considered him to be only mediocre in pediatrics, he never would have specialized in the area.  

Some of my father’s patients were inspired by him to become medical professionals in their own right, and after my father passed away, one young patient had to literally go to therapy because he was so devoted to my father and devastated by his death.  Now, if my dad had been aware of that non-stellar grade in pediatrics and had chosen to let that particular grade define his career choice, he never would have saved as many lives nor impacted the lives of those children in the same way.  Learn from his story and do not let one course experience dictate your future.

Breathe.  Your first job likely won’t be your last, so don’t stress that the choices that you are making now will be irreversible.  Sometimes, working in the field is the only way to know what the right path is for you.  If you find yourself working in a type of law that isn’t the fit that you wanted, keep networking and learning about different avenues of law.  Some legal skills, such as drafting or research, can be fungible across different kinds of law, and you can apply them in your career search.  Best of luck and remember, if you can get into Harvard, you have what it takes to succeed.  

Deborah Beth Medows is a Senior Attorney in the Division of Legal Affairs at the New York State Department of Health, where she delivered the 2015 CLE on Ethics.  She has additionally served as an Associate Counsel to the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, and as an Assistant Counsel to the New York State Legislative Bill Drafting Commission.  She edited a written symposium through Harvard Law School’s Journal of Law and Technology’s Digest, delivered various legal presentations, published a number of articles in various law journals, and serves as a mentor to law students at Boston University School of Law.   She can be reached at dbmedows@gmail.com

Deborah Beth Medows is a Senior Attorney in the Division of Legal Affairs at the New York State Department of Health. She can be reached at dbmedows@gmail.com.

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