“How do I know what area of law to practice in? I am worried that everyone says practicing law is very different from studying law, and that I might end up somewhere I hate. There are subjects I like studying, but how do I know if I should pursue them in practice? Can you offer any advice on how to make these kinds of decisions?” - Emma
This is one of those giant life decisions you have to make where you don’t really have enough information to make a perfect decision, yet it can feel like you have to make a perfect decision anyway.
So, let’s start there. You don’t have to make a perfect decision. There isn’t a perfect decision. There are likely to be a lot of good decisions, probably more than you realise, any one of which will be a step on a good path.
In answering this question, I’m going to put to one side for a second the issue of what jobs are available. That is a separate issue that is not especially useful when considering this one, as it makes our brain shut all kinds of doors before we got to them. So, let’s assume that there are generally jobs available in a variety of areas and modes of practice.
Second, let’s get the vocationers out of the way.
There are people who have reasons for going into law that relate to specific areas like criminal or family, or who feel completely called by certain areas. If you are one of these people, please go full steam ahead at those areas. You have my best wishes and my jealousy.
However, most of us (including you, Emma) don’t get that. Most of us either feel not called to any area in particular or called to so many there is no way we can do them all. This is why the idea of the perfect, you-specific, magical soul callings is problematic to me. As I say it is wonderful for the people who experience a calling in this way, but most people don’t. From what I understand of callings and vocations, they often show up later in adulthood anyway, often spurred by life events or other people’s impact on you. Believing that you should be feeling a vocation when you don’t is very stressful. It can cause a lot of fruitless searching.
So perhaps rather than looking for the “right” path, we are better to choose a “good” path, while keeping our eyes open.
The framework I like best is one of likely fit. Where might you, with your skills and interests and strengths and limitations and temperament fit? And, equally important to consider, where might you not fit?
“Likely fit” is a working model, meaning it changes with new information. For example, when I worked in litigation, despite being a bleeding-heart sensitive-type, I found that the cases I liked most were the dry commercial ones. I liked the intellectual puzzles of them, and because the human element was a step removed, I found them less stressful. I could not have predicted that when I was soaking up my human rights courses with heart-eye emoji face at university.
It may feel like the lack of a clear vocation is a problem, but it is probably the opposite; chances are, especially at the start of your career, there are a huge number of places you might fit. You don’t have enough information yet to know for sure whether you will, but that’s ok. You will get that information by making a selection and going for it.
And even while you don’t have enough information to know for sure, you do have some good information. You are right that the practice of, say, tax law, is very different from the study of it. But that doesn’t matter much. The subjects you found engaging are a good starting point. So, is your temperament (do you like deadlines and excitement or do you prefer long, studious work?). You might be able to predict whether you would like transactional work or strategic work. There are probably areas you find deathly boring and should avoid.
If in doubt, generalist positions are wonderful starting jobs for a career in law. Whether that’s a generalist private practice or in-house role, or a general civil litigation or commercial team, or something else, areas that are broad allow you to gather far more information for your model. You usually get to try all sorts of things and you will find things that work better for you than others.
Equally, choosing a job based on the people you will be working for and with is a great way to go; they will likely inform your success and enjoyment of law far more than the subject area anyway.
Your question suggests a high level of anxiety about these issues. This is a brain trying to be helpful, trying to protect you, which is very nice of it. Thank you brain. But it’s a misguided attempt at that, both because you don’t have enough information to make a “right” decision, and because there are way more decisions that could end up being “right” than your brain lets you see. And even if you find yourself in a place that is decidedly wrong for you, no legal experience is wasted.
There is this sense in law school that you have to get everything right the moment you step away from university, that you have to set yourself up on the “right” path or risk falling off the law career cliff and never being seen again. It’s a weird construct, since you don’t have enough information to do that yet, and careers are long, winding things. They are more akin to sailing, with its tacking and shifts based on wind conditions, than the frenetic specificity of laser tag. As such, I hope you will allow yourself to let go of the search for certainty a little, and instead let the path unfold as it will, knowing there will be many points along the way at which you can change course. Make a good (not perfect) choice based on all the different information you have now and go from there.
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Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at thenewlawyer.co.nz. Check out her website for more details at: symphonylaw.co.nz. Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.