"The fact that a court divides 5-4 on the most difficult cases tells you really nothing of interest. What really matters is where on some spectrum the midpoint of the court really is." University of Chicago Law School Professor Geoffrey Stone in an April 14 talk about the Supreme Court.
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From Law Day One, you should think, seriously, about which area of law most interests you. If you're among the lucky few who, seemingly since nursery school, knew that you wanted to be a star defense attorney, or civil-rights champion, or mortgage-foreclosure specialist, or... whatever, Congratulations! You'll save yourself the time and misspent energies of the ordinarily meandering search for a cozy niche. For everyone else, now is the time to focus. Not because that's the meaning of life, but because that's the path toward survival in law. Only country lawyers, starving solos, and rainmaking gentle Seniors can claim generalist ways.
Don't chase after whatever happens to be the "in" specialty at the moment, unless you really like it. First, as with everything else in life, the "in" things change. For a decade or so, real estate was hot. Then mergers and acquisitions. Then bankruptcy. Environmental law's going strong, and intellectual property's looking pretty hot.
Get the picture?
Second, it's beside the point. Do you like it? Choose your specialty; don't let it choose you. Many practitioners fall into an area and find themselves trapped by the sunk costs of expertise and an established practice. Although specialties aren't quite the La Brea Tar Pits, once you've narrowed your practice and acquired some depth, substantial effort is required to extricate yourself to journey elsewhere.
Look seriously to the attributes of various practices. It's amazing how people fall into certain practices--or even into the main branches of either litigation or transactional work--without serious thought about what best suits them.
If you like people, then look to those practices that involve a lot of client contact, such as litigation, estate planning, family or criminal law, certain administrative work (believe it or not!), public-interest work, and the like. If you like numbers, then look to commercial or tax practices. If you like being around wealthy people, go for the big firms. (If you really like being around wealthy people, get off on the estate-planning oor.) If you like, instead, the reverse snobbery of being around poor people, there's lots of public-interest need out there. If you lust after the fetal protection of a library, find a good research position (most are in bureaus, which, by the way, can be exceptionally nice places to work). Or, contact one of the law book publishers; they're always looking for the spare pallid bookworm or two. If you like big-picture stuff, courts or agencies can be the ticket. Don't worry about the money; you won't starve (and, by the hour, the pay's not at all bad). Appellate advocacy is tough to break into, but worth the trouble if you're a true law crafter.
If you want, instead, courtroom experience, run--don't walk--to your nearest District Attorney or Public Defender's office. At either, you'll be issued a front-stage pass to the best of courtroom drama, while your law-firm brethren will pine away the hours in their gilded offices, with only the rare excursion to court.
If you'd really like to be where the action is... join the Navy. Those guys are always getting into trouble. (I took the bar exam next to a Navy JAG officer, who commented that Air Force lawyers would call her on the rare times that those boys or girls in blue strayed. Somehow, Air Force lawyers never seemed to get as much trial experience.) Even better, Navy folks get into trouble all over the world. It's not just a job....
If, after much soul-searching, you're still unsure which opportunity you should follow, but you've a shot at a big firm... go for the big firm. You might not like it, but it'll be easier to go anywhere else from there than vice versa. (Big-firm Seniors are more than moderately prejudiced against non-big-firm lawyers. They're positively aghast at their many, many former Juniors who've abandoned ship. Even non-big-firm Seniors carry the prejudice.) And you might just surprise yourself and like the big-firm dance.
If you like, instead, sleeping... Beep! We're sorry. You have reached a career that has been discontinued. Please try again.
Excerpted from The Young Lawyer's Jungle Book, by Thane Josef Messinger, a graduate of the U. of Texas Law School, where he was an editor of the Texas Law Review.
Copyright 1996, The Fine Print Press
* Important Message From the Library Staff To the Library's Beloved Patrons * A lawyer/editor/psychotic friend raved about this book and insisted we'd love it, so we read it and liked it so much we bought the company -- opps, wrong commercial... Let's try again... After reading this new [11/96] book, we liked it so much we contacted the author and coerced him into giving a Special Deal to Library visitors who order it.
So, while we hesitate to do anything that might encourage further spread of The Lawyer Plague, if you already made up your mind, we strongly encourage you to find out more about The Young Lawyer's Jungle Book, and to order and read it immediately.