How to Decide What Type of Law to Practice

Lawyer holding document and speaking to jury in
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Law students (and even many lawyers) struggle to figure out what type of law they want to practice. In law school, it’s easy to think you only have two choices: corporate or litigation (at least in schools where the expectation is you’ll go into a large firm right out of school) but there are lots of options. And finding a good fit for your personality and interests is one key to happiness in a legal career. Here are a few considerations to determine what type of law would be a good fit for you:

How Much You Like to Argue

Few anticipate the level of day-to-day conflict they would be participating in as litigators. It's clear they will be arguing in court, but they underestimate the level of ongoing animosity with opposing counsel and so on. If you think you want to be a litigator, be sure you like fighting. The happiest litigators love the game and thrive on winning. If you’re more conciliatory, a different option might be a better fit. It is possible to switch. Here’s a story of a young associate leaving litigation, and leaving BigLaw in search of a better fit in a corporate position at a startup.

How Motivated You Are by Money

Studies of lawyers suggest that the happiest lawyers tend to be the lowest paid. Unfortunately, in the legal profession, there’s often a tradeoff between meaningful work and high pay. If you know that you’re highly motivated by making a lot of money, you’re going to be happy in a very different job than someone who is less financially motivated and cares more about doing work they personally consider meaningful and important. Neither approach is “better” than the other, but it’s critical to think about where you personally fall on this spectrum for lasting happiness.

How Much Control You Need Over Your Work Life 

The reality of the legal profession is that you won’t necessarily exercise perfect control over your work. You might be subject to the demands of the court, of partners you work for, or of the funding cycle of your non-profit. However, there are ways to gain more control over your working life, from starting a solo practice to something less drastic such as taking a job at a government agency with more predictable hours and demands. Different people thrive in different types of work environments, so think about what you need. If you crave autonomy and control over your time, BigLaw probably isn’t the best choice.

How Much Interaction You Need With Other People

Law, on the whole, disproportionally attracts introverted people. If you like to engage with lots of other people on an ongoing basis, it’s important to look for legal jobs where this is the default. In many cases, lawyers are heads-down in their own offices churning out work. If you’d rather be working in a team, or even just going to court regularly, you’re going to have to proactively seek these experiences out.

What You Like to Do

As you go through law school or your early legal career, pay careful attention to the type of day-to-day work you enjoy. Are you happiest writing briefs? Working with clients? Negotiating deals? Planning an oral argument? As a lawyer, you’re going to spend a lot of time working, and it’s important to look at the nitty-gritty of what you’ll actually be spending time on. Make sure you enjoy the daily work, and you’ll be much happier as an attorney.