Choosing a practice area to specialize in can be a daunting task for freshmen as well as senior law students, especially in today’s information age. There are so many practice areas to choose from. There are so many tracks and specializations within every practice area (e.g., debtor-side work in bankruptcy). There is also so much information that one needs to review before making a decision regarding a practice area.
I get it. It’s confusing, and you are spoilt for choice. Plus, it’s also highly likely that you have consciously decided against specializing right now and may want to explore a little further before making up your mind (which makes perfect sense too). Nevertheless, I still maintain that as a law student you will always be miles ahead if you choose and then specialize in a particular practice area while in law school itself. In this note, I will first explain the benefits of zeroing in on a practice area while in law school, and then share some tips with you on the steps that you can take in order to select and then specialize in a particular practice area.
Why zero in on a practice area while in law school?
There are multiple advantages of specializing in a particular practice area while in law school.
First, a prospective employer will value you tremendously if you are a specialist in an area that they practice in. The prospective employer knows that you will be productive from Day 1 on the job. They know that you won’t struggle with the basic legal principles governing that particular practice area. They know that they can freely have a technical conversation with you on an issue in that particular practice area without worrying about whether or not you understand them. They also won’t have any reservations about putting you before clients (provided, of course, that you have the required soft skills). All this translates into excellent professional growth opportunities at a fairly early stage in your career.
Second, you will be able to make substantial contributions during client/in-house meetings. You will not only understand and appreciate what is being discussed, but you will also be able to add to what is being discussed, and people will listen to you as you are the subject-matter expert. That translates into market recognition for you and a further bolstering of your reputation as a legal professional.
Third, as a specialist, your work product (e.g., a draft court pleading/a draft legal opinion) will be of a quality that is way beyond what an employer expects from a newbie in the profession, since you know the black letter law inside out. Undoubtedly, this will create multiple growth opportunities for you at a very junior stage in your career as you will be entrusted with important matters since you are the expert.
Fourth, if you are the competitive type, then being a specialist is the best way of differentiating yourself from the competition, and attracting attention from the people who matter in your field.
Now onto the next question.
How can you zero in on a practice area as a law student?
First and foremost, I would like to clarify that finding a practice area to specialize in is not as difficult as a law student may imagine. All you need to do is to ask yourself whether you feel passionate about a particular practice area. Would you be willing to work on a matter in that particular practice area for extended periods of time? Do you feel excited if you become privy to any discussion about that particular practice area? If yes, then you have found a practice area that you are passionate about and can now specialize in it.
I would also like to clarify that if you are serious about finding a suitable practice area to specialize in, then you have to do it on a war footing. No one else can do it for you. You need to make the time. You need to push yourself to take the adequate steps. You need to create a sense of urgency. The question that you want to ask yourself is— how badly do I want to find a practice area to specialize in?
I am hopeful that the pointers that I have shared below will help you in zeroing in on a practice area. Please note that they are exactly what I said they are— pointers. Not sermons. Pick the one that works best for you. If you don’t use any of the pointers and find a practice area to specialize in on your own, that’s even better. Okay, so here we go.
a) Read, read, and read some more- I cannot emphasize this enough. Reading is a critical habit for lawyers and law students alike. Read newspapers, magazines, blog posts, editorial columns, everything. It will help you in becoming a well-rounded individual. Very frequently, a particular area of law is in the news. For instance, recently the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (“Code”) was in the news, as certain sections under the Code were suspended on account of the COVID-19 lockdown. Hence, if you come across a particular area of law in the news, and if you find it interesting, then maybe you could explore it further and see if it interests you to the extent that you would like to specialize in it.
b) Speak to your seniors, and not just about the parties- Your seniors in law school would most likely have had an exposure to multiple practice areas, either through academic/quasi-academic activities or by virtue of internships. Set up a coffee meeting with them and ask them questions about their experience in their practice areas. Ask them about competent lawyers and law firms that operate in their practice areas. Ask them about that one academic/practical assignment that taught them a great deal about their practice area. However, please bear in mind that the feedback they share with you regarding their experience in a particular practice area may be subjective and hearsay. Hence, don’t take them for their word. For instance, if your senior says that they did not like working on restructuring matters during one of their internships, then that does not mean that you should not even look at restructuring. It’s their individual experience, and hence it’s subjective. Look at their feedback as a secondary information source for you decide on the practice area you want to specialize in.
c) Pay attention in your classes (yes, you read that right)- If you really pay attention in class then you will most likely get academic and practice insights regarding a particular practice area from the comfort of a bench. Just hear what your professors have to say, and process it. For instance, a professor is teaching you Companies Act, 2013, and speaks about the liability of the independent directors, and you find that interesting. After the class, you dash to the library and find out some more literature on it. As you dig deeper and deeper, you realize ultimately that you have a penchant for company law. The point that I am trying to make is that you will get multiple leads and practice insights while in class itself. So please pay attention.
d) Use LinkedIn to your advantage- In today’s information age, all professionals, across all professions have realized the importance of disseminating and collating information. The legal profession is no exception. Hence, several respectable lawyers and law firms have LinkedIn accounts/pages, where they keep posting multiple updates regularly. You must keep reviewing these updates periodically. You might just find that one post that contains that one piece of information that really intrigues you and inspires you to explore further. Before you know, you have found a practice area that you are passionate about and would like to specialize in.
How to create and demonstrate specialist credentials?
Once you have identified a particular practice area to specialize in, you need to take active steps to create and demonstrate adequate credentials in the practice area of your choice. You could employ the following techniques to create and demonstrate specialist credentials as a law student:
- Additional qualifications- You could pursue additional qualifications such as diplomas and certificate courses in the practice area of your choice.
- Internships- Internships are a great hands-on way of getting some robust practical exposure to a practice area that you have decided to specialize in. You could also do internships to experiment with different practice areas.
- Publications- Writing and publishing is the best way of advertising and branding yourself as a prospective/qualified legal professional. It gives you an opportunity to showcase your expertise to prospective employers/clients. One pro-tip that I would like to share with you is that you should not write on general stuff. You should try to write on unresolved and pertinent issues in your field. That way the people who matter in your practice area will perceive you as thorough and insightful.
- Research projects/initiatives- If your university has a research project/initiative in the practice area that you want to specialize in, then you should onboard yourself in that at the earliest. University research initiatives are usually well funded and are recognized since they are university backed. There are also several private research projects/initiatives. If you get wind of one, then should definitely try to onboard yourself in it.
- Think tanks/professional associations- If there are think tanks/professional associations focused on a practice area that you would like to specialize in, then you should definitely try to join them. Most think tanks/professional associations allow student memberships. If they don’t, then absolutely nothing stops you from creating a think tank of your own. That would in fact look impressive on your resume.
I would take the advice outlined in this note with a pinch of salt if I were you, in view of the fact that ‘no one size fits all’ and the element of subjectivity. Hence, I would keep in mind the following caveats if I were you:
- Specialization is highly recommended, but not required- Specialization is highly recommended for the reasons outlined in this note earlier; however it is not required. You can still manage to find a good job and have a legal career even if you don’t specialize at the law school level or otherwise.
- There is no tearing hurry to specialize- Nobody is holding a gun to your head, and asking you to specialize. Specialization is entirely a personal prerogative. In fact, one argument against specialization is that it blocks opportunities from other fields. You are not at all on a time leash to specialize and you should take as much time as you want before you begin specializing. In fact, I am going to go one step further and say that it is completely okay even if you don’t specialize at all in your career. I have come across plenty of generalists who have done well for themselves. From that perspective, specialization can be looked at as more of a personal branding exercise.
- You are not married to your specialization- Even if you specialize in a particular practice area but decide that you would like to explore other practice areas for reasons best known to you, you could still go ahead and change gears without shedding a tear. We are living in a fluid world of opportunities where sky is the limit. No one is going to pull you up by your collar if you decide to abandon your specialization and try out something else.
Specialization is highly recommended, but not required at all at any stage of your career. Specialization decisions are career-altering and hence one should think through very carefully before committing to a particular practice area.
Pranav M. Khatavkar is a lawyer with a keen interest in domestic and cross-border insolvency law. He holds a bachelor’s degree in law from Symbiosis International University, Pune, and a master’s degree in law from Northwestern University, Chicago, USA. He has authored four books on the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016, and has worked with the Financial Restructuring and Insolvency Group at White & Case, LLP, New York.