Deep Thoughts: How To Choose A Practice Area (For Lawyers)

I’m hardly an expert on this.  I am a biglaw/in-house burnout, after all.  Obviously the most important thing is to choose a practice area that you enjoy.  But what if you don’t really know what you’d enjoy or you think you’d enjoy multiple areas?

My advice would be to consider which practice areas can scale down in terms of time, stress and commitment.  Can you open your own shop with that practice? Or can you justify an in-house 9-5 position with that practice?  

On one end of the scale are practice areas that are inextricably linked with large firms.  They almost cannot exist other than in large transactions or as a piece of a firm. An example might be antitrust or CFIUS regulatory practice areas.  These just can’t scale down either to in-house roles or positions at small firms.

On the other end of the spectrum are practices that are easy to scale down, like employment and benefits lawyers, most (but not all) types of litigators and tax lawyers.  Those practices are just as common in small firms/solo practitioners as the big firms.

The other type of practices that are easy to scale down are niche practices.  These practices can offer impossibly cushy conditions, even at a large firm, but only if the conditions are just right.  The goal here is to be an expert in a niche area that a firm can’t live without but that is so small that the firm only needs one or two people doing it.  An example used to be environmental lawyers but that practice has grown significantly over the last 10 years. Another might be a state and local tax expert.  In some firms, it might be the SEC guru who used to work on the SEC. When the conditions are perfect, these guys have it made. I used to work with one lawyer in a niche practice who basically worked part time, deftly refused to train any juniors in his area and lasted indefinitely at the firm even though it was obvious that the partnership wanted to get rid of him.  

As you get older, have kids and lose your physical ability to pull an all-nighter, the ability to scale down is going to matter a lot.  You may want the flexibility to scale down to a tiny firm where you are in control. You may want the ability to easily slot into an in-house position.  Or, who knows, you may not.

This is just my experience on the subject.  If you have any other ideas, or just think this article was completely obvious and didn’t make any insightful points, I’d love to know.

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