New Lawyers and the Push to "Declare a Major"

Bottom line, here’s my advice to law students who want to make a living as a lawyer:

Figure out as soon as possible what kind of lawyer you should be (based on some combination of your passions, abilities and financial requirements), direct your efforts inside and outside the classroom towards this end, and hit the ground running. 

This is not the advice I received as a young lawyer.  When I started with a “large” local firm in the early 1980’s, my advisors encouraged me to take advantage of the firm’s 2-year rotation program, working in various departments.  I declined.  Even though I was a real estate lawyer, the firm required me to run documents to the courthouse so I would know the judges and clerks (as every real lawyer should).  Senior partners in other departments frequently pulled me in on projects and I had a good idea of what their work was like. One of my associate friends moved through three practice groups in his first 2 years.  He went on to lead the firm.

Not so today. 

Today, students who know what they want to do and have prepared themselves through experience and coursework will be best positioned to succeed.  Weigh that against the ultimate success of doing work that feeds your soul and affords you a decent standard of living and you have defined the horns of the dilemma.  While waiting longer to “declare a law major” arguably results in a better choice, waiting may leave you with no choice at all.

It's not unusual for big law firms to ask students to choose one or two practice groups in which to intern after the 2nd year.  The firms' offers of employment typically depend on the practice group's vote and are attached to the practice group.  Gone are most of the opportunities to rotate through multiple sections.

Outside big law, the demands to choose early are just as high.  Want to work for the District Attorney?  You had better enroll in criminal clinic, take the requisite classes and get some internships.  Family law?  Anyone who can afford to hire you is going to expect results quickly and a high level of commitment to justify their investment in you.  If you hang out your own shingle, you have to know what you are doing. 

So how do you figure out early where to direct your efforts?  How do you figure out what kind of lawyer you want to be?

I have 3 suggestions:

  1. Know Yourself.  Take the time to understand what you enjoy, your natural strengths, and your needs for achievement, money, company, meaning, intellectual stimulation, security.
  2. Learn about legal practice areas and the challenges and rewards that each affords.
  3. Study the market.  What areas of demand match with your passions, skills and other preferences?