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Choosing a Legal Specialty

There are dozens of different specialties open to law students: corporate law, criminal law, immigration law, tax law...the list goes on.

But is specialization always the way to go? And how do you decide which specialty to study?

"If you asked 20 different law students what they want to specialize in, you could easily get 20 different answers," says Casey Kaplan, a first-year law student at the University of Texas at Austin.

"From environmental law to medical malpractice law to criminal prosecution to patent law, the possibilities seem to be endless.

"Having a law degree [also] opens up doors that allow you to specialize in other fields entirely -- from political consultant or lobbyist to sports agent."

Typically, the first year of law school consists of mandatory courses that give students a solid foundation in various areas of law, says Sandra Buteau. She is the assistant director for the international career programs at American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C.

In the second and third year, Buteau says, students are allowed to choose the classes they want. They can opt to specialize, though they don't have to.

"When choosing a specialty, students should consider the area of law that interests them and what field they wish to work in," Buteau says. "It is fine if students do not know after their first year of required courses."

Students can continue to take different classes to determine what most interests them, she says.

Choosing to specialize is an individual decision, Kaplan says. However, he points out that many law students begin to look for jobs early in their second year.

"So if you are one of those lucky students who knows exactly what specialization you want to direct yourself towards, I would argue it's essential to begin taking specialized classes and looking for specialized firms that fit your parameters," Kaplan says.

Each specialty has its own pros and cons you need to consider.

"A narrow specialization may hurt the student's chances for employment, since they will be very limited in where they can apply due to their narrow concentration," Buteau says. "This of course depends on how large the employment field is in their narrow specialization."

Corporate law, for example, has many applications and different avenues for employment, as opposed to a narrow specialization in maritime law, she says.

"Therefore, it is always good to keep your options open by not creating too narrow a focus in any specialty you choose," Buteau says.

Specialists must recognize that they will be focusing their time in one area. Many people may become bored by the routine, says lawyer Joel Androphy.

Keep in mind that the demand for a specialty can vary widely.

"The specialty areas that are in demand depend on economic growth, demographics and changes in government policy," Buteau says.

Here's a good example. During the technological boom of the 1990s, patent and trademark lawyers were in high demand. After the tech crash in 2000, the demand dropped significantly. Many of these specialized attorneys lost their jobs.

"Certain specialties may always be in demand, such as corporate law or financial institutions, since those areas cover so many different aspects of the law and are applicable in various situations," says Buteau.

The state of the economy often affects how much business a specialized attorney receives, says Brad Daisley. He is the public affairs manager for a law society.

As the economy declines, for instance, the demand for legal advice on business transactions decreases and the demand for lawyers with insolvency experience increases. "As the economy rises, the opposite is true," Daisley says.

Working as a generalist may be a better career move in certain instances. It depends on the particular marketplace and what is in demand, says law professor Cameron Harvey. "In many marketplaces, being a generalist is the only way to survive."

Students also need to consider the working conditions. Corporate or finance law may involve a lot of complex transactions or litigation. It could require long hours in the office and frequent review of lengthy documents.

Family law may involve more personal interaction with clients dealing with personal issues and more time spent in court.

So what's the bottom line?

"Students really should not be too concerned with finding a specialty," Buteau says. "The reason students are allowed to choose classes in their second and third year is so that they can expose themselves to different areas of law and create their own specialization. If you have a specific interest, it is still important to take classes in some other areas of law to better round out your education.

"No one specialization requires you to take all of your classes in the area of law, so you have room to include other topics that interest you. By the third year, you may have a better idea of what interests you, and there is always time to take more specialized classes."


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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.