10.5 – Developing Your Legal Interests


Developing Your Legal Interests

Build interests as law rewards specialized expertise

Let's talk a little bit about developing your legal interests. How are you supposed to figure out what your legal interests are while you're in law school and maybe in the years immediately after you graduate from law school? Because some people take longer to figure this out than others.

Maybe you come into law school just knowing them. Maybe you just come into law school and say, "The thing I'm really interested in is consumer protection. I really want to learn as much as I can about consumer protection. I want to practice that," and that never changes.

If that's the case, I think that's great because, for reasons I'll talk about in a minute, I think that's going to make your career simpler in some ways, but I think for most people it's going to take them a while. You're not going to know coming in, you're probably not going to know after your first year, and in many cases, you're not going to really know until you're a little bit into your career.

I do think you should try to identify something or some combination of things that are really your interests, your focus. Here's why. Law is a profession that really rewards specialized expertise. Now, being a lawyer in and of itself is a form of specialized expertise.

The reason lawyers make money is because they've gone to law school, they've learned the skill of being a lawyer, they've passed the bar, and so forth, but the lawyers that are particularly successful are the ones that have highly specialized expertise. They're really good at a specific thing and they know a lot about it. They're a really good appellate practitioner. They're a really, really smart bankruptcy lawyer. They're the best person who is able to do deals involving technology companies. There's a lot of possibilities there.

If you can get to that point where you have a really focused interest that you've really made yourself an expert on, I think you're going to have a lot more career opportunities than if you just never settle on something and you just say, "I don't really know, I'm interested in everything."

Friends of mine in law school who had really developed interests and figured that out pretty early, they had really interesting early career opportunities because they zeroed in on what they were interested in, they learned a lot about it, and just coming in, they were able to seek out jobs where that knowledge was really rewarded, really valued, and that were really cool opportunities. They were doing very interesting things early on.

The people I knew who didn't figure it out and maybe never figured it out, I think they struggled a little bit more in their careers. Maybe they went to a law firm and they just did general litigation, and they never really became an expert in anything specific. They wouldn't get put on the really interesting cases. They would just get put on cases where they were asked to review lots of documents. They would get five or six years into their career and they didn't really have any particularly valuable skills. They were just generic lawyers and that wasn't as satisfying to them.

Also, I think once you figure out what you're interested in, it's going to make a lot of choices simpler. I talked a little bit earlier about how challenging it is to find a one-off summer position, precisely because there's so many possibilities. There's an infinite number of things you could do, practically.

If you have focused interests, you think, "What I really want to do is be a white-collar criminal prosecutor," again, that's going to narrow it down. You're going to know, "Well, maybe I should go try to intern at a federal prosecutor's office in a major city. Maybe I should go try to intern at the Securities and Exchange Commission." It really narrows it down and it makes your decision process a little easier in addition to enabling you to have these other career opportunities.

How do you get to that point of saying, "Here's the thing I really want to be interested in"? I can't tell you how to do that. For every person, it's different, they tell a different story. Maybe they had some early life experience where they got passionate about something, but for a lot of people, it's not that case. Maybe they just took a class, they had a really good professor, and they didn't think an area of law was interesting, but then they came out of it thinking it was fascinating.

Developing interests by exploring various opportunities

The ways that you can make that possible are exposing yourself to lots of different areas of law. You can do that over your summer job, you can also do that through other early career opportunities, like a clerkship, that I'll talk about in a future lesson. You can also just read a lot. You can read blogs and go on the internet. You can just read cases, you can read the news and read about different areas of law, and just be open-minded.

You also might want to learn about different career paths, different kinds of jobs. Learn about the kinds of jobs that people have, maybe a generation older than you, in law. Try to get a sense of, "What do I really want to be doing in twenty or twenty-five years? What kinds of jobs seem really attractive to me?" If you figure that out, you might look at those lawyers who are in those jobs and say, "Okay, what was their career path like? How did they get there? What did they do to put themselves in that position?" Then maybe emulate that a little bit.

At a certain point, the choice of what you're interested in might actually end up being a little arbitrary, in the sense that this isn't like finding your soulmate. You don't necessarily have to find your ultimate passion in life. Maybe it will never just click, because if you just pick something and you're interested in it enough to want to keep getting better at that thing and to learn more about that, I think you're going to find that rewarding. There's a lot of evidence that something that people find really, really satisfying in their careers is being really good at something.

Specialization leads to satisfying and valued career

The more you can be focused in on a specific interest and the more you can learn about it, I think, the more satisfying you're going to find your career as you go on.

I've heard stories about people that went into law firms and they just decided, "Look, I'm going to become the expert on ERISA." ERISA is a complicated federal statute governing pensions. A lot of people find it very hard to work with. It's messy. It turns out it's actually pretty interesting if you know a lot about it, but it takes a while to get there.

The people that develop that expertise, they became really valuable at that law firm because ERISA issues come up all the time and most people don't know how to deal with them. One secret, I think, is that you might think right now, "Oh, gosh, there's interesting areas of law and then there's boring areas of law." Constitutional law, super interesting; bankruptcy and ERISA are not interesting.

I think, honestly, every area of law is equally interesting. The difference is some areas of law have much higher costs to figuring out why they're interesting. It's going to take more work where you need to learn enough about bankruptcy to get to the point where you think, "Oh, now I see how all the pieces fit together and they're interesting."

If you can get past that hump on one of those areas of law, you're actually going to find yourself in a very good position because many other lawyers are not willing or able to do that. As I said, the thing that's really valued is specialized expertise. Areas of law that come up a lot, but not that many people want to pursue, are ones that are particularly valuable.

Tax law, tax is really important, it's also statutory, it's complex, but if you can learn a lot about tax, you're going to have a very, very successful legal career because everyone needs tax lawyers. Tax lawyers are never going to go out of business because taxes are never going to go away.

Concluding Remarks

I would just encourage you to be open-minded, try to find something, and when you find something, just dig into it, read about it, learn stuff, be in a position where you are really knowledgeable because people are going to really respect that. Early in your career, when you can say, "Yes, I actually do know a lot about this statute," that other people don't know about, you're going to find that lawyers much more senior than you are going to really respect that and find your contributions very, very valuable.

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