Choosing a Practice Area
They say that, when choosing a pet, we should let the pet choose us. Sit on the floor, they say, among the puppies or kittens, and see which one comes to you. The same happens, consciously or not, in “choosing” a practice area. In some ways, the area chooses us.
There is no Cosmo Quiz to take that will reveal our perfect match of practice area, nor any formula to apply to lead us objectively to our ideal field. What happens instead is very human – a combination of heuristics and happenstance. Heuristics are short-cuts our brain uses to simplify decision making, mostly subconsciously, drawn from our experience, culture, personality and so on. Happenstance, in this sense, is the occurrence of events due to who and where we are, despite our planning and intentions.
I am very wary of setting out a list of rules that can limit someone’s experience. It is tempting, for example, to say something like “Don’t specialise too soon”, yet there are people who have fallen into a narrow specialisation quite early and have prospered, been happy and have become leading experts in that field. I think the best I can do is to give some loose scaffolding to the decision making to help as a guide, with the only injunction being to remain open to opportunities.
Very roughly, I think we fall into three categories before we go to law school, and maybe for some, before we begin to practise. There are those who have known their practice area early, those who know it is one of the general binary choices, and those who have little idea. Let’s speak a little more of those three categories.
Choices of university and courses are easy for those of us who know our chosen field before we start studying. I knew from before law school that I wanted to be a civil barrister, and that choice dictated the courses at university and the type of firm in which to complete Articles of Clerkship. But it is worth consciously noting that that “choice” was a result of a concatenation of personal phenomena too complex and obscured to self-analyse reliably – giving rise to the heuristics.
Two things flow from that observation — our choice may change when more data are available (for example, from experience in our chosen field), or when happenstance throws up unexpected opportunities. A few people find that their choice does not match expectations and leave that field entirely. More commonly, I think, we tend to gravitate to an area within our field, partly due to preference, partly to the type of work that comes our way, and partly as a result of legal and societal change. For example, many lawyers of my vintage who are now practising in arbitration are practising in a field that did not exist when we were at university. We can echo the words of Neil Kaplan that “[t]he word arbitration was not mentioned once during my study of law” (at least not that he or I can remember).1Neil Kaplan, “Winter of Discontent” (2017) 34 Journal of International Arbitration 373.
The second category is those who do not know the exact area in which they want to practise, but know that it is one of the three general binary choices – transactions versus disputes, civil versus criminal, and community versus corporate. This and the third category of having no preference is where I would suggest letting the puppy come to you. Every area of law is interesting, I have found. Once you get into the details of a particular field, especially when you gain some expertise, there is intellectual stimulation and personal satisfaction to be found. Although my preference was for civil corporate disputes, in early days I found myself arguing various types of cases — an appeal against sentence in the Court of Criminal Appeal, a costs application in the Family Court, and a worker’s compensation case in the Work Health Court then appeals to the Supreme Court and ultimately the Court of Appeal (losing at every step, I might add). Each area had captivating legal issues unimagined from outside the field, and gave personal satisfaction in working with individuals.
In all three categories, happenstance plays a large role in our area of practice. Particular cases will come our way and we will develop an interest and level of expertise in that area, often leading to our being given more of that type of case. We used to say, hyperbolically, that two cases in a particular area made you an expert, but it makes you sufficiently proficient to be given similar, more complex cases. Knowing that there is stimulation in every field, I would simply suggest being open to opportunities. A young lawyer was once given the chance of working on a case in what we all considered to be an interesting and developing field, but replied, “Why would I want to work on that!”. Of course, that’s fine if we are certain we would hate the field, but I think that level of certainty is illusory at that stage.
For the third category, those who have no preference, it might be an idea for them to test how they feel about the three general binary choices of transactions vs disputes, civil vs criminal, and community vs corporate. Most of us react in one way or another to those options and that reaction can guide the selection of the type of firm in which to start practice. The beginning is not the end, and your first firm does not confine you to a certain area for life.
On that note, remember that initial choices are not binding. Mostly we have the chance of changing areas, probably more so in the earlier than later years. But we can take inspiration from Winne the Pooh who said “I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been.” Sometimes we need to walk away to get to where we want to be. Alvin Yap, a colleague with whom I discussed this article, added that no amount of money compensates for working where we cannot abide.
I have found that, ultimately, work is work and that it is the people you work with who make it enjoyable or not.
I’ll end with three thoughts, two from me and one from Chris Bloch, another colleague who commented on the article. First, I have found that, ultimately, work is work and that it is the people you work with who make it enjoyable or not. Naturally there are degrees of tolerability of work, but for me it is the people who make the real difference. Second, beginning practice from university is a shock on many levels. I hated it so much in the first few months that I begged my sawmilling father to let me come home and work in the sawmill. Of course I would have hated that too, but at that moment it seemed preferable to what I felt I was enduring. Take some time to settle in and find your feet before making big decisions. It gets better as you go along. Chris says that no experience in an internship or on a matter is ever bad because you will learn either that you do or do not want to practise in the area. Nobody was ever hurt by being a more well-rounded lawyer, so jump at any opportunity until you know what you want, for certain.
|Neil Kaplan, “Winter of Discontent” (2017) 34 Journal of International Arbitration 373.