Avoid the Biggest Mistake Students Make After Law School

Aug 21, 2014 by William D. Hartsock

William D. HartsockDo you have dreams of a rewarding and profitable legal career? Would you like to work with big clients on noteworthy cases? Or, have you been putting yourself through law school with hopes and aspirations of frustration and mediocrity?

As an attorney of more than 30 years, owner of a respected tax law firm, chairman of the San Diego County Bar Association Pro Se program and someone who is very active in the legal community, I can tell you that the first job young lawyers take out of law school has the potential to impact their careers in ways that most of them fail to recognize.

One of the most unfortunate realities facing young lawyers fresh out of law school and having just passed the bar is that there is a strong urge to take the first decent-sounding job offer from the first firm that is willing to hire you. This is understandable. As a new lawyer, you want to get to work and it is likely that you have student loan debt hanging over your head. Everyone needs to eat and pay the bills, and you are likely to feel that “you have to do what you have to do.”

But, here's what I want you to consider: If you take a position practicing in an area of law that isn't really what you want to do, what happens four to five years from now when you are still doing it? What happens when you look both forward and back—and you don't like the road that you are on? What happens when you look around and see your peers taking the next steps in their careers and you are just now beginning to figure out that you need to change course? Are you going to want to start over at that point? Certainly not!

That's how lawyers end up stuck and dissatisfied.

Legal careersIt is so important to figure out—as best you can—what you want to do right from the beginning and set yourself on that path, because specialization is the key to a great legal career. There are many, many attorneys out there in the market. If you don't specialize, you will be competing with all of the attorneys who will take anything that comes through the door because they also don't have a particular specialty. You will be competing with other attorneys that are not sought after for the important cases and substantial fees. Do you want to know who is sought after for the big money and important cases? Specialists!

It is through specialization in one particular area of law that you can truly become an expert, able to demand higher rates and draw the interest of clients with bigger cases. The lawyers who do not specialize are simply not qualified to take on the bigger cases with more at stake and therefore are relegated to taking on smaller clients with smaller cases for less money.

One of the biggest things that you need to consider is how you will be getting new clients throughout your career. This is something that law students rarely put enough thought into. Having owned a successful law firm for more than 30 years, I can tell you that in the legal community, many lawyers know each other; for lawyers who specialize in a specific area of law, referrals from other lawyers are one of the strongest channels for new client acquisition. However, this is not really the case for lawyers who lack specialization. This is true for two important reasons:

First, as a specialist, it is easier to become known as “the lawyer who does ____.” On the other hand, it is difficult for lawyers who do not specialize to stand out from the crowd. (And trust me, it's a big crowd).

Second, if you are willing to take just about any case you can get, other lawyers will never allow you near their clients. Contrast this with two specialized attorneys, say, an intellectual property lawyer and a tax lawyer. They serve different needs of the same client and won't hesitate to refer that client to the other. Networking is much easier and more profitable for those who specialize.

In addition, there is another reason, more important than those I have mentioned so far—more important than getting new clients and vastly more important than the money: If you don't specialize in an area of law that really interests you, you will never be as good an attorney as you could be. You will never reach your full potential.

If you aspire to become a respected and sought-after lawyer, specialization is the key. So, how do you become a specialist?

Take a look at the courses that you took (or are taking). Which ones interested you the most? Which ones got you the most excited or at least consistently piqued your interest? Which courses did you find yourself most eager to prepare for or participate in? Which did you get the best grades in? Next, go to your state bar website and spend some time browsing the different categories of specialists and see which ones most interest you.

Once you have chosen a specialty, explore continuing education opportunities within that specialty. Check out your state bar website and talk with teachers, counselors or administrators from your law school. There is no substitute for the experience of working in your chosen field, but specialized continuing education courses are the key to getting ahead and staying near the forefront of specialized law.

Again, I understand that when you get out of law school and finally pass the bar, that there is a real urge to take a job and get practicing. On top of your expenses and student loans, you've got expectations from family, friends and yourself to get to work—but if a job offer isn't in the area of law that you really want to dedicate yourself to, my advice is to wait it out. If you wait it out until you find a way to go into the area of law that most interests you from the onset of your career, in five years, you will have gained more expertise in the specialized field of your choice and be well on your way to an enjoyable career.

Remember, this is what you are going to be doing for the next 30, 40 or potentially even 50 years. So, you can get yourself on the right path now and spend every day making progress, or not.

The choice is yours.

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