I never for a moment thought about pursuing a career as a transactional attorney. I entered law school for the wrong reasons. I knew I could think, write and argue reasonably well. I was a liberal arts major (Philosophy and Literature-Writing) and did not really appreciate how such skills could translate into success in the business world. And I did not think I would enjoy a career as an educator.
So, I did exactly what I would urge no one do today: I took the LSAT, got into law school, and went to law school, without having any particular passion about the law.
If anyone had asked back then–and I don’t think anyone did–what I planned to do with that law degree, what area I’d practice in, what I wanted to do everyday, if and how I would make a difference, I wouldn’t have had a clue. When I was interviewing and starting my career, there were vastly more jobs in litigation, so I became a litigator. I started out doing insurance defense, but not the interesting kind, and immediately grew bored with fender-benders (“Was the light red or green?”) and slip-and-fall lawsuits (“Was the banana you slipped on yellow or green?”). Fortunately, I got hired right away at a boutique firm that did more interesting work (at least from my perspective). I quickly became a “specialist” in automotive product liability litigation, specifically suits relating to the performance of automobile air bags, which was an emerging technology at that time.
I remained a “specialist” in this area, with a smattering of other kinds of cases, for about the first 10 years of my career. However, I eventually figured out that, deep down, I’m not really a gear-head, and it shouldn’t be a big surprise that the lawyers who really excel in automotive product liability litigation, and who most enjoy what they do, are those who are interested in cars. Well, duh!?!
I eventually migrated to employment law for a number of reasons. First, and most practically, it was the only area that I was able to get any early traction in terms of developing my own clients. Equally important, however, being the opposite of a gear-head, I found I enjoyed disputes that arose out of (often flawed) interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Also, I had long felt that employment law was fertile ground for building a book of business, since every, EVERY employer, particularly in California, needs an employment lawyer. If they haven’t needed one yet–they will!
I had not intended this post to be a memoir. I recognize that my career path probably makes dry reading. But I wanted to tackle a topic that I think is important for law students, recent graduates and those still in the early years of their career: should you attempt to specialize? Like most people, I’m narcissistic and can only approach a personal question by starting from my own experience.
In any event, I posed this question to someone who has a fair amount of expertise in helping lawyers make the most of their legal careers. Gideon Grunfeld, the President of Rainmaking For Lawyers, was gracious enough to provide this valuable insight:
“Too many lawyers get shortsighted advice about whether they should specialize and what that means. There are substantive areas, such as tax, ERISA, and patents, where specialization is almost a necessity. But there are many areas, such as business litigation, where specialization can be counterproductive. Rather than focusing on the substantive nature of the law and, for example, specializing in trade-secret litigation, it’s better to encourage young lawyers to identify the clients they most want to serve. Thus, for example, if someone has a passion for high-tech start-ups, they can focus on cultivating relationships in that world and position themselves to solve the full panoply of legal issues that arise for that market or audience. For most young lawyers this is a more robust not to say more fun way to practice law and build a client base.”
I tend to agree with Gideon’s advice. I like the notion of letting one’s specialty develop organically. In my case, it developed because someone close to me gave my business development efforts a big jumpstart by referring employment cases my way. I found I liked it and wanted to pursue it further. This is pretty much the opposite approach from deciding I wanted to practice entertainment law because I like to go to the movies (which I do).
What I would really caution against is remaining in a practice that never brings you any thrills. Even though I’m not a gear-head, there were parts of my products liability practice that I found compelling. I recognize that this is not the market for young lawyers to quit a job on a whim. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with developing a mid or long-term career plan to move away from an area that brings you no joy, with the hope of finding something more fulfilling. If I was still fighting cases about people who tripped on a public sidewalk, I’d have to open a vein. But that’s just me.