Thanks to popular television, the most dominant image society has of lawyers is that they’re in-and-out of courtrooms, defending and prosecuting criminals ... or in-and-out of boardrooms, negotiating big deals, mergers, and acquisitions. But there is infinitely more to this profession than just corporate law and litigation.

From employment, education, and environmental law to intellectual property, international law, and immigration (and 50 shades of specialties in between), there is a handsome suite of arenas in which you can do battle as a licensed lawyer. Figuring out what type of law will best suit your talents and traits is, of course, a major challenge every law graduate faces.

The good news is you’re in exactly the right place to figure out the answer!

We turned to our panel of legal experts for their input on how law students can choose a specialty that’s ideally suited to them. And this guide you now hold in your virtual hands is the fruits of our legal panel’s experience, insights, and advice.

Who are we? We’re Brainscape and—with our certified, adaptive MBE flashcards and library of Law Academy guides—we help law students study for the bar exam efficiently and prepare for a successful and exciting career in law. An essential part of this journey is, of course, deciding what type of law you should practice and so, in this guide, we’ll give you the toolkit you need to figure that out for yourself.

Let’s dive in …

What type of law should I practice?

Man biting finger nail looking a bit anguished

Committing to a career in law is a hard enough decision on its own. Now you need to start thinking about what arena of the law most excites you so that you can pick elective courses and extracurricular activities that will contribute to more relevant education.

The problem is, when you’re still so inexperienced, these decisions can be monstrously overwhelming. So, to help you, here are six important questions, the answers to which will help you figure out what area of law you’ll probably do very well in ...

Does debate get you hot?

2 lawyers in business attire at a desk getting ready to debate

If you love good, hearty debate and, importantly, are not thrown by conflict or even animosity then becoming a litigator could be the perfect career for you. (When there’s money, reputation, and jail time at stake, you can trust and believe there’ll be animosity pointed your way from the other side of the aisle.)

If, however, you’re more conciliatory in nature and all this sounds like a steaming mug of anxiety stew, a different law specialty will probably make you happier.

You really do have to be comfortable with the clash and conflict of the courtroom if it’s litigation you’re after. Things can get hot and heated and if that makes you uncomfortable, you’ll just dread getting up in the mornings.

Take-away message: This first question is all about discovering where you’re most comfortable: in the courtroom or a quiet office environment.

Psst. Are you stressed about taking on the MBE? Check out Brainscape’s Law Academy guide ‘How to deal with bar exam stress’, which contains a calming plethora of advice!

Is money your key motivator?

man in suit tossing money into the air

We’d be bullsh*tting if we said money wasn’t a motivator to MOST law school students and lawyers. Heck, it doesn’t hurt doing what you love and getting paid a good salary to do it! But there comes a point where some people make a trade-off between practicing an area of law they truly love and the money offered by a higher-paying law specialty.

All too often, these lawyers end up disliking their jobs.

It’s an unfortunate reality of the legal profession: that meaningful work—civil rights, animal rights, environmental and sustainability law, etc.—is oftentimes the least lucrative work. However, the lawyers that operate within these spheres are typically the happiest and most fulfilled.

BUT, if you are fiercely motivated by money, then you’ll find the types of law that tend to pay the most—like patent law, intellectual property, litigation, tax law, and corporate law—to be the most exciting. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a lot of money. You just have to figure out if this will make you HAPPY and if you’ll actually enjoy the work the role will require of you.

Take-away message: If money is a major motivator to your career in law, you’ll have to pick your specialties discerningly because not all specialties pay six figures and above! But if money is secondary to service, then you may find yourself incredibly fulfilled with a career in environmental and sustainability law, civil rights law, or animal rights law, etc.

Do you need stability and predictability?

Natural rock scale balancing itself with 2 rocks on each side for even distribution

The reality of a career in law is that a stable, predictable 9-to-5 is the exception rather than the rule. In law, you’ll be at the whim and mercy of your boss, the partners you work with, your clients, and/or the courtroom, which is, by its very nature, highly unpredictable. You may find yourself working until 10 PM at night or over weekends, or having to skip lunch to be at a hearing.

Your job is to figure out how comfortable you are with an unstable, unpredictable work life. If you thrive under pressure and don’t have added responsibilities like a family, you might do well in the specialties of law that are demanding; and in which you do have to relinquish a fair amount of control to the court, your clients, and partners or boss.

Having said that, there are ways to exercise control over your job. For example: government agencies tend to offer more predictable hours and demands. Alternatively, starting a solo practice means you get to make your own rules and decide your own schedule.

Take-away message: What do you need in your work life? Is it stability, predictability, control, and autonomy? Or do you thrive under pressure and in a demanding, unpredictable work environment in which you are a part of a much larger organism? Figure out what's right or wrong for you and it’ll help you take your next step.

By the way: if you’re currently preparing for the LSAT and are still considering whether a career in law is even for you, read our guide ‘Should I go to law school? Reasons for and against’ to make sure you’re on the right path!

Do you like working with other people?

Team of six people all dressed up in suits working a table discussing papers in front of them

Did you know that, on average, lawyers are introverts? It’s the opposite of what one expects, considering the charisma and confidence portrayed by our favorite on-screen lawyer personalities! In fact, long hours behind a desk, alone, churning out miles of work is more the pace of a typical career in law.

Of course, there are specialties of law in which you are required to be more comfortable—and even gifted—in social situations, whether it’s arguing cases in front of a jury, negotiating and facilitating business mergers, working with a team of lawyers on a massive class-action lawsuit, or “wining and dining” clients.

Take-away message: If you are a more social, extroverted person, you’ll have to actively seek out opportunities that require more human interaction and client-facing work.

What are your interests?

Family law textbook with gavel on top

Many law grads choose an area of law because they like the idea of it but then become surprised, disappointed, and even depressed by the day-to-day reality of what that specialty entails. It could be the fact that there’s hardly any human interaction or too much; little to no stability and predictability or too much paperwork; or any of the other things we’ve discussed thus far.

Either way, few things hit a career as hard as discovering that the specialty you’ve invested your time in is a poor fit for your personality and a waste of your skills and talents.

So, it really is important to consider what you are interested in and how you can craft a career in law around that interest. If you’re passionate about protecting the rights of children, there’s family law; if you’re passionate about sustainability and the environment, there’s environmental law; and if you’re passionate about litigation, there’s criminal law.

Your inherent interests will lend you the motivation you need to power through the less glamorous aspects of a career in law. So make sure the kind of law you practice is aligned with your interest.

Take-away message: Blend your interests with your education to pick a specialty that satisfies both!

Read: ‘How to deal with bar exam stress

What do you like doing?

Man looking at computer with glasses in hand smiling

For every one hour of glamorous lawyerly work—or work that is closely aligned with your interests—there’ll be three hours of day-to-day, nitty-gritty, grinding work. But not all of these day-to-day tasks are created equal in the eyes of the individual!

Some people LOVE number crunching; others would sooner make out with a cheese grater; some people LOVE endless briefs and paperwork; others would rather lose a toe to a lawnmower, and some people LOVE debating and arguing with incensed opposition; others would rather hibernate in a bear den. With an actual bear.

An important part of choosing a specialty in law is understanding what the glamor work AND the day-to-day requirements look like, and making sure you’re comfortable with BOTH. Considering you’ll be spending long hours doing these things, it’s important you’ll be happy doing them!

Take-away message: If you like the day-to-day, nitty-gritty work involved in a particular area of law, you are going to be SO much happier as an attorney. But if you’re still debating on whether a career in law is even right for you, check out ‘Should I go to law school? Reasons for and against.’

Important things to remember about choosing a law specialty

2 feel on a road with a question mark and arrows pointing off in opposite directions

Most first-year law students embark upon their education knowing that they want to be a lawyer but having next to no idea of what kind of law they want to practice once they’ve graduated. Further confounding the decision is the incredible number of specialties, types of employers, and legal issues one can lend their voice to.

It’s unsurprisingly overwhelming but there are certain things you should remember that’ll help to abate the panic:

  1. You’re not supposed to know what area of law you want to practice right now, or even when you start working. Few people do. It’s something you figure out with time and experience.
  2. The area of law you want to pursue may change as you progress through law school, and in your early months or years as a practicing lawyer. What may appeal to you as a new law student may pale as you gain real, hands-on experience.
  3. Pay attention during law school, dabble in a wide array of extracurriculars, and use law internships to expose yourself to the areas of the law you're curious about and suspect you’d flourish in. Dive in and experiment!
  4. Don’t wait until you’re 100% certain to commit to an elective course, work experience, or even job opportunity, especially if your indecision is holding you back. It’s more important to put yourself out there and gain that crucial experience than it is to hang back and wait to feel certain.
  5. If you’re incredibly torn, visualize your decision by drawing up a “decision tree”, writing down for each specialty: (1) the career paths you can take, (2) the places you can work and the people you can work for, (3) the industries it revolves around, (4) the legal issues it addresses, and (5) the kinds of clients you can serve. Spell it out and you’ll soon see which one revs your engine more.
  6. Talk to lawyers who are practicing within the realm of law you’re interested in! Ask them about the demands of the job, the day-to-day responsibilities, and the special skills required. What better insights could you possibly get on being in the trenches than from these professionals?
  7. Also speak to academic advisors, professors, law school alumni, and law students who are further along in their education. Ask for their advice on making a decision and what you can expect from the specialty you’re considering, etc. They’ve walked the path you’re currently walking so lean on their experience!
  8. Pay attention to what excites you. What are the legal issues you care about? Which areas of the law interest you? What do you want to fight for? And how do you like your day to look? Pay attention and your brain’s dopamine signals will point you towards the types of law you were born to practice!

Read: ‘How to study for the bar exam more efficiently

The type of lawyer EVERY graduate should aspire to be

Group of lawyers in suits both males and females on the steps of a government building

In this guide, we’ve given you the toolkit for figuring out what kind of law you should practice and, therefore, what type of lawyer you should be.

The solution to this conundrum really comes down to determining what specialty of law will make you the happiest. Your unique personality type, traits, skills, talents, interests, and ambitions are what will determine where your career should be headed. Just remember: the goal is to be fulfilled by what you do, and, believe it or not, money is usually the lesser part of that picture.

Whatever decision you do make, there are two things we want you to remember, carry with you, and honor throughout your career:

Firstly, if you’re not happy with your decision, don’t waste time trying to make it work. Rather than battle onwards in spite of the aspects of the job you hate, consider a different specialty of law that is more aligned with your natural interests and skills.

And finally, regardless of the specialty you end up in, there’s one type of lawyer EVERY graduate should aspire to be ... and that’s an honorable, ethical one.

Become one of the good ones.

Want more advice on conquering law school, the bar exam, and life as a lawyer? Check out Brainscape’s Law Academy, Law YouTube channel, and Hands-free Bar Prep podcast!