Which legal practice areas will suit you best?

Last updated: 19 Aug 2023, 16:33

Graduate recruiters in law expect candidates to have researched the different practice areas within their firm before applying for a training contract or vacation scheme. Recognise your character, skills and career ambitions in the careers advice below.

A solicitor at work in different practice areas: discover which will suit you

Keep an open mind about which areas of law you’d like to practise in – that’s a key piece of advice experienced lawyers often give trainees as they start in a firm. At interview recruiters won’t expect you to know exactly what you want to specialise in; working life at a practice is very different to studying at university and the training contract is designed to help you work out which areas of law suit you best. There should be no pressure to make a decision at this early stage and it’s as well to gain experience around different areas of a firm to be certain that you’re making the right choice for a more permanent direction. Luke Hurren, an associate at Mills & Reeve LLP, explains: ‘We have a wide range of clients at the firm, from large corporate clients, universities and hospitals to wealthy landowners with agricultural and private client matters. As you move seats during the training contract you have the chance to experience difference types of client and personalities and see which practice areas appeal to you most.’

All that said, it is important to have knowledge of the firm you have applied to, the type of legal work it undertakes and the clients the practice advises. Recruiters will expect you to demonstrate this awareness at application and interview stage; our practice area overviews below will help.

Gain an overview of different practice areas

Read our area of guides to understand what it is like to practise in different areas of law as a trainee and beyond:

Know your skills and play to your strengths when launching your career in law

Do you have excellent mathematical skills? Are you good at negotiating or networking? Do you speak a foreign language fluently? Do you have the ability – and empathy – to deal with people from all walks of life, sometimes going through difficult problems? Some areas of practice demand certain attributes and you may find your strengths make you an ideal fit in some departments. Some specialisms are legislation-heavy: tax lawyers must get their heads around lengthy finance documents with each new budget announced by the chancellor whereas professional negligence lawyers analyse plenty of case law. ‘Some legal practice areas involve more case law than others; if you like analysing the law, this is a fulfilling area of commercial litigation with a rich body of case law behind it,’ emphasises Sarah Clover, professional negligence partner at Clyde & Co.

Other areas, such as family law, are often more about the practical application of a narrow set of principles and case law than constantly emerging legislation from Westminster. Family law also offers the chance to appear in court for clients: ‘A love of advocacy is necessary,’ says Teresa Davidson, a family law partner at Irwin Mitchell. ‘While solicitors try to resolve matters outside the court system, you will need to represent your client in court from time to time. Occasionally, solicitors instruct barristers for final hearings or contested hearings however. ’In corporate law, understanding the client’s business and the sector in which it operates is crucial whereas solicitors working on criminal cases need the ability to help and identify with others: ‘The work usually involves a lot of client contact, for example visiting prisons and police stations and attending conferences with counsel,’ emphasises Kate Macnab, director at Cartwright King.

Solicitors working on personal injury cases need strong numeracy skills to be able to calculate appropriate levels of compensation and forecast a client’s future needs to ensure their financial security as they get older. Staying power and patience can also prove a useful trait as some cases in this field can take years to resolve. Sarah Cunliffe, an associate in the personal injury mixed liability team at Shoosmiths, says: ‘If the injured party needs adapted accommodation, rehabilitation or is unlikely to work for a period of time, the costs/losses will need to be considered.’

Keep an open mind during your seat rotations as a trainee solicitor

Be aware that just as some seats during your training contract may quickly fire your imagination, others you’re steered towards may be a slow burn interest. Make the most of these seats even if you can’t initially see what’s in it for you. There may be opportunities to develop project management skills, or the ability to work alone, for example, even if the core matter is not something you wish to pursue permanently. Or you may find that what feels difficult at first grows on you. As an example, Mark Everiss, a partner Edwards Wildman Palmer UK LLP, says the world of insurance and reinsurance can be daunting to begin with as it is a highly technical area with its own specialised terms and intricacies. However, it is an intellectually stimulating and varied area in which to practise. ‘The disputes dealt with by City law firms tend to be complex, high-value disputes between large companies and their insurers, or between insurers and their reinsurers. Work can cover issues as varied as natural disasters and asbestos-related illness,’ he says.

Working for specific industries rather than practice areas

Oil and gas law is another fast-paced area of high-value work. Norman Wisely, a partner in the energy projects and construction practice group at CMS, points out that it’s not a separate legal system but a mixture of different areas of law applied to a specific industry. You may find yourself involved in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) or assist at large gas and oil infrastructure projects, working on contracts. Restructuring and insolvency solicitors who go on to specialise in this area typically say that they had little to no idea what it entailed before a seat rotation. Their role is to advise a wide range of stakeholders from company directors and employees or lenders and other people who may find themselves creditors to a failing company. ‘Solicitors aim to salvage as much of the distressed business as possible,’ says Richard Hodgson, a partner in the restructuring and insolvency team at Linklaters LLP.

Different practice areas experience different working hours

Working hours tend to vary from practice area to practice area. Some areas are notorious for having peaks and troughs in workload, with some all-nighters and weekend work – corporate and banking spring to mind. Nick Bolter, partner and head of intellectual property at Cooley (UK) LLP, explains that: ‘IP lawyers generally maintain a better work/life balance than in other areas of corporate and commercial law. This sector doesn’t tend to involve horrendous hours and we rarely – if ever – work through the night.’ Capital markets lawyer, Claire Keast-Butler from Latham & Watkins, admits to ‘unpredictable working hours – as in most transactional areas of law – but I have never had to cancel a holiday and manage to juggle my working life with being a mum to my two daughters. I have found that I have more control of my diary as my career has progressed.’

How legal areas of work can be affected by the UK and global economy

Economic cycles can affect the buoyancy of many practice areas. It’s important to consider whether you would suit areas that are cyclical and less predictable (eg corporate and real estate), or whether you like the consistency of more recession-proof work (eg employment and family). ‘During a recession, the type of transaction a corporate lawyer works on will change,’ explains Karen Guch, partner in the corporate department at Baker McKenzie. ‘For example, you might sell distressed assets out of necessity or in order to restructure a business rather than because a company is seeking to make a large profit from a sale. General mergers and acquisitions (M& A) work slows down and deals are more fragile because buyers and sellers are cautious. Economic cycles often dictate the nature of transactions, but this keeps things exciting. You have to be responsive to the demands of the market.’

Consider the structure of a firm's training contract alongside its practice areas

It’s worth remembering that not all firms design their training around seat rotations; make sure you consider which firm’s training programme would best suit your character and ambitions. ‘Think about how the training structure at different firms can help you find a practice area you’d like to specialise in,’ advises Vica Irani, corporate partner at Jones Day. ‘I joined my firm as a trainee because of its non-rotational training system, which gave me early responsibility and an insight into all aspects of a transaction.’

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