Planning your career in law practice.

AuthorBaker, R. Lisle

    1. Why Planning Matters

      If you are a law student anxious and uncertain about your career post-graduation, and still trying to sort your preferred professional role, this Article is for you. It is designed to help you do research on both yourself and the legal profession so that you can enhance your opportunity to find the right professional role for you.

      This Article is based on a simple premise: You should prepare for a career in law in the same way you would prepare for oral argument in court by writing a meticulously-researched and comprehensive legal brief.

      Like many young lawyers, you may be planning to look for a job at a firm after graduation to try it out. The legal market, however, has become more challenging than ever, and it is often difficult to find entry-level positions in law firms. Furthermore, despite the time and effort spent in the placement process, many lawyers find themselves dissatisfied with their careers. (1) Do you really want to leave your future to chance? Finally, what if you want to use your legal training for a purpose outside conventional law practice? Where would you begin to look?

      There ought to be a better way. For the last twenty-five years, the author has offered a course at Suffolk University Law School in which students examine themselves and opportunities within the profession to find legal careers that fit them. This class also provides students the ability to strategize to make these professional opportunities a reality. This Article is based on that course.

    2. To Succeed, Plan to Serve Both Yours and Your Clients' Needs

      It is as much a challenge for you to find the clients and work that fit you as it is for clients to find the lawyer that fits them and their needs. For example, while you could conceivably set up a bankruptcy law practice if market research disclosed an unmet client need, would you want to do that if you did not enjoy the work? Also, while legal education can help prepare you for practice, there are many different roles, and some of them require further training or experience. (2) So, what kind of legal work do you want to do? This question should serve as your research basis in uncovering your needs and the professional roles that may fulfill them.

    3. To Plan Right, Write Your Plan

      Is research enough? It is a precondition, but you will also need to spend the time writing about your research and rewriting it, the same way you would draft a brief. For example, a testator may know what outcome is desired, but until the testator's attorney captures that intent in an appropriate and clear testamentary document, the testator's intent is just a wish and not a will. That is why your task is to write, as well as to read, about your professional future, recognizing that while the plan may change, the exercise of writing the plan itself will be helpful in its own regard. Also, writing your plan helps you to structure your thinking, reveals holes in your research, exposes flaws in your logic, and moves you closer to a commitment. Experience with Suffolk University Law School students indicates that even if a plan appears provisional, the act of writing it, and the analysis that goes with that work, can make all the difference. Even though your plan will need revision as you and your circumstances change, initially writing your plan can help provide a benchmark for both long-term and day-to-day decisions. In short, to plan ahead, you need to plan to write.

      Finally, what if you are not sure you want to practice law? The self-knowledge and knowledge of the profession gained by planning will help you take full advantage of the law school experience because you can target your courses, internships, and clinics, as well as your part-time or summer work. Like providing an appropriate foundation for an expert's opinion in court, planning can help make your choices more persuasive. So, in summary, plan to plan.


    1. The Importance of Choosing a Career Focus That Is Also "Good Work "

      Many students come to law school without a professional focus and do not develop one while enrolled. During law school, students' personal and professional aspirations--what they want and what the profession offers them--are wide-ranging. Today, due to the high cost of legal education, many students do not invest time in exploring their professional focus because they are just hoping to get any legal job after graduation. In a sense, these students consider themselves venture capitalists in their own future. If you are one of them, then your challenge is to find a way to narrow both your personal and professional focuses to find your preferred legal role. What are the characteristics of such a role?

      If possible, it is important to begin your career with "good work." Professor Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Director of the GoodWork Project, has defined "good work" as a career that is based on "excellence, engagement, and ethics." (3) What does "good work" mean to you?

      First, it requires technical excellence, something that law school should help prepare you to achieve. Second, "good work" requires service to your clients and your community; again, something that law school should help you understand. What about engagement? That requires research--both about yourself and the nature of law practice--to find what engages you most. Ultimately, you want to be able to capture this set of choices about a law practice focus into just a few words so that you can articulate it clearly to yourself and to those with whom you want to work.

      Consider the experience of Massachusetts attorney Stephen Small. Mr. Small served for a period with the U.S. Treasury Department. While working there, he was the principal author of the federal income tax regulations designed to implement the provisions of [section] 170(h) of the Internal Revenue Code, which provides for a charitable income and estate tax deduction for the gift of a conservation restriction on land to a qualified nonprofit or governmental recipient. (4) Mr. Small, who was originally from Boston, returned to private tax law in 1982. (5)

      His practice began to grow, however, when he realized that rising real estate values were starting to create estate tax problems for families that owned long-held family land. Owners' estates often had insufficient liquid assets to pay taxes due, forcing distress sales of family lands. This situation led Mr. Small to begin focusing on solving the problem of parents who wanted to pass the family land to their children, and the children who expected to inherit the family's land from their parents. The key was to impose an enforceable conservation restriction, which allowed those families to claim the devaluation as a charitable contribution and reduce the taxable value of the family land for federal estate tax purposes.

      In the spring of 1998, after attending a conservation group program in Boston's North Shore that targeted owners of "family lands," Mr. Small authored a self-published book with the support of his law firm, Preserving Family Lands, that outlined these issues. (6) As book sales increased, Mr. Small began receiving inquiries from landowners throughout New England and across the country about the techniques discussed in his book. Through this experience, he established a successful law practice and an engaging legal career that served an important client need. Mr. Small followed Preserving Family Lands with three other books, and has continued representing landowners and land conservation groups. (7)

    2. How Do You Find a Legal Career That Fits You? Start by Finding More About Yourself and Law Practice

      So, how do you arrive at a law practice focus that fits you like Mr. Small's focus fits him? This Article suggests that you can find an answer by conducting research on yourself to find what criteria are critical for you in evaluating a professional opportunity; conducting research on various law practices to determine which best meets these criteria; and linking the results of your research in a written statement about your preferred legal career.

      Throughout this process, it is as if you are acting as both client and attorney at the same time. When first meeting with a client, a lawyer often asks questions to gather initial information on the problem, uses it to shape a possible analysis of what to do in light of the applicable law, and then tests the analysis with more questions, moving towards ever more focused solutions for a client's problems. (8) The same is true here with an emerging understanding of yourself and the professional world you will soon enter. With that in mind, how do you proceed?


    1. To Evaluate Opportunity, First Evaluate Yourself

      You may be tempted to bypass this section and move on to the professional issues. Nevertheless, like a good legal opinion, the conclusion you reach is likely to be only as good as the reasoning behind it. Just as an attorney would not offer expert testimony without qualifying the witness, you need to lay an adequate foundation for your conclusions. In other words, if you want to be able to evaluate a professional opportunity, you need some criteria against which to measure it. What may be relevant for a classmate may not be at all relevant to you.

      Questions to ask yourself include: What is special about you? What is your background? What are your values? What do you have a strong passion for? If you are going to distinguish yourself from other lawyers, how do you make clear to potential clients what you can do for them that your potential competitors cannot? These are issues explored further below.

      At the same time, it is important to recognize that self-knowledge has been considered one of the primary objectives of education. Lawyers are often focused on external considerations--case law or a client's problems--and not focused internally on the question of...

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