Different types of law for law students to consider
Law schools don’t expect you to know what kind of law you want to practice before you set foot on campus. Your first-year curriculum is designed to provide you with the fundamental skills needed to be an attorney regardless of what area of law you choose to pursue.
With that being said, the sooner you’re able to narrow down the specialities that interest you, the sooner you’ll be able to jumpstart your legal career.
This article summarizes the major areas of law practice and looks at some tools to help you narrow down your options.
Major fields of law
The following list isn’t intended to be exhaustive. There are a number of smaller practice areas that fall somewhere within these larger areas of law (everything from animal law to municipal finance law). This is simply meant to be a general overview of the most common law specializations people pursue in law school.
Bankruptcy lawyers work on behalf of debtors (individuals or businesses who owe debt) or creditors (individuals or businesses to whom debt is owed). Bankruptcy lawyers spend most of their time reviewing financial documents and drafting motions and other filings. Most bankruptcy attorneys spend very little time in court.
Law students who are interested in bankruptcy law should take classes in the following areas:
- Bankruptcy law
- Consumer finance
- Tax law
Business law (sometimes called “commercial” or “corporate” law) is a broad term used to describe lawyers who work on issues that impact businesses. Often, this includes the strategic creation of a new entity, and the handling of subsequent issues impacting that entity. Business law attorneys tend to work in-house or for large law firms.
Business law draws on a number of legal areas, including:
- Tax law
- Intellectual property law
- Bankruptcy law
- Real estate law
- Contract law
- Employment law
Business law is ideal for students who enjoy working their way through complex cases involving multiple parties and developing strategic plans to help people reach their goals. While business law tends to be one of the higher paying practice areas, the workload can be overwhelming.
Civil rights law
Civil rights attorneys specialize in the protection and expansion of people’s civil rights. Civil rights attorneys may work for the government (e.g., U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) or for non-profit organizations (e.g., American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund).
If you’re interested in a career as a civil rights attorney, consider taking the following classes in law school:
- Constitutional law
- Disability law
- Race and the law
- Housing discrimination
- Trial advocacy
While the pay is generally lower than in many other areas of law, civil rights attorneys can, in some cases, qualify for loan forgiveness programs. Also, it tends to be a very fulfilling area of law for people who are passionate about human rights.
Criminal law focuses on acts sanctioned under the criminal code. Criminal attorneys generally work as prosecutors or defense attorneys, and they tend to have outgoing or aggressive personalities.
If you’re considering becoming a criminal law attorney, be prepared to spend most of your time in court. Criminal law attorneys generally have large caseloads and must process information quickly and think on their feet. This area of law has a particularly high burnout rate.
Students who enjoy spending time outside often gravitate toward environmental law. However, you should be aware that environmental lawyers tend to spend the majority of their time reading and analyzing a multitude of complex statutes, treaties, regulations, and conventions based in state, federal, and transnational law.
Family law focuses on the often tense relationships between individuals and their families. This might include child welfare, adoption, or divorce. Family law attorneys generally work in small law firms and enjoy helping people navigate the most emotional and challenging moments of their lives.
Health law is a rapidly changing and steadily growing field. Law firms with health law practice fields provide legal services to hospitals, health insurance companies, nursing homes, physician practices, medical device manufacturers, and others. Many hospitals and state agencies also employ in-house attorneys.
If you’re detail oriented, inquisitive, and enjoy change, health law might be the field for you.
Immigration law relates generally to the attainment of citizenship and temporary or permanent relocation of individuals from one country to another. Immigration attorneys may work with government agencies, non-profit organizations, or private immigration law firms.
Law students considering a career in the immigration field should consider taking classes in the following areas of law:
- Administrative law
- Constitutional law
- Employment discrimination
- International human rights
- Refugee law and policy
Intellectual property law
Intellectual property law deals with the legal rights related to creative works and inventions. Intellectual property law includes 3 subcategories:
- Copyright law governs literary and artistic works—including books, music, and movies.
- Trademark law governs brand names and logos.
- Patent law governs inventions and discoveries.
Patent lawyers generally have a background in science or technology. Lawyers who practice patent law must pass a special examination that most people consider more difficult than the bar exam.
Intellectual property law is one of the more lucrative fields of law. Practitioners are often good at math and enjoy dealing with detailed, highly-technical information.
Employment law deals with the relationship between workers and employers. Attorneys in this field generally represent either employers or employees. Employment lawyers spend a great deal of time meeting with employees or employers and therefore tend to be extroverted.
Personal injury law
Personal injury attorneys provide legal representation to plaintiffs alleging physical or psychological injury as a result of the negligent or intentional acts of another person or entity. Personal injury attorneys must be comfortable in a courtroom and discussing sensitive issues with clients.
A typical day for a personal injury attorney might include:
- Meeting with a client or witness
- Reviewing extensive medical documents in preparation for the deposition of a medical doctor
- Handling a motion hearing in court
- Propounding or answering discovery
Real estate law
Real estate lawyers deal with legal issues related to real property. This includes sales, purchases, leases, title disputes, landlord-tenant issues, environmental compliance, and foreclosures.
Though a real estate attorney may spend some time in court, most real estate lawyers primarily do transactional work (e.g., negotiating and drafting various documents that facilitate the business of real estate).
If you’re interested in practicing as a real estate attorney, consider taking the following classes in law school:
- Tax law
- Secured transactions
- Environmental law
- Administrative law
- Estate planning
Tax law is a field of law that relates to the assessment and payment of taxes. Tax lawyers often identify ways to impact the tax burden on an entity or individual. State and federal tax laws are always being modified. Accordingly, law students who enjoy reading and analyzing information (as well as working with numbers) might be drawn to tax law.
Still not sure what field is right for you?
If you’re still not sure which legal field is right for you, consider taking the following quizzes. Each quiz only takes a minute to complete and will recommend a particular area of law based on your responses.
- Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) Discover Law Quiz
- American Bar Association (ABA) Legal Career Quiz
How to get your foot in the door
If you think you’ve identified the ideal field of law to pursue, consider taking the following steps to get your foot in the door:
- Talk to your career counselor about the opportunities that your law school offers (e.g., legal clinics, seminar classes, internships)
- Connect with a mentor in the legal field
- Join the local state bar section associated with your preferred area of law