The Law Student’s Guide to 10 Top Areas of Legal Practice
Some students enter law school with a clear vision of their future practice. Others, however, are looking to see what practice areas spark their interest as they pursue a broad curriculum. While the first year of law school is typically focused on foundational areas such as contracts, torts, and civil procedure, students should nevertheless consider how they want to structure their studies.
This guide offers insight into 10 legal practice areas to help juris doctor students select elective courses, projects, internships, and pro bono activities.
1. Business Law
Business law can be one of the more lucrative practice areas for attorneys. In the Martindale-Avvo Attorney Compensation Report, business law practitioners ranked fifth in compensation.
Business law attorneys focus primarily on negotiating agreements, advising clients on risk avoidance, and meeting regulatory compliance requirements, rather than litigation.
One of the most important resources for business lawyers is a library of common documents and forms. These can be obtained from online resources, legal research services, and colleagues. Harvard Law School Library offers this guide for transactional attorneys.
Attorneys seeking to practice business law are generally more successful if they have some real-world business experience. Business law attorneys can also benefit from a broad understanding of related areas such as securities, taxation, intellectual property, employment, and insurance.
2. Cyber Law
Cyber law is a broad practice area encompassing any legal matter involving the internet, from defending individuals accused of cybercrime to helping businesses meet data privacy requirements. It is a rapidly growing and evolving field that is ideal for lawyers who enjoy doing research and understanding new rules and regulations.
Attorneys practicing cyber law should have a foundational understanding of technology, particularly cybersecurity and digital forensics. Cyber law matters may also involve contracts, intellectual property, employment, and policies and procedures. Government attorneys practicing cyber law may become involved in evolving legal, policy, and national security issues. Earnings for cyber law attorneys may be substantially higher in jurisdictions with a high concentration of technology companies.
Resources for those interested in cyber law include:
3. Criminal Law
In popular culture, criminal lawyers are portrayed as sleuths as well as attorneys, fighters for justice, or defenders of the wrongly accused. In practice, criminal lawyers thrive based upon knowledge of legal precedent, negotiation skills, ability to draft and argue motions, and skills in the collection and presentation of evidence. Of course, real-world trial experience and familiarity with local procedures and practice are essential.
Criminal lawyers focus on either prosecution or defense and may further specialize in specific legal areas such as white collar crimes, drug crimes, or crimes against persons. Typically, a criminal lawyer will practice in a specific jurisdiction, be it state, federal, or international.
Resources for those interested in criminal law include Georgetown Law Library’s research guide for federal criminal law practitioners and the Criminal Justice Section of the ABA site.
4. Employment Law
Employment lawyers advise organizations on all aspects of the employment relationships and defend employers against claims of discrimination, harassment, disability accommodation, wrongful discharge, and compensation. Employment law matters may also include enforcement of noncompete agreements and cases involving misappropriation of trade secrets.
Some practitioners focus on representing individuals in claims against employers. Either way, attorneys in the practice area must be familiar with an alphabet soup of regulations, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans With Disabilities Act, and many others. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced evolving standards, practices, and regulations surrounding remote work, vaccines, and more.
The U.S. Department of Labor elaws® Advisors website provides information on more than two dozen relevant laws and regulations. The ABA Labor and Employment Law Section also maintains a list of resources.
5. Estates and Trusts
To assist individuals with estate planning, lawyers must have a thorough understanding of the relevant laws in their jurisdiction. A background in tax law is extremely helpful in understanding the growing array of trust instruments. Estate lawyers will draft a variety of documents, including wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and advance health care directives. They also advise clients on transfers of property, charitable giving, and other matters, and may work with a client’s accountant, financial planner, and other professionals as needed.
Practitioners in estates and trust may also assist businesses with succession planning and asset protection. Insurance, intellectual property, real property, and other related fields may come into play.
Estate planning attorneys are predicted to be more in demand as the population ages. According to a recent Gallup poll, just 46% of U.S. adults have a will.
6. Family Law
Practitioners in family law assist individuals in matters related to marriage, divorce, adoption, alimony, and child support. Specializations include same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships, foster care, paternity actions, and child custody involving military service members. Justia lists a wide range of resources related to family law practice.
The attorney must understand the relevant laws of his or her jurisdiction as well as tax law, valuation of assets, and other related topics. Family law matters may cross jurisdictional boundaries and have international elements that complicate the question of which laws apply.
Family law has many overlapping issues with criminal law, although the two areas serve different purposes and practice in different courts. Attorneys may have to navigate situations in which a party to a family law case is facing criminal prosecution, or a party seeks to file a civil lawsuit related to criminal conduct within the family relationship.
7. Health Law
The field of health law is diverse and changing rapidly. Practitioners assist clients in a broad range of matters, including patient rights and privacy, fraud and abuse, and many others. Health law also overlaps with elder law, insurance law, and estate planning.
Of course, health care organizations are businesses that face a dizzying array of federal, state, and local laws and regulations. Many major hospitals are nonprofits, which adds even greater complexity. Contract law, employment law, tax law, and even First Amendment issues may come into play. Antitrust law is a growing practice area within health care as the Department of Justice seeks to ensure competition as more health care organizations are merged or acquired.
The UCLA School of Law offers a list of secondary and practice guides available through its law library. The FSU College of Law lists a diverse set of health care law resources for practitioners.
8. Immigration Law
By focusing on immigration law, attorneys have an opportunity to make a positive impact by helping individuals and families hoping to live and work within the U.S. Immigration lawyers also help businesses navigate visa programs to hire non-U.S. citizens with the skills needed to fill positions. The immigration law system can be confusing and intimidating, requiring practitioners who understand the process and can represent their clients in a potentially adversarial setting.
Immigration law often involves constitutional law, civil rights, family law, and criminal law. When helping individuals come to the U.S. for employment, immigration lawyers may need an understanding of education law, business, or technology law.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association provides a wealth of resources along with recent news and developments in the field. The Immigrant Legal Resources Center offers materials and training for attorneys focused on naturalization, citizenship, humanitarian relief, and related areas.
9. Intellectual Property Law
Intellectual property law spans patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets, and generally involves protecting and enforcing the rights of creators, inventors, and businesses. While the practice of patent law requires an undergraduate degree in science or engineering to sit for the patent bar exam, other areas of intellectual property law are open to any attorney.
Protecting intellectual property involves filing for registration of copyrights and trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and responding to any actions or requests during the registration process. Enforcement involves taking action against infringers, including litigation in federal court. Intellectual property lawyers also assist with contracts, acquisitions, licensing, and other related matters.
10. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
ADR is not a practice area per se, but involves the use of negotiation, mediation, and arbitration in lieu of or in addition to the traditional court system. With courts facing significant backlogs that delay when cases are heard, ADR has become a popular way to save clients time and money.
Practitioners who focus on ADR may also consider becoming a “neutral”—a mediator or arbitrator. Although some states provide for court-appointed mediators with limited qualifications, many states require that mediators have a JD and complete certification programs. Most states require a degree in law or conflict resolution for arbitrators, and some also require certification.
Attorneys interested in ADR practice can find more information at the Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services website. The American Arbitration Association also provides resources related to both arbitration and mediation.