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To specialize or not to specialize?

|Written By Charlotte Santry
To specialize or not to specialize?

For many young lawyers starting out in the profession today, “it’s not so much about finding a job of your dreams, but finding a job,” admits legal recruiter Warren Bongard, president of ZSA Recruitment. But can specializing early on help students land a coveted role that reflects their passions, and mould them into more competent lawyers?

As universities offer more specialized law degrees and many boutique firms flourish, students may be tempted to narrow their focus in order to gain a head start in their preferred area of practice. This could be a risky strategy, warns Sean Stevens, a partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP and co-chairman of the firm’s student development committee. “Law school classes are getting so much more specialized. People have to be very careful when they pick their courses,” he says.

Students at several Canadian institutions can choose to focus on practice areas including health, technology, business, environmental, and tax law. Expressing an interest in a particular area of law is one thing, but “you also want to see students who have an open mind and aren’t locked into one area,” Stevens advises.

People may be more likely to excel at things they enjoy, but in reality, it can be difficult for young lawyers to get a feel for an area until they actually practise it. “To close your mind before you’ve done it is a little short-sighted,” says Stevens. For example, few students come to the firm with in-depth knowledge of mining and natural resources law, yet “it’s something that people get really excited and interested in” once they experience it.

Bongard offers a different view, saying: “I’m in favour of specialization and differentiating yourself from the pack.” While opportunities to specialize during a law degree can be limited, articling may offer exposure to very distinct practice areas.

His guidance comes with the obvious caveat that the specialty had better be in an area in which there are likely to be job opportunities. Tax, infrastructure, and mergers and acquisitions are areas that may experience, or are already seeing, a slowdown, but are among the safer bets, Bongard suggests, while litigation is one of the more steady fields.

The divergence in views over whether to specialize can be confusing to a student population comprised of ambitious high achievers with perfectionist tendencies and important choices to make.

“It’s something we have a lot of different guidance on, mostly from different students,” sighs Caitlin Urquhart, Dalhousie Law Students’ Society president. She arrived at law school with a clinical management and environmental policy background and says Dalhousie encourages some degree of specialization. She’s taken environmental law courses, but not to the extent that her degree will have a specialist designation. She says: “I had two friends; one of them said, ‘Don’t do the environment specialization, because if you want to work in a big firm they won’t even look at your resumé.’ Someone else said, ‘Do you really want to work in a firm that wouldn’t even look at you because you have an environmental law specialization?’”

Using law school as a chance to glimpse into different practice areas is important, she feels, as “often you end up in an area you didn’t expect.” There are also practical limitations to specializing, such as timetable clashes.

Will Russell, president of the University of New Brunswick Law Students’ Society, faced a similar dilemma. He completed a Master’s degree covering marine law, but feared being pigeonholed and felt law school was “an opportunity to get the broadest spectrum of the law as possible.” He says: “It was a concern that I’d get overly specialized and maybe in five years time I’d say, ‘This isn’t my cup of tea.’”

Having a niche background can be an advantage when it comes to understanding clients’ needs, acknowledges Shannon Leo, Norton Rose Fulbright Canada’s student programs and recruitment director. For example, there’s a lawyer in the firm’s mining practice who trained as a geologist, and those with science backgrounds may be better versed in rules around patents, she says.

Like other firms, Norton Rose requests transcripts showing students’ course selections as part of its recruitment process. “We’re looking for students who are taking courses that do line up with the kind of work we do,” says Leo. But while evidence of a general interest in corporate law is helpful, the firm doesn’t expect students to demonstrate a narrow area of focus, and the majority of applicants to junior roles have a broad legal background. “Our expectation isn’t that they would have very specialized law school courses,” says Leo.

She recommends students who think they’d enjoy a career in a particular field display their interest through extracurricular activities and voluntary roles. For example, those interested in litigation could participate in a moot or get involved with their student law clinic.

Specialization typically takes effect in the second and third years of law school, following a more generic introduction to the law in the first year. Students who bag an articling position by the beginning of their second year may have the option, depending on the curriculum offered by their law school, of focusing on classes appropriate to the firm they will be working at.

This was the case for Blake Pronk, Western University’s Student Legal Society’s outgoing president, who started at Torys LLP in August. He found out about the position early in his second year at law school and decided to concentrate on corporate law. The downside of this decision, he explains, is it left him unacquainted with some of the components of the bar exam. “Touching on that material for the very first time is somewhat stressful for those of us who have specialized,” he says. “What if I don’t pass the bar exam? Perhaps I should’ve thought of that in greater detail when picking my courses.”

Having excellent grades and coming across well in an interview are likely to be the most crucial factors in clinching a law firm job, even in the case of boutiques. Stephen Shamie, managing partner at labour and employment firm Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP, confirms the best way to impress is at the interview stage, since it goes without saying students who make it through the door will have good exam results. “While it is great if they have an interest in labour or human resources law, it is not the determining factor as to whether they will be hired at our firm,” he says. Hicks Morley is, however, understandably keen on students who show a high level of interest in advocacy. “The fact that they have participated in a moot or other types of legal presentations will give them a leg up,” says Shamie, echoing Leo.

Getting a great job immediately after law school is top of many students’ priorities, but isn’t the only consideration in deciding whether to pursue a broad scope of study or delve into certain subject areas in more detail. Does following a generic program equip you to be a more highly skilled lawyer in the longer term?

Pronk believes there are strong advantages to gaining a more general understanding of the law in the first year: People come to law school with a very diverse range of undergraduate degrees, from music to engineering and chemistry, and it’s useful to learn “to think differently” before getting bogged down in the legal nitty-gritty, he says.

Urquhart instinctively feels law school should “just be a base,” and Stevens backs this approach, saying: “The best lawyers tend to be the ones who have the broadest base.” One advantage is due to the many overlaps between different areas of the law. Smaller firms in particular will often need lawyers to apply knowledge of several different practice areas.

Students also have to consider the local market wherever they wish to practise, says Russell, who has lined up an articling position at Halifax firm Wickwire Holm.

The majority of UNB students come from the Maritimes, where it’s rare to find a firm that is highly specialized, he explains. The UNB curriculum is therefore fairly structured, with 17 compulsory classes out of 30 in total. That said, the law school offers a wide range of specialized courses in areas including intellectual property, information technology law, environmental law, corporate finance, family law, insurance, aboriginal law, credit transactions, international law, feminist legal theory, legal history, human rights, and comparative law.

However, its web site also states: “The University of New Brunswick Law’s outstanding reputation in the legal community stems in large measure from the fact that employers can count on our graduates having a well-rounded legal education.”

Students may also wish to consider whether they’re likely to work abroad, or for firms with global clients, in the future. Law schools are tripping over themselves to show off their credentials in this area: The University of Ottawa’s law school claims to offer a “particularly exceptional” program in international law, while Western says its focus on business law in the global environment is “unique among all Canadian law schools.” The University of Toronto highlights its work in Hong Kong/China/Japan programs, summer fellowship in international business and trade law, and International Law Society.

Leo says there’s no harm in studying areas like mining, international law, and cross-border issues if students wish to work at an international firm. But Norton Rose recognizes these are not always available. It places more emphasis on the ability to speak second languages. “All languages are helpful because lawyers are doing more work in offices around the world,” Leo says.

For students considering careers outside of private practice, Bongard warns against specializing. This applies to less experienced lawyers who wish to work in-house at some point in the future, as well as those who may look for “quasi-legal” jobs in other fields. And there are plenty of opportunities in the latter area, Bongard stresses, particularly for those with entrepreneurial spirit. Proving it takes one to know one, he practised for four years as a lawyer before setting up his own business.

“Firms offer very good income potential [but] there are a lot of business opportunities for a young lawyer,” he posits. “I just wish a lot of them were more open to it.”

Ultimately, the decision on whether to specialize is an individual one. Some students enter law school with a gut feeling as to where they want to end up and manage to successfully carve out a legal niche. But not all students have an overarching passion for one area of law, and even those who do may be constrained by their timetable or economic realities. A recurring theme is the need to remain open-minded and adaptable, which in a contracting job market is always likely to be sage advice.

  • Lawyer

    Jason Cherniak
    Interesting that all the advice is from big firms, where most students will never find jobs. Many of those who do will move on after 3 years. This article would be more useful if it prepared students for the reality that they are most likely to end up self-employed generalists or real estate practitioners. If you don't have a broad education - and articling experience - you're limiting your options much more than you think.

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