Start now, law students: Narrow your legal interests early

It’s not long into a legal career before new lawyers begin fielding questions from prospective and current law students. Why did you decide to go into law? How did you get interested in your field? What experiences do you find most valuable in your job? Many law students test the waters of various career paths and practice areas until well into their 2L and 3L years—or worse, until after graduation. If we probe them about their fields of interest, it is not uncommon to hear, “I don’t know yet, maybe public service, or family law, but even compliance sounds interesting.” If we have the opportunity to interject, we should highlight the multitude of benefits that arise from narrowing their legal interests as early as possible.

Develop a distinctive reputation

Between bar festivities, informal coffees, social gatherings, and legal internships, a typical law student holds hundreds of brief, but potentially memorable, conversations throughout the three arduous years of school. There is a world of difference between meeting an indistinguishable law student and the next white-collar criminal defense attorney or an aspiring IP lawyer.

I made the decision early during my 1L year that—while personally open to a fortuitous shift—I would communicate my unwavering desire to practice immigration law to everyone I met. From federal judges to solo shops, my mantra was immigration. It wasn’t long before I noticed that practicing attorneys began to associate me with the field of immigration and non-attorneys would have no shortage of questions to ask regarding this politically prominent practice. What most law students fail to recognize is that indecision regarding one’s practice interest overlooks the fruit that a legal reputation yields and suggests a lack of passion necessary to survive the first years of practice.

Expertise will reap dividends later

There are numerous approaches a law student may take to set their semester schedule. Some could choose classes taught by a well-regarded professor or ones that pique an intellectual interest. Others may select classes that are conducive to a work schedule or are purportedly less demanding as stamina wanes. A more strategic choice may be to select courses that provide a framework of those legal concepts in a student’s practice area of choice.

My law school, like many others, only offered one doctrinal class on immigration. That did not stop me from setting the best schedule to help me practice immigration law. I enjoyed two semesters of immigration clinic to advise asylum clients, tailored a business externship to intern at an employment-based immigration firm, enrolled in a crimmigration class at a neighboring law school that transferred credits, devoted my upper-level writing requirement to refugee law, and drafted opinions for immigration court judges during a judicial externship. A mentor externship requirement resulted in over 100 hours consulting with naturalization and DACA clients as a certified student attorney. There are myriad creative ways to tailor law school to acquire the initial expertise necessary to begin practice. Attorneys—either in casual conversation or at a hiring interview—can identify the students with burgeoning expertise in their chosen practice areas. 

Become distinguishable to employers 

If you spend enough time around local bar gatherings, faces become familiar and names grow recognizable. This is no different for law students and it bodes well when a firm seeks to hire a new associate. Not every law firm will open new positions to any and all applicants. Instead, managing attorneys will consult their staffs for recommendations and request resumes and interviews accordingly. As opportunities arise, we should encourage current law students to become that person who first comes to mind among the local bar in a particular practice area. 

This aspiration doesn’t require students to become social butterflies. I attended law school with a wife and three kids under seven; I had no time for that! But strategic contact with the right legal professionals will give aspiring associates the exposure they need to become memorable when the right person is hiring. I can attest that instead of submitting endless resumes as my 3L year ended, I received unsolicited invitations to interview. I had already decided a year before taking the bar that I would start my own immigration practice under an existing firm, but it became demonstrably clear that employers seek out those who are passionate and committed to a particular practice area.

Generate client interest before you pass the bar 

As is frequently noted, what they don’t teach you in law school is what often will sink you the quickest in legal practice. The development of a book of business is crucial to employer satisfaction, financial success, and career mobility. Yet most law students have their sights set on the semester’s midterms, next summer’s externship, and that coveted first job. A more ambitious outlook may accelerate the opportunity to grow a legal reputation.

My early decision began to gain traction quickly. By the time I reached my 3L year, I had capitalized on 18 months of trumpeting immigration inside and outside the legal community. Every month through the fall after graduation, at least one acquaintance would reach out wanting to know if I was licensed so that I could help them with their case. During the earlier months, I funneled them to established attorneys, who welcomed my referrals. After sitting for the bar, I informed them that it would only be a matter of weeks before I could examine their cases. 

I realize this advice is likely to elicit skepticism. Prospective and current students may retort that they have not been exposed to enough practice areas to make a decision. Or they may say they are reticent to commit early to an area that they might grow to dislike. Fair responses—but let’s remember that most legal fields are so expansive that a variety of sub-practices thrive within the same area. The day-to-day work experiences of an I-9 compliance lawyer, a removal defense attorney, and a sports immigration lawyer could hardly be more different. And in any case the first career choice is not indicative of where a graduate will be in five, 10, or 15 years. But an early decision to focus on one area of law can provide crucial advantages in getting off to a successful start in practice. 

SCOTT ANDREW FULKS works with businesses, families, and individuals on a blend of employment-based and family-based immigration matters at Deckert & Van Loh, P.A. in Maple Grove, Minnesota. He uses his bilingual skills and cultural awareness to guide immigrants through an increasingly complex and unstable U.S. immigration system.