If I want to be a lawyer, what specialisms are open to me?

If your goal is to become a practicing lawyer, an important question to ask yourself is, “What sort of lawyer do I want to be?”. While you do not need to know the answer to this question when you start studying law, you should have an idea of what areas would interest you by the time you finish your law degree / GDL / SQE 1. 

If you are planning on practicing law in England, then one key consideration is whether you would prefer to be a solicitor or a barrister. In general terms, if court room advocacy, “black letter” legal research and drafting Court pleadings appeals to you, then the bar could be the better fit for you. Conversely, if you enjoy working in a team, building client relationships over many years and being a “go-to” advisor combining both commercial awareness and technical legal knowledge, then you may prefer to work in a firm of solicitors. Nowadays, however, the distinction between barristers and solicitors has been blurred. For example, some barristers may seek employment in firms of solicitors, while some litigation solicitors may obtain Higher Rights of Audience so as to appear for their clients in Court without the need to instruct a barrister (albeit typically in relation to procedural points). 

In broad terms, the specialisms available to solicitors can be classified as follows:

Criminal 

Contentious

Non-contentious / advisory / transactional

Niche practice areas

Criminal matters can range from road traffic matters (eg dangerous driving) to murder. Some criminal lawyers specialise in white collar crime eg fraud, which can be a suitable match for those interested in both criminal and commercial matters. 

Contentious work is a wide area. For solicitors, this can be commercial litigation, trusts and private wealth disputes, commercial arbitration, investor-state arbitration, property disputes and more. In terms of the internal organisation and structure of individual departments, each law firm will differ. Nevertheless, most major “full service” law firms would group the above-mentioned practice areas into a general “dispute resolution” department. 

Typically, non-contentious work tends to cover the corporate, banking and property / conveyancing practice areas. Anecdotally, many solicitors say they feel more drawn either to contentious or non-contentious matters on an instinctive level. Non-contentious solicitors tend to cultivate long relationships with clients – while a corporate client may have regular smaller non-contentious company law queries to ask of a corporate lawyer (eg a listed company will ask their solicitors to review their annual report every year), it is only the very largest of companies which would continuously be involved in major litigation (whether as claimant or defendant). 

Niche practice areas are varied. These include family law, intellectual property, tax, employment and competition law. Such practice areas are not “niche” in the sense that there are relatively few lawyers in those fields. Rather, they are “niche” as solicitors tend to build their practice around those areas exclusively, whereas eg a non-contentious corporate lawyer may also advise their clients on banking matters (depending on the size of their firm). There are many other specialist areas. For some of these areas eg aviation law or public international law, there would truly only be a handful of law firms who are established in the field. 

These categories would generally be applicable to barristers too, except barristers would (almost) never do (purely) non-contentious / transactional work. However, many barristers do a significant amount of advisory work eg providing notes of advice on difficult legal issues to solicitors, who will then explain that advice to the ultimate client and assist the client in implementing the advice received. Do note that barristers tend to use slightly different terminology. So, they may say they have a “common law practice”, meaning they specialise in contractual or tortious matters. Or, you may hear a set of chambers described as a “Chancery set”. This could be “traditional” Chancery work, such as wills or trusts. Or, this could be “commercial” Chancery work, such as shareholder disputes or insolvency matters. 

There are other types of practicing lawyers in England, such as CILEX legal executives, costs lawyers, licensed conveyancers and patent attorneys. Typically, they perform fairly specific roles. However, it is important to be aware that options aside from qualifying as either a barrister or solicitor are available for individuals who want to become lawyers. 

Finally, it is worth noting that many qualified lawyers do not work in either a firm or a set of chambers. Many lawyers pursue in-house opportunities, whether in the public sector or the private sector. There are a wide variety of in-house roles across industries and companies. 

In all cases, for students who are trying to make career decisions, it is important to do research. Talk to people in the relevant specialism, and, if possible, gain practical experience in the field eg through vacation schemes. For students who join large firms of solicitors or chambers, there is often the opportunity to gain exposure to a range of practice areas before qualifying. However, even in such cases, no firm / set will offer every single specialism so it is still critical to spend some time reflecting on what practice area is most aligned with your skills, interests and ambitions. 


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