At family dinner parties, the characteristic ‘What type of law do you want to do?’, or ‘Have you done research into this?’ or ‘Why do you want to go into Law?’ and so on and so forth, have almost become customary to me and I’m certain, to any aspiring Law student.
Particularly in this social setting, I rarely find myself relaying information about how I spent hours last night researching the recent Intellectual Property case where Oracle accused Google of stealing copyrighted pieces of Java source code for use in Google’s Android smartphones, or how the technicalities behind patenting are the most fascinating thing to me. Frankly, I find it easier to simply say ‘Environmental Law’, ‘Criminal Law’ or ‘Corporate Law’; this is something I want to change. As I learn more about the pressing need to educate one another, telling aunties and uncles about the paradigm shifts in the legal framework of their country and how specific cases inherently impact their daily lives, as a prospective lawyer, I see it to be my responsibility. Admittedly, my research is currently amateur at best, but openly talking about what interests me and why not only informs those around, but also importantly helps clarify and filter my own thoughts. To reach the position where one legal niche significantly interests you can be quite the challenge. These steps have helped me navigate my path: 1. Turning your big decision into smaller ones often helps when making this decision. Rather than flat out choosing between Tort Law and Criminal Law, focus on smaller decisions like what modules to take and what campus events to attend. This approach oftentimes allows me to piece together an answer that addresses the big question. Building a decision tree can help you break a legal niche down to those smaller pieces. New England Law outlines this theory well: Someone interested in Intellectual Property Law may want to work at a law firm in the entertainment industry, helping music publishing companies license the copyright to their collections of songs. Or they may want to work in-house at a life sciences company, as a patent associate, filing patent applications. Here are the decision trees for the aforementioned examples:
Practice Area: Intellectual Property
Industry: Entertainment Industry
Type of Employer: Law Firm
Type of Client: Music Publisher
Type of Legal Issue: Copyright, Licensing of Music
Practice Area: Intellectual Property
Industry: Life Sciences
Type of Employer: Corporation
Type of Client: Corporation
Type of Legal Issue: Patents, Filing Patent Applications
2. What are you passionate about? Realistically, one who wishes to pursue Corporate Law would have rarely partaken in the same extra-curricular activities at school as one who aspires to become a Human Rights lawyer. Similarly, the idea of working for the government as an administrative lawyer to promulgate and enforce policies and regulations would unlikely appeal to those interested in Fashion Law and trademark registrations within the industry. When answering this question, perhaps trace back to the classic ‘Why Law?’ you also frequently get asked at those dinner parties.
3. Talk to people! The more people you talk to, the better you’ll understand what’s in store for you in each different career path. Careers fairs, contacting g Law students or lawyers on LinkedIn and signing up for work experience are all good ideas to start with.
4. It is okay to be unsure; it is actually encouraged! Universities or Law Schools do not expect you to know what kind of law you want to practice before you matriculate.
For instance, the Shell case in the Hague last week absolutely grasped my intrigue. With the Paris Climate Accord acting to mitigate climate change (by keeping the rise in global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels; and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 °C), the risks and impact of climate change would be substantially reduced. The executive director of ActionAid Netherlands Marit Maij said that ‘big polluters like Shell have an outsized responsibility to help tackle climate change’ by undermining initiatives as such. This case therefore, is seen by many as a historic opportunity to hold Shell accountable for its actions and ensure the company cuts its emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. The Hague refuted that Shell's excuses regularly relied on the ongoing oil extraction and gas and vindicated long standing calls to keep fossil fuels in the ground. It held that Shell’s current policy of merely reducing the “carbon intensity” of its products by 20% by 2030, and aiming to reach net zero by 2050 would contribute to climate impacts that endanger the human rights of the plaintiffs. By consequence, since Shell was seen to harbour a ‘duty of care’, (a very typical term in Tort Law for the legal obligation to provide reasonable care which must be established before a claim of negligence can be made) their carbon emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030. An Environmental Law case has never struck me as much before since the decision marked several legal firsts with global implications. It is the first time that a court has found that a company has a legal duty to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in line with the goals of the Paris climate agreement. It is also the first time that international human rights standards have been used to inform a binding emissions-reduction obligation for a company. Just as importantly, the court set a new precedent by scrutinising and rejecting some of the most common arguments used by the fossil fuel industry to justify its business model. This case meant that the door to real corporate accountability for the climate crisis is finally wide open. Although simply stating ‘Environmental Law’ when posed with the classic dinner party question is quite an easy way out, briefly explaining the aforementioned case and its significance seems more fruitful, productive and worthwhile.
As much as we may choose to doubt this, there will never be a foolproof diagnostic scientific tool which will directly tell you what type of Law you are most suited to practice. As we explore our academic options, our career goals will likely shift. Through gaining first hand experiences in different areas of the law, you will certainly develop a clearer picture of the career you want to have. With this time, effort and thoughtfulness, the area of legal practice which gives you the most personal and professional fulfilment will become evident.
One day down the line, we will tell those same dinner party guests what we actually practice, rather than what we want to practice! 🤞
2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/18-956_d18f.pdf> [Accessed 1 June 2021].
the Guardian. 2021. Shell’s historic loss in The Hague is a turning point in the fight against big oil | Tessa Khan. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/01/shell-historic-loss-hague-fight-big-oil> [Accessed 4 June 2021].
Nesl.edu. 2021. How to Decide What Type of Law You Should Practice. [online] Available at: <https://www.nesl.edu/blog/detail/how-to-decide-what-type-of-law-you-should-practice> [Accessed 4 June 2021].
Bright Network. 2021. How to decide which area of legal practice is right for you?. [online] Available at: <https://www.brightnetwork.co.uk/career-path-guides/commercial-law/right-legal-practice/> [Accessed 8 June 2021].