Here’s a shocking reality for all you pre-1L and newly-minted attorneys: the legal market sucks. Well, that’s not really shocking for those who’ve paid attention for the last decade-plus. The industry has been in a slow decline as the cost of actually going to school — i.e. the monstrous mountain of non-dischargeable student loan debt to forever accompany the former student — is quickly outpacing the available revenue.

Keith Lee, creator of Associate’s Mind and Lawyer Smack, recently posted results from a Gallup Poll survey of the value of a graduate school education:

Four legal areas I think you should invest your education

As far as the “worth” of law school — and I tell everyone I speak with to consider other careers with less of a financial investment — I still believe there’s value in the law, especially if you “prime the pump.” Thus, although you’re being forced into a “worthless” legal education, you can make it more of an opportunity by investing time or resources into “emerging” legal areas.

Based on my years of legal work, and more especially based on the work I see day-to-day as in-house counsel, I’m going to recommend four areas of the law that I believe you should invest time and resources to become familiar with. In my opinion, these are areas where you can gain a stronghold, make an impact, and (as the legal buzzwords du jour) innovate and disrupt.

(And here’s my side note on disruption: do a good job for a decent price — you’ll have to figure out your base costs to survive — and you’ll “disrupt” your legal market. Clients are always seeking competent, fair-priced attorneys and law firms to handle tasks. Check out this post for more details on what I’m talking about.)

If you stick with me through these suggestions, I’ll also give you some ideas or ways that you can turbo charge your worth as a young or new lawyer.

Human Resources and Employment/Labor Law (and Workers’ Compensation)

As an estimate, I spend roughly 70 percent of my week addressing employment and human resources related issues. And if you check the legal classifieds, I’m sure you’d see plenty of companies who need attorneys skilled in employment and labor law. And vice versa, I’m sure if you’re looking for plaintiffs, there’s a good number.

Of course, there may be some critics who say there’s not that much work, and I’m sure extent does depend on the number of employees in a company, but trust me, there’s work a plenty. And I should add that if policies towards employees continue in some states, we’ll continue to see an increasing need. I wish that I had a stronger background in employment law. Pay particular attention to discrimination.

For simplicity, and because it’s generally a one-sided, or “insurance company” matter, I’m also going to lump workers’ compensation into this section. The size of our company enables me to have more influence in our employees’ workers’ compensation claims, but I believe that any attorney (especially “business” attorneys) who understand their state’s workers’ compensation system will greatly benefit their clients.

Data, Privacy, and Cybersecurity

Vendors constantly pepper me with solicitations for cyber and data security services. Data breaches are the new normal for all companies. Having someone who is competent and experienced in managing and directing the response to a data issue is going to be required. Take the opportunity to set yourself apart from others to learn about technology, the risks, and other aspects. Use this to your advantage.

Taxation (and Estate Planning)

Whether you’re fighting the IRS because your client is delinquent on his taxes, or because your client wants to maximize his/her loopholes, taxation is huge. Additionally, depending on the individual or company’s worth it’s necessary to get reliable answers to difficult questions.

I don’t know squat about taxes — aside from what basic principles I learned in my way too difficult taxation class — so we have our go to cadre of tax folks. Businesses (and individuals) will become your best friend if you can give them timely, money saving advice on their tax problems.

And much like workers’ compensation, I’m going to throw in estate planning, simply for the buzz. Individuals and businesses will need help planning for retirement and utilizing tax savings. Personally, I believe, based on the growing number of individuals with too much debt, estate planning will be limited in growth potential to high net worth individuals, so there’s fewer opportunities for mass appeal.

Real Estate and Construction Law

This might be the area I’m most biased towards, simply because my company is a construction focused entity. I see many construction or real estate related issues to resolve.

However, I believe construction and real estate will continue to be a strong market for lawyers. Cities, counties, and states will continue to encourage growth and gentrification. The need for competent real estate attorneys who can address development, title, and other similar issues will grow.

As for the number of competent construction lawyers, they’re practically non-existent. Many lawyers believe that having simply handled a construction case, that means they’re competent. But construction and real estate law are really two niche practice areas, which co-relate, but can be different. Some of the minutiae of construction law never gets addressed in other areas. (And despite my animosity towards contracts class in school, many construction law issues revolve around contracts; so get happy with contracts.)

Gaining competence

Facially, “competence” in the attorney sense, at least in terms of ethical obligations, requires a low threshold to meet. Check out Model Rule 1.1:

A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

Of course, the comments to Rule 1.1 go on and elaborate on the meaning of “competence,” including the requirement that the lawyer examine the complexity of the case or the specialization or the matter. And “a newly admitted lawyer can be as competent as a practitioner with long experience.” In some matters, an attorney’s “competence” comes because he or she can research precedent — see Comment 2 — or because he or she is working with another lawyer — see Comment 6. And before you have my head on a pike, I’m certainly not saying experience equals competence. That’s why I think lawyers who devote the necessary to gain subject matter knowledge can excel in these four demanding areas.

First and foremost, enrolling in and completing subject specific courses or continuing education is the easiest way to gain knowledge. Law students especially should look at continuing education courses offered by bar associations near their schools. You won’t be eligible for course credits, but the bar association will gladly take your enrollment fee, and you’ll get knowledge you need. A $200 or $300 CLE course is almost always more valuable than the school’s $1,500 per hour law school course. Plus, there aren’t any tests over the materials, so sit back, take notes, and most importantly, mingle with the knowledgeable ones around you.

Second, mingling and associating with those around you is especially important and helpful. I regret not taking a broader advantage of becoming acquainted with lawyers in my fields of interest. Relationships are key, and being able to make connections with knowledgeable attorneys will serve you well.

In my experience, seasoned attorneys are generally willing to share their knowledge with newer lawyers. This includes helping with forms, covering cases, or just being able to listen and advise. Take time to cultivate relationships with attorneys already practicing in the field.

In reality, I’d like a do-over to be able to call an attorney’s office, ask to set up a meeting (preferably lunch), and discuss his or her practice (and then buy the lunch). Make it clear that your meeting isn’t about getting a job, but rather getting experience. You’ll have success.

Finally, my third tip is to find other avenues to break into the practice area as a non-lawyer or new lawyer. Here I’m talking about finding areas that correlate well together. For instance, construction law and real estate law are two corollary areas, meaning many of the issues are similarly situated. But generally, real estate law would be easier to “break into” as a non-lawyer than construction law.

Think about how many people you know that are real estate agents. The licensing process in most states isn’t arduous — compared to law school — but you touch on many different aspects of construction, contracts, and property law. Real estate agents also deal with new construction, and sometimes old construction. Thus, becoming a real estate agent could be a excellent way for you to break into the construction law industry (especially if you also perform my second tip well).

It’s all up to you

The sad reality — so face it now — is that regardless of you law school, your legal education won’t prepare you to actually do the stuff you want. You’re on your own to make yourself marketable and knowledgeable. Keep an eye out for areas that you can pinpoint to become successful. And if you’re an older attorney looking for a change of pace, the same challenge applies: get out and do something about your success.

Jeff Taylor

I'm just an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. I'm also an attorney and I blog about Android for lawyers. You can follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Google+.

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