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Finding your niche as a lawyer

The choice to specialise can significantly impact a lawyer’s career and its trajectory. Here, learn why pursuing a specific practice area could be beneficial to you.

user iconNaomi Neilson 08 January 2024 Big Law
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In the ever-evolving legal landscape, Australian lawyers face a crucial decision early in their careers: should they pursue a specific area of specialisation?

For lawyer and Coffee and a Case Note founder James d’Apice, the decision to specialise makes sense. Speaking on a recent episode of The Lawyers Weekly Show, Mr d’Apice shared his insights on why he took this approach and how it can be achieved.

Kicking off his career as a general civil litigator, Mr d’Apice soon began to gravitate towards areas such as family provisions work, complex wills and estates, and building and construction law.

 
 

However, it was the recurring themes of disputes involving partnerships, shares in small companies, directors, superannuation funds, and family trusts that started shaping his interest in corporate law.

“An interest and a little whisper of experience started to gather for me over the years, where things like how directors work and shareholders work and that sort of thing became really interesting,” he explained.

In 2000, Mr d’Apice joined Chamberlains, where he focused on corporate disputes, specifically shareholder and director issues.

He explained that a speciality often finds the lawyer, rather than the other way around, noting his areas of speciality throughout his career haven’t necessarily been accidental, but a conscious decision driven by his aptitude and growing competence in those areas.

“I had the opportunity, or I manufactured for myself the opportunity to say, right, well, if these are the areas I appear to be OK at, and if they are areas that capture my attention and my interest, well, why not pursue them and quite actively learn more about them and then share what I’ve learned,” he said.

Mr d’Apice said specialising has been the right move for his career trajectory, explaining that it’s helped him navigate the evolving legal landscape, offer in-depth expertise, and build both a fulfilling and profitable career.

“The time of the very profitable generalist lawyer may well have passed, and the path to a fulfilling and profitable practice is to become highly specialised,” he said, noting that lawyers who specialise can offer a depth of expertise that generalists may struggle to match.

That being said, young lawyers, in particular, may often find themselves forcing a particular practice area upon themselves rather than taking the time necessary to figure out what the right fit is.

Mr d’Apice said that following your passion and what attracts you to certain areas of law is key to not falling into a situation where you’re trying too hard to fit into what could be the wrong practice area for you.

“There is something to that – following what you’re attracted to,” he said.

“It’s both my perception and my experience [that lawyers fall into the area they end up practising in]. I’ll use the term 1 per cent without any data. There is a 1 per cent of elite graduates who are going to go off to become associates to judges in the courts or judges in the High Court or wherever it may be, who will be so brilliant and so heavily courted that they’ll have various practice groups vying for their attention at big firms or will have areas of interest at certain barristers’ chambers or whatever it might be.

“But for, I’d say, a massive majority of the lawyers who I’ve bumped into, there is an element of just trying to get a job out of uni or kind of being carried along with the momentum. If you’re a receptionist and then a paralegal and then went to uni and then became a grad lawyer, you tend to sort of be carried along with the momentum of the things you’re learning.”

In summary, Mr d’Apice said lawyers who haven’t got it all figured out yet need not stress.

“I’m occasionally asked by people in fifth year of uni, ‘What if I haven’t figured out my specialty yet?’ And often my comment, and it might seem a little glib, is almost, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it. Take some job somewhere. You’ll form a view about whether that’s for you, and you might form a view about whether what they’re doing down the hall from you is a bit more interesting than what you’re doing.’

“In time, your practice area will hopefully, and for many people, come to find you,” he said.

NB: This transcript has been edited slightly for publishing purposes. You can listen to the full episode here.

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