Some early career advice from a friend: “Don’t get good at things you don’t like to do.”  Well duh, I thought.  I hated ironing shirts—and after a few soggy creases and singed cuffs, Mom rethought her decision to delegate.

Later—no doubt influenced by teenage years spent reading Robert Heinlein—I aspired to broader competence.  Formal education did nothing to discourage me.  Law school provides a tour through many lawyering skills, and with mounting pressure to graduate client-ready lawyers, that tour is likely to get longer and faster.  Many young lawyers imagine that career advancement equals skill building: you learn how to review documents your first year, draft a brief your third year, try a case your fifth year, and argue before the Supreme Court the year you make partner.  Right?

Um… no.  In most practice, especially sole practice, it’s the opposite:  skills first, then advancement.  You can’t get good at everything.  And since life will be easier if your skills, passion, and practice are aligned, it makes sense to find a practice area that rewards the skills you already have and want to develop (or at least lets you avoid the things you hate).  So when choosing a practice area, consider:

  • What’s a fun workday for you?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What tasks do you always move to the top of the pile?
  • If you need training in a particular area, do you look forward to it?

It’s widely recognized that trial lawyers—a rare breed—have a distinct skill set requiring creativity, organization, social skills, and perhaps a flair for the dramatic.  During her five years with the Minnesota State Emerald Gratz, a former assistant Minnesota state attorney general, completed over 500 court trials.  In her experience, “the best trial lawyers are passionate advocates and staunch professionals who live and breathe the game theory of trial work.”  Not surprisingly, her freelance practice includes helping other attorneys prepare for trial.

Transactional lawyers need to have a good eye for the right deal.  Stephen Cohen, a former New York City real estate attorney who now advises small to mid-sized businesses in transactions and planning, says it is “critical” for solo transactional lawyers “to be very selective about the types and sizes of the transactions you take on.”  Although it is “never bad to stretch yourself a little,” a solo lawyer without the skill to identify appropriate transactions will likely struggle.  “You will be doing yourself and your clients a huge disservice if you take on matters that are too big for you or that are far outside your comfort zone.”

Experienced solos:  did you choose a practice area that builds on your skills?  Please tell us about it in the comments.

By Karin Ciano