Insider Advice on Picking a Practice Area: Perspectives from Kirkland & Ellis
May 2, 2019
Selecting a practice area is one of the most important first steps in one's legal career. For law students, this choice may seem overwhelming given the breadth of practice areas. At Kirkland, we encourage prospective summers to take a step back and research their options, including speaking with attorneys and peers who were summer associates at the firm, meeting with career counselors at their law schools, and consulting helpful publications and rankings on practice areas.
Understanding where your interest lies prior to your summer can help you maximize your experience. Our summers enter our program assigned to one of four areas—litigation, corporate, intellectual property, or restructuring—and have freedom and support to explore the various specialties within each practice area over the summer, providing them a clearer sense of how to direct their careers when they return as associates.
We asked some of our associates for their tips on researching and selecting a practice area as they prepared for the summer program. Read on for their insights.
1. Did you go into the summer associate interview process with a specific practice area in mind? How did you research practice areas to prepare for your interviews?
Paige Scheckla (Corporate Associate, Debt Finance): At Kirkland, you need to choose what area you want to practice in prior to coming in as a summer associate. Unlike at other firms where they do a rotation system, we hire people directly into practice areas. That doesn’t mean that you need to know if you want to be a debt finance attorney specifically, but you need to know if you want to be in Kirkland’s corporate, litigation, intellectual property or restructuring departments.
Gerardo Mijares-Shafai (Restructuring Associate): For me in particular, I knew that I wanted to work in distress. I just was not sure if that meant working in a true insolvency/restructuring practice or working in a traditional M&A practice with a focus on distressed investments. Based on my conversations with lawyers at Kirkland, I had a pretty good inclination that restructuring was the way I was going to go. Once I got here, I was sure to scratch the itch. I tried one or two distressed M&A deals, and while the experiences were great, they also reaffirmed that our restructuring practice was where I wanted to be.
2. What are some resources that you recommend when researching practice areas?
Paige Scheckla: Sometimes it can be hard to tell on various firm websites what kind of practice areas they have and whether they allow summer associates to go between groups or whether they have to stick to one. I believe the best resource here is reaching out to attorneys. Kirkland attorneys are always happy to help. I get emails all the time from students at University of Chicago and UCLA—my alma maters—and I’m always happy to take their calls. Certainly websites like Vault are going to give a good idea of a firm’s top practice areas. Looking at lists that highlight individual partners in a firm, like the Daily Journal’s Top 40 under 40 is also useful because when you see that the top partners are in certain practice areas, that’ll give you a sense of the firm’s leading practice areas. Also looking at the NALP form to determine how many attorneys are in each practice group in any office is truly the best starting point to get a good sense of which firms offer which practice areas.
Gerardo Mijares-Shafai: The best thing you can do is talk to your law school peers in the class years above you. I found out about restructuring because I had a mentor who was the year above me. At the time, he was a summer associate at Kirkland in the restructuring group, and he talked to me about why he ultimately chose restructuring. That conversation (along with others) coupled with my background as a JD-MBA gave me the confidence that restructuring would be the practice area that would allow me to leverage both my graduate degrees to the fullest extent possible. Talk to people who can give you the breadth of knowledge that you need to make an informed decision, but don’t just rely on word of mouth. Do your homework by reading up on the latest editions of resources like Chambers & Partners and Vault. You can obtain pretty good insight into both the culture of a particular practice area and how a firm’s particular practice area ranks against its peers in different cities.
3. What are some useful questions candidates can ask during the interview process to learn more about a firm’s practice areas?
Paige Scheckla: I would ask folks exactly what their day looks like and what kinds of deals or cases they’re working on. A lot of times, a firm bio may say an attorney works in certain areas, but asking them exactly what kinds of tasks they do on a day-to-day basis will give you a sense of what the firm actually does. You should also ask what summer associates get the chance to do.
Gerardo Mijares-Shafai: There are two questions I would recommend any person have in their back pocket during interviews. The first is, “What is the role of the associate, and how does that role progress and evolve from the time he or she starts to when he or she is actively managing a case on behalf of a partner?” The second question I’d ask is, “What is the client/professional relationship like? Do you feel like the client is coming to you to help develop a plan of attack to drive a deal or resolve a dispute, or do you feel like the client is coming to you for your expertise in order to help them better execute their already established vision and deal path?” Those are two questions I found useful going through interviews; they helped me understand what the associate/partner and attorney/client relationships looked like at each firm and how that fit into my career goals.
4. How did Kirkland’s summer program help you develop in your practice area?
Paige Scheckla: Hitting the ground running in my desired practice area over the summer really helped me hone the skills I needed to start developing over my 3L year and my first year of practice. Kirkland also has top-notch training, which starts when you’re a summer associate. For corporate folks, we have Kirkland University that offers training specific to tenure. Over the summer, part of that is doing a mock negotiation and revising a purchase agreement—both skills I took with me into my first year at the firm. On top of that, because I was able to select my practice area in advance of getting to Kirkland, I was able to do real work from day one as a summer associate—including doing first- and second-year associate level work on real deals for real clients.
Gerardo Mijares-Shafai: I knew I wanted to go into restructuring, and I saw that there was so much opportunity as a summer; there were so many cases going on, and I was able to try out different things. I helped out on a matter where we were representing a creditor that was part of a Chapter 11 process. I got to sit in on a few calls where restructuring counsel was advising an equity sponsor of a company that was going through bankruptcy. And of course, I got to do some company-side work. I made my decision to come to Kirkland because at the end of the day, there was that breadth and quality of work, even as a junior associate. That’s not always going to be the case for other firms that do restructuring; Kirkland is unique in the restructuring space and made my decision easy.
5. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you tell yourself when you were in law school and deciding your practice area?
Paige Scheckla: Don’t stress. There is going to be a firm that fits what you’re looking for in terms of career goals, desired practice area, and culture, as long as you’re willing to put some time and effort into researching your options!
Gerardo Mijares-Shafai: Don’t be afraid to ask questions, whether you’re talking with prospective firms or your peers in law school.
This post originally appeared in the Vault Guide to Summer Associate Interviewing & Top-Ranked Programs. Click here to access the guide and read more advice articles regarding the recruiting process and summer associate experience, as well as detailed law firm profiles. Students at partnering schools have free access to this ebook.
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