Areas of law

Jemma Smith, Editor
March, 2018

There's more to the legal system than criminal, contract and constitutional law. Take a look at the different types of practice areas that a lawyer can specialise in

The areas of law that you choose to pursue when studying your Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), Legal Practice Course (LPC) or LLM degree often determine the firms you can apply to once you graduate - not to mention your longer-term career opportunities.

Here's an overview of some of the practice areas you could enter…

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR)

ADR involves settling civil disputes between consumers and traders without going to court. This is often quicker and cheaper than litigation.

The two most common forms of ADR in the UK are arbitration, where an independent third party considers the facts and makes a final decision, and mediation, where an independent third party helps the disputing parties to come to a mutually acceptable outcome themselves.

Several large and well-established ADR schemes already exist in highly-regulated sectors such as energy, telecoms and financial services. However, an increasing number of businesses in other areas are members of voluntary ADR schemes.

You would suit ADR work if you have good negotiation skills, are understanding and can act quickly.

Banking law

This type of law covers the full spectrum of finance, from personal bank loans to complex business transactions.

Lawyers usually specialise in such fields as property, acquisition, capital markets or Islamic finance, and can work on behalf of either the borrower or the lender. They assist with negotiations, due diligence and the structuring of deals, ensuring legal compliance throughout. They are also involved in the analysis and prediction of future trends that might impact upon the client.

An analytical mind, great attention to detail and a good head for numbers are needed to be successful in this practice area.

Commercial law

Lawyers working in this area of law advise companies and governments on business-related issues.

They handle a range of corporate deals and standalone transactions, and are responsible for negotiating and creating contracts regarding, for example, the supply of goods and services.

If you have good people management skills, commercial awareness and the ability to pick out the important facts then this could be for you.

Constitutional law

This core area of law governs the operation of political communities, most notably the state.

It revolves around the concept of the state protecting fundamental rights of the individual, though legislation sometimes originates from non-national sources - the European Union (EU), for example.

Indeed, the protection of individual rights is increasingly the concern of supranational institutions such as the EU.

Construction law

This practice area involves both contentious and non-contentious work. The former includes early dispute resolution, while the latter includes tasks such as the procurement of resources and advising on insurance matters.

Construction lawyers work with finance and property development professionals throughout, on projects ranging from the infrastructural, such as roads, prisons and hospitals, to the industry-specific, such as those related to gas production.

You would suit construction law if you're creative, think laterally and have some technical knowledge in a related area such as engineering.

Contract law

A contract is a legally-binding agreement between two or more parties regarding the sale of goods, provision of services or exchange of interests or ownership.

Contract law therefore centres on the relationship, content and validity of these agreements. If disagreements arise, the blame and potential solutions can be identified by referring to the contract, or the laws that govern the contract.

Corporate law

Professionals specialising in this type of law work on matters including articles of association, directors' and shareholders' rights, and the incorporation, public listing or delisting of companies.

Clients come from all industries, and can include multinational corporations, investment banks, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), regulatory bodies and governments.

If you thrive on challenges, want to earn a big salary and have an excellent academic background then you should try corporate law.

Criminal law

This type of law covers any form of criminal behaviour, regardless of scale or severity, meaning that lawyers can work on crimes as serious as rape, murder or robbery.

Private practitioners can represent the defence, while public practitioners work either for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) or the Public Defender Service (PDS). Criminal lawyers often cover the entire case from start to finish, from the initial investigation to potential appeal.

Criminal law can also require involvement in international relations and understanding laws from multiple jurisdictions, particularly when concerning issues such as terrorism, extradition and money-laundering.

Employment law

This practice area regulates the relationship between employers and their employees. This includes judging what employers can ask of and expect from their workforce, and what rights individuals have in the workplace.

Legislative focus is on such areas as discrimination, working hours, data protection, and recruitment, redundancy and dismissal.

You'll need to be friendly but remain professional, be adaptable and have great communication skills to succeed in this type of law.

Environmental law

This area of law seeks to protect the environment, granting rights across a huge variety of issues from local noise pollution to worldwide climate change.

The UK's environmental regulatory bodies include local authorities, the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland.

Scientific knowledge and good analytical skills are two of the qualities you need to access the variety of work in this area of law.

Equity and trusts

This strand of law regulates situations where one person places trust in another to look after their affairs.

Most lawyers working within equity deal with trust law. Equity and trusts specialists often ensure that charities are spending funds appropriately or help to resolve conflicts between family members. The latter often involves the scrutiny of wills, meaning that professionals must deal with sensitive situations well.

EU law

This overrules the national law of all member countries if any conflict between the two arises. It involves a range of different matters from agriculture to competition, and exists to ensure populations within all member states are treated equally.

Lawyers commonly work on disputes involving national law systems, and can work either for or against the state. While government lawyers protect the interests of the state, others work for private individuals and companies to ensure that member states don't abuse their powers.

Family law

This strand of law covers numerous areas including same-sex parenting, parental responsibility, domestic violence and abuse, and finances and property upon divorce.

You need to have effective communication skills and be able to empathise with your clients to succeed in family law.

Human rights law

In the UK, this type of law centres on the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights.

It covers many aspects of public justice, such as equality, discrimination, freedom of speech and prisoners' rights, plus sanctions against regimes that have committed gross human rights violations, or persecuted individuals or societies.

Good advocacy skills, knowledge of the regulations and a patient approach are what's needed by solicitors in human rights law.

Insurance law

There are numerous sub-specialisms of insurance, including property, professional indemnity and maritime. Insurance policies mitigate financial loss caused by, for example, human error, accidents and natural disasters.

Lawyers are commonly required when disputes arise between the insured policyholder and the insurer, or the insured plus the insurer and another party. However, some lawyers specialise in the transactional aspects, advising on elements such as tax and regulations.

Intellectual property (IP) law

IP refers to creations of the mind, such as names, designs, inventions, images and artistic works. These are protected in law by patents, copyright and trademarks, which enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from their creations.

The ability to discuss complex ideas in a simple way, flexibility and good organisation are required if you want to succeed as an IP lawyer.

For more information on what IP involves, see how to start a business.

Land law

Part of the wider sphere of property law, this specialism governs the land and anything within or attached to it, such as trees, buildings, treasure or oil.

Lawyers fight or defend disputes over land matters, such as rights of way and boundary issues. They can work on behalf of landowners, companies, investors, private individuals or the state, and specialise in areas including property finance, mortgage lending and social housing.


Also known as dispute resolution, litigation involves assisting with any civil disputes and claims that arise following a commercial deal or transaction, either between different companies, or between companies and individuals.

Issues can include fraud, regulation, unpaid bills, defective products, corporate management, contractual matters, and mergers and acquisitions.

If you can present facts in a persuasive manner, have commercial awareness and good negotiation skills then this could be the area of law for you.

Private client law

A private client lawyer manages the affairs of individuals, planning all aspects of their finances including wills, trusts, investments, estates and taxation. Their main objective is to help preserve and build wealth.

Private clients are usually very rich celebrities or entrepreneurs, landowners who own a huge portfolio of properties, or individuals with inherited wealth.

Public law

This governs the exercise of power by public bodies in the UK. The most important process in public law is judicial review: the Administrative Court may order that any decision made unlawfully be overturned or reconsidered, often on the basis of the Human Rights Act 1998. Bodies that most often appear as respondents include local authorities, government departments, the prison service and the National Health Service (NHS).

Shipping law

Lawyers in this specialism deal with the carriage of goods or people by sea, plus any matter related to the use, financing, construction, insurance and decommissioning of ships.

The field is divided into wet shipping, which refers to incidents or issues that arise during the actual voyage, and dry shipping, which refers to all other matters.

To be successful in shipping law you'll need good communication skills, knowledge of the industry and attention to detail.

Sports law

Sports law combines a number of different areas, primarily commercial contracts, employment contracts, litigation and tax issues. Lawyers can represent players, clubs, sports agents, governing bodies or sponsorship companies.

They will generally train in one particular discipline: litigators get involved with disciplinary and regulatory issues such as governance and anti-doping; employment lawyers deal with athletes' contracts; and commercial contract lawyers handle brand management, media rights and sponsorship deals.

The ability to network, provide quick answers to clients' problems and knowledge of the sport you're working in are what's needed here.

Tax law

Public sector tax lawyers are primarily employed by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to provide advice and assistance regarding regulations, but they also work on the investigation and prosecution of tax evaders.

Private sector tax lawyers, meanwhile, ensure that clients take advantage of legal tax loopholes when structuring their business deals, assets and operations. They may also represent someone litigating against HMRC.

This area of law would suit those with qualifications in accounting and good attention to detail.

Tort law

In civil law, a tort is a wrongdoing by one private party against another. There are three general types: intentional, negligence and strict liability, with types of grievance including injury, slander, trespass, noise pollution and false imprisonment.

Successful cases usually result in monetary compensation for the claiming party.

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