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Posted Feb. 6, 2009

Choose Your Practice Group Early, Wisely, Law School Graduate Warns

Van Steenburg
Sarah Van Steenburg

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Contact: Rob Seal

Law School students should pick their practice areas early and wisely in light of the recent economic downturn, a Law School graduate and law firm executive said Tuesday.

“Especially in this economy, you really need to go into the field knowing what you want to do,” said Sarah Van Steenburg ’00, managing director of Major, Lindsey & Africa, a legal search firm.

Van Steenburg suggested students start by considering what they like dealing with. Legal fields offer opportunities to work with people, things, ideas, money or business. Figuring out which is the most appealing can be critical to career satisfaction, she said.

“You'll be working long hours, so you don't want to be dealing constantly with something that you hate,” she said.

Van Steenburg also highlighted other key considerations, such as students' capacity to handle moral conundrums, their preference for being a creator or an enabler, and which groups they wanted to help in their careers.

Van Steenburg said the current economic climate has also made several fields more marketable than others.  Bankruptcy is a hot field, while healthcare is expected to be marketable for the next five to 10 years. She expected the faltering real estate practice to make a comeback after a few years.

“I think it will be back in a couple of years; every practice goes through its cycles,” she said.  

Addressing student questions about shifting between groups or within companies, Van Steenburg said firms would be less willing to accommodate the changing preferences of their associates in this economic climate.

“The main reason I'm here today is to tell you to pick your practice group early. I know it may seem scary. But while you do close certain doors, you also open other doors within your field as well,” she said. 

After receiving her undergraduate degree in international affairs from Georgetown University, Van Steenburg earned her J.D. from the Law School, where she served as co-chair of the Diversity Committee in the Student Bar Association.

She began her legal career as public affairs adviser at Holland & Knight, and then went on to work as the mid-Atlantic regional recruiter for Starbucks Coffee Company before joining Major, Lindsey & Africa. She was elected managing director of the firm last September.

• Reported by Prashanth Parameswaran