It can be difficult to switch practice areas; difficult enough that most people advise against it.
This discouragement exists even though we know that many lawyers end up in their practice area by default, not by making an informed choice. Depending on the legal market at the time of graduation or the quality of job offers, practice area is often not something job seekers are able to give much thought to. So it’s no surprise that lawyers often find themselves unhappy with the type of work they’re doing and looking to switch to something more fitting.
Why Switching Is Difficult…
The main reason changing from one practice area to another is challenging is that different practice areas require a variety of often (seemingly) unrelated, specific skills. What a litigator does is necessarily not going to the be the same as what a corporate attorney does. And of course, a tax attorney generally can’t just one day decide to be a real estate attorney and go from one specialized job to another.
The specialization problem becomes more pronounced the longer an attorney has been with a firm, working away in one practice area. You become firmly categorized and pigeonholed while continuing to build up more experience and become known for what you do—and not becoming known for, or gaining experience in, other areas.
There are drawbacks to each approach, which you’ll easily appreciate if you look at the issue from both firms’ point of view: Your current firm hired, trained, and cultivated you to fill a need in a specific area, and they don’t expect to have to put that effort into someone new, nor make space for you in another area. Any firms you may interview with would have to take a chance on you—someone whose experience is in a completely different practice area than the one in which he is now expressing interest.
…But Not Impossible
The attempt to transition to another practice area should be undertaken carefully, and only after plenty of research and preparation. Remember to take the legal market and underlying economic conditions into account when determining how realistic your move is.
How transferable your skills are will be one of the most important factors in your ability to change practice areas. To prepare for a possible switch, you should attend seminars or take classes to become more familiar with, and develop skills related to, the area you’re interested in. You will also need to focus your networking efforts and mine your connections for information, assistance, and advice specific to your goals.
The smartest switch is to a related practice area. It’s going to be extremely difficult to begin practicing in a completely different area than the one you’ve been working in for a few years, not to mention how much of an uphill battle it will be to convince prospective employers to take a chance on you. Focus on and highlight the similarities of your current practice to the one you want to be in. In addition, you may have specialized skills that you haven’t been using much in your current position that make you a more attractive option to prospective employers. Play those up.
Changing your practice area within your firm, as opposed to moving to a new firm, can be a great option if you are satisfied with the firm in general. Make sure what you truly want to change is the practice area, and the problem really isn’t that you are simply unhappy with your firm, which won’t change no matter what kind of work you do there. If you would like to try switching within your firm, speak with a few senior people in the area you’re interested in to determine how open the managing partner may be to the idea. They may also have inside information about needs within your preferred practice area. If you have a good reputation in your firm and you can make a case about the transferability of your skills, and there is an opening for an associate coming up, your transition has a higher chance of being successful.
Changing firms as well as your practice area requires even more networking and preparation than simply switching your practice area by itself. You will potentially get further if you are willing to be flexible when it comes to title and compensation. A firm may not want to take the chance of hiring you at a mid-level position and salary, but they may take a chance if you are open to a more junior role. Firms are often more open to hiring junior attorneys who want to change their practice area; think about it from their perspective: Someone who has been working in one area for, say, eight years will be assumed to be less flexible and more stuck in their ways than someone with only three years of experience.
Remember that changing practice areas is a serious undertaking—go slow and learn all you can. You already know what it’s like to feel stuck, so make your choices carefully.
Over the next few weeks, focus on increasing your level of expertise in the practice area you’re interested in, and building your case for prospective employers or the managing partner you’ll need to convince. Use your network to assist you where you can.