I often hear from candidates who want to discuss changing their practice area. It may be that the candidate wants to make a small shift from a general practice area like general corporate law to a niche area such as IT law or, in some cases, the candidate may want to make a large change such as moving from commercial litigation to corporate law. In either case, changing your practice area is a big undertaking that requires careful thought, planning and some hard truths.
Here are some things I would recommend any candidate keep in mind and work through if they are thinking of making a change to their practice area:
Get exposure: Take steps in your own practice to get some exposure in the area of interest. This is easiest if you are currently employed at a full-service firm that has an established specialty group in your area of interest. Approaching members of the specialty group and volunteering to get involved with non-billable projects can be a great introduction to the legal issues in your new area of interest. If you are working on a large file that involves many practice groups, offer to take on some of the tasks that may be required from the specialty group. It is very likely that you will have lots of transferable skills like researching, drafting and negotiating that will still be applicable if you change practice areas. Spend your CLE hours on attending seminars and workshops which will give you exposure to the basic legal principles, current issues and practice area leaders in the area you want to pursue.
Have an explanation: When you approach a recruiter or prospective employer about making a career change, make sure you have a logical story about the change and show that you have done your research (i.e. by conducting informational interviews) so that it’s clear you are making a well-informed decision. Drastic career changes can make you seem flighty or unfocused and you need to take initiative to combat that assumption. Potential employers may view the 90 degree turn in your career path as a risk and so you want to have a well thought out strategy which explains why they should invest in your career change.
Be ready to work your way up: The reality is that if you make a career change, you may lose a bit of your seniority in the process. Your billable rate may decrease because you don’t have the same level of experience in this new area to justify your previous rate. By demonstrating a willingness to learn by taking on more junior tasks than you may be used to, you will open the door for more opportunities and lay the proper foundation to become an expert in this new area.
Take time to reflect: Take some time to reflect on why you want to make this change and what the driving forces are behind your motivation. Is it that you want more control over your time? Have you had a few difficult files in a row? These are some reasons why you may be dissatisfied with your career path that are not related to your practice area. You need to make sure you are motivated by a genuine interest to practice a new area of law, otherwise you may make a difficult move only to find that you are no more satisfied in a different practice area.
Law school is arguably ineffective in helping students discover their interests and talents and it is not unusual for lawyers to get started down one path out of school only to realize their interests may lie elsewhere once they have been exposed to the actual practice of law. You have invested a lot of time, energy and money into your career and you want to be happy in your practice area; just make sure you are making a change for the right reasons.
Sherri is a Senior Consultant with The Heller Group. She specializes in recruitment and placement of associates and partners into law firms and corporations. In addition to spending time with her husband and two children, Sherri enjoys running, skiing, playing tennis and is a fan of the arts.
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