Retooling

During the course of your career, you may contemplate switching practice areas-either by choice or necessity. Some attorneys discover that the area of practice they chose, or fell into, after law school, is not right for them. Others find that the economy or political or technological developments necessitate a practice change. The ease or difficulty of the transition will be affected by factors such as the condition of the marketplace and the need for your current, or new practice area, in your present firm, your geographic area, or the legal market as a whole. Other factors include: the length of time you have been in practice and involved in your current area of expertise; your academic and work history; your flexibility and willingness to take risks; and how hard you are willing to work at making the change.

When contemplating a practice change for any reason, the first step is honest self-examination. Ask yourself whether you are dissatisfied with your environment or the practice itself. Do you really need a change of scene, rather than a change of practice? Determine what you do or do not like about your current practice, what you think you will or will not like about the new practice, and what your skills, strengths, weaknesses, and interests are. Then, explore the realities of your possible new practice area. Talk to attorneys practicing in that area, and ask them how they actually spend their time. What do they like or dislike? What qualities and skills do they use? What future do they see for themselves in that practice? Ask yourself, honestly, if that life would make you happy.

Different types of practice utilize different skills and are more suited to a particular personality type. For example, litigators quite often want to make the switch. They may have tired of the constant adversarial aspect of the practice, or find that they not comfortable in the courtroom. They may have become frustrated with the endless document productions and pre-trial skirmishes. Or, they might philosophically prefer to be dealmakers rather than argument-makers. On the other hand, back room transactional attorneys may be happier in a fast-paced people-oriented litigation practice.

Market conditions have a large impact upon where associates are directed when they first enter the profession, regardless of their preferences. During the late '90's, law firms had a tremendous need for corporate transactional attorneys, so many new associates were assigned to those departments. However, in the current weak economy, there is a dearth of corporate work, and junior associates are being directed into litigation, bankruptcy, or workouts/restructurings. Similarly, the incredible progress in computer, communications, and biomedical technology gave rise to an increase in the need for intellectual property attorneys. Thus, those with technical educational or work backgrounds were encouraged to join those practice areas. Furthermore, politics have an impact on which areas of law are best to pursue, or become necessary to abandon, as new regulatory schemes are passed, superseded, enforced, or ignored. For example, antitrust laws are more or less enforced, depending upon who is in the White House. Therefore, you want to be on top of the market trends, so that you can time your transition for when your targeted area of practice is most in demand.

Your best bet is to try to make the practice switch without changing jobs, especially if you are well respected at your current firm and like the people and the atmosphere there. You are a known commodity and, thus, are less of a risk for your employer than an outside candidate. If you can show how your changing to a different practice area would benefit the firm in the long run, that is even better. Approach your mentor within the firm if you have one, and also mention your desires to the department heads and partners in your current and proposed practice areas, as well as the managing partner of your firm. The best time to broach a practice change often is at a performance review. The better your review, the more receptive your firm may be to your requests. Ask your superiors for their advice in making this change, and try to create a plan for making the transition that is best for both you and the firm. Demonstrate your initiative and commitment by reading up on the practice area, attending training and MCLE sessions in your target practice area, joining specialized bar associations, committees and relevant trade associations, and asking for assignments to get started. If possible, find a mentor who is experienced in your targeted practice area. Often it is easiest to make a transition within your current firm if the change is to an area with which you already have some exposure. For example, if you have handled a significant number of real estate litigation matters, you may be able to use your knowledge of what makes a deal go sour in your new practice as a real estate transactional attorney.

If, however, there is little need in the legal marketplace as a whole for your desired area of practice at this particular time, such as switching from litigation too securities transactions in a down market, you may need to bide your time in another area of practice until conditions change. To avoid getting stuck in a less desired area of practice permanently, there are a few strategies you can employ. First of all, let your employer know that you are a team player and are willing to engage in the practice they most need right now, but be clear that you would prefer to be in your desired department just as soon as practicable. Introduce yourself to the head of your desired department and request to be given assignments in that area when and if possible. Attend firm training programs and MCLE courses in your current and desired areas of practice. Develop skills in your current practice that will be transferable to your new practice as much as possible. Do your best in your present assignment, to demonstrate that you have mastered basic lawyering skills and have the ability to excel wherever you may be assigned. If possible, ask for a time limit on your tenure in the less-desired department, or ask for periodic reviews of your assignments. If, after a year or so, reassignment does not look likely, consider a move to another firm. You do not want to get pigeonholed as a litigator, for example, if you are a transactional attorney at heart. The longer you stay in a particular area, the harder it will be to change others' perception of you.

As you become more experienced as a lawyer, and continue to practice in a particular area of law, it becomes more difficult to change. First of all, your firm has invested significant time and training to get you to that level of expertise. Unless market forces dictate that you must retool to maintain profitability (i.e., there is little work to be done in your area, or the practice has become obsolete), or you wish to fill a strong need that your firm wants to fill, your firm will look less favorably on your making a change. In that case, you may need to move to another firm that has a need for your desired area of practice and is willing to train. However, it may be difficult for a legal recruiter to assist you in making such a move. Recruiters are engaged to find attorneys with a specific level of experience and expertise. If you are essentially abandoning your existing expertise for an area in which you are relatively inexperienced, you are a difficult "sell."

Prospective employers may not only be hesitant to take the risk of hiring you for an untried area of practice, they also are not likely to want to pay a hefty recruiter's fee as part of the bargain. Keep in mind, also, that the more prestigious your background in terms of academic credentials and large firm training, the more opportunities you will have to make such a change. Employers are more willing to take a risk on an attorney who has a proven track record.

In order to make a practice change, you must be flexible and willing to take some risk. You may need to take a step back in terms of compensation or seniority level for purposes of partnership consideration, even if you make the switch within your current firm. You may also need to cut your fees or work pro bono to gain experience. Furthermore, you must be prepared to give up some of your client base if they do not have a need for services in your new area, and you will need to put effort into selling your new practice to new clients. Moreover, depending upon your desired area of practice, you may need to go back to school for an LL.M or even take exams to become a certified specialist, or practice before a new tribunal. Understand that successful retooling takes time. Changing practice areas may be difficult, but it can be done.

Valerie Fontaine
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