Can You Switch Practice Areas?

Maybe you became a big-firm litigator after watching countless "LA Law" reruns during law school, drawn to the fancy suits, courtroom suspense and law firm glamour. But after several years in litigation, you find yourself dreading the countless motion hearings and the transparent posturing of contentious opposing counsel. You're starting to long for the simple, cut-and-dried rules of inheritance you learned during your law school trusts and estates class. Could you leave litigation and become an estate lawyer? Or maybe you're an antitrust lawyer whose practice just isn't what it used to be. Could you ground your law practice in your childhood Long Beach roots and become an admiralty and maritime law specialist?

Lawyers may want to switch practice specialties for a variety of reasons. Obviously, personal choice is a major driving force. A family lawyer, for example, may start to find divorce and custody battles just too emotionally draining, and begin fantasizing about spending time with corporate transaction documents.

Other lawyers, particularly those in inactive practice areas, may be driven to switch specialties by market conditions. For instance, when a mergers and acquisitions attorney finds deals drying up, she may need to bone up on bankruptcy and debt financing laws. In another example, all those Y2K lawyers who found that predicted litigation didn't materialize now need a new niche.

The rate of lawyers changing practice specialties has increased during the last 20 years, according to a Harvard Law School lecturer recently interviewed on the topic. Litigators, in particular, are likely to switch. Initially fascinated by courtroom drama, some litigators become bored or frustrated, eventually deciding they'd rather help build something -- like companies, real estate developments or biotech patents. However, the urge to change practices isn't limited to litigators. Some lawyers graduate from law school convinced they're deal junkies, only to find they spend too much time with paper, and not enough with people.

Among the many changes in law practice management over the last 10 - 15 years is the growing acceptance of attorneys who change specialties. These days, law firms are focused on attorney retention so they're willing to accommodate lawyers who want or need to do something new. Although a monumental practice change (for example, switching from an employment litigator to a transactional patent lawyer) may require a salary cut and an adjustment of partnership track position, the good news is that many law firms will at least consider such changes if the internal need is there. An associate with a good employee record and a familiarity with the firm's strategy and culture may be given time to climb a new learning curve. And law firms may be willing to hire a lateral attorney who is willing to start from the bottom to learn a new area.

Of course, changing specialties isn't without its downsides. You might have to relinquish clients who don't have a need for your new specialty. And some practice areas -- like patent law -- may require special certifications or -- gasp! -- an additional bar exam.

If you're considering switching practice areas, read up on the subject. One resource is "The Official Guide to Legal Specialties," published by the National Association for Law Placement. Importantly, don't rush to change practice areas just to get out of your current position. Describe your ideal job and figure out whether this practice switch will actually get you there or whether you will just be transferring your frustration to a new subject area.

The most important preliminary step is to talk to lawyers in that field and other experts like legal recruiters. Ask about the upsides and, more importantly, the downsides of your potential new specialty. Get specific. What are the typical types of cases and assignments, the preparation required and the types of firms/companies hiring in that area? Determine if your natural abilities match those required for that specialty, and figure out if any elements of your current practice can be applied to the new one. Switching practice areas is still a risky proposition, but not as risky as it used to be.

 

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