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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

August 23, 2016
Question

How can I switch practice groups within my current law firm?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

Question Details: I’m a 3rd year securities litigation associate and want to move to my firm’s business practice. Is this doable or do I need to switch firms to make it happen?

A law firm associate’s ability to successfully switch practice areas within his/her current law firm depends on several factors…But it is doable. Whether it’s doable for You will depend on your own personal circumstances. Below is a list of key factors that will influence your fate – and what you’ll need to do to maximize your chances for a successful transition.

Firm Policy.

Some firms have policies (written and unwritten) against transferring practice groups. So if yours is in this camp, your chances at retooling your practice with this employer will be nil – no matter how awesome you are. Consequently, you’ll need to move to a different firm…or in house in order to pivot.

Seniority.

The more junior you are (meaning the fewer years of legal experience), the “easier” it will be to switch practice areas. Why is this so? Employers believe that as a lawyer moves on in professional years, s/he becomes more indoctrinated in the current practice and it is more challenging to switch gears to a new practice. Ways of working and habits are already developed, which make this profile a less attractive option. In addition, there is a fear that senior candidates will become disgruntled and feel “demoted” by having to start over, which could create morale and retention issues. In your case, being a 3rd year associate is junior enough to fit within the seniority window most frequently considered (1-3 years).

The Switch Profile.

Employers carefully assess the practice a lawyer is moving from to a practice s/he is moving to. Is it a move from one litigation practice to another? One transaction practice to another? Or is the switch from litigation to transaction/or vice versa? How similar are they? How diverse? It’s generally easier – politically, and from a practice perspective if the lawyer is moving from one like area to the other. Why? Because s/he has already developed the basic skills in the practice – and from an employer’s perspective, learning a new subject area within the same general practice is easier. As a securities litigator you will face some challenges as you seek to transition to a business transactions role. But these challenges can be overcome with the right approach and messaging.

Is There Room?

Employers will audit your desired practice area within the firm to determine whether there is room for one more head. If the group is at leverage parity, firm brass won’t likely approve the move. But if demand is high and work is abundant, partners will be more willing to bring you over to a different team.

Your Reputation in the Firm.

Are you a superstar or viewed as vanilla? The more liked and respected you are, the greater likelihood you will experience transition success. Partners don’t like losing their top associates so if denying your request creates a flight risk (and they know it will), they’ll be more likely to acquiesce in order to keep you at home.

Are you willing to take a hit?

Associates who switch practices are almost always required to take a hit in compensation, partnership class year or both. So switching from securities litigation to business transactions will undoubtedly result in this kind of requirement. If you’re ok with it, Pass Go and Collect $200. If you’re not, Go Directly to Jail (Yes, Monopoly references).

Your Academic Creds.

While the academic playing field is evening out in the in house world, law firms still keep a tight grip on academic prestige as a measurement of professional self worth. So if you attended the cream of the crop academic institutions, you’ll get points towards your desire to pivot. Those from lower-tiered schools will be disadvantaged.

So now that you know the materials factors at play, what’s next? Two things: (1) prepare for your ask; (2) prepare to explore the job market. If you are set on making the practice switch, you need to be as prepared as possible to make your case in order to maximize your chances of success. Request a meeting with your boss to discuss your inquiry and assess the reaction. In your meeting, use a gracious tone – and be clear and concise and don’t project a sense of entitlement. Your message must include why you’d like to retool your practice – and how your current practice has allowed you to develop skills that are applicable to a transactions practice…and how this gives you a unique perspective that many other lawyers don’t possess.

Retools within a firm are not commonplace, so in addition to your internal prep, I recommend that you explore the in house and law firm market for junior corporate transactions opportunities. This doesn’t mean you have to leave your current firm, but if you truly want to shift your practice, you will need to create as many options to do so as possible. And seeking other opportunities in the market will be important to achieve that goal. So update your resume and start the pavement pounding process.

As a 3rd year law firm associate seeking to retool your practice, it is possible to do so within your current firm. But while it can…and does happen in today’s profession, interoffice mobility is not terribly common. So exploring the market concurrently is a prudent move that will give you the options you need to feel more secure about the practice road ahead.

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