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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

May 24, 2017

I’m a 1st year law firm corporate associate and want to transition to litigation. How do I make the switch?

Julie Q. Brush

As law students, many aren’t sure what type of law is best suited for them. And this is true even as these newly minted lawyers enter the legal market. So determining a practice area of interest is often the result of trial and error in the early years of a legal career. Consequently, it can be quite common for young lawyers to find themselves wanting to switch gears. Your ability to successfully shift your practice will depend on the following factors:

  • Your academic credentials
  • Your law school grades
  • The quality of your current law firm
  • The number of junior litigation opportunities in your geographic region
  • The effectiveness of your message as to why you want to be a litigator
  • Your proactivity
  • Your patience
  • Possessing a positive attitude

In addition, employers are more receptive to junior candidates seeking to retool (as opposed to those with more experience) because they are less expensive, easier to slot into a lower partnership class and not extensively trained in another practice area. So the fact that you are in your first year of practice will help you.

Since 2010, the legal market has picked up for law firm associates. But the growth rate varies among the different geographic regions. Bigger cities such as Los Angeles, New York, London, San Francisco and Shanghai currently have a stronger inventory of associate opportunities. So if you live in a metropolitan city, the chances of retooling sooner rather than later increase.

If your academic credentials are stellar, you will have a healthy number of options with law firms of all sizes. If your creds and current law firm are so-so, you will still have options, but they will mainly exist with the smaller firms and boutiques. Regardless of the size or cache of the firm, your focus should be on acquiring high quality litigation experience. With a solid litigation foundation, you’ll be able to use it to build a quality practice and give yourself future options.

So what’s the strategy to make it happen?

Craft a good resume.

Your resume should be one page, well formatted and easy to read. You should also enhance your marketability as a litigator by highlighting your litigation related experience on your resume (clerkship, moot court etc.). So in addition to your current employment, don’t neglect other aspects of your background that can support your candidacy for a litigation position.

Identify current opportunities.

There are several ways to find existing associate opportunities: law firm websites, recruiters, other online legal and general job boards, law school career services, alumni and people in your network. Tap these resources and make a list of the positions that appeal to you.

Be proactive.

Doors open and then they close. If you see or hear of an opportunity that is of interest to you, don’t wait… apply. Timing is everything. Also, if you have credible contact at a targeted firm (alumni, friends etc.), pick up the phone or email and let him/her know that you are interested in transitioning your practice and inquire about existing opportunities at the firm. The more proactive you are, the more opportunities you will create for yourself.

Be patient and don’t get discouraged.

Timing and luck do play a role in the job search process. So there will undoubtedly be opportunities that won’t roll your way. Now is the time to manage your expectations and prepare yourself for a process that may take several months. Just keep moving forward and maintain a positive attitude.

Be prepared.

If/when you have your interview(s), be as prepared as you can be. Do your homework on the firm and tend to your physical presentation. In addition, you’ll be questioned on the drivers behind your desire to switch practices. So you need to have the messaging down cold about why you want to be a litigator. A persuasive answer will be very important to an employer.

The fact that you have identified an area of practice that interests you this early in your career is terrific. So give yourself some snaps for this accomplishment. While transitioning your practice will not be effortless, it is doable in today’s legal market. So there is good news as you embark on your search. Best of luck!

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