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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

August 8, 2016

I’m a corporate securities lawyer at a software company. I received an offer for a better title and more money from a life sciences company. Will it hurt me to switch industries if I want to return to software one day?

Julie Q. Brush

In the technology industry, lawyers can move fluidly from company to company…type to type with relative ease. But cross-pollination with life sciences is not as common – mainly because the subject matter and legal issues tend to be highly specialized. So employers in these companies prefer to hire lawyers who have a connection to life sciences through their education and/or relevant industry experience. There are however, exceptions. And some lawyers cross over with no prior tethering to the space.

In your situation, a move from software to life sciences will create some hurdles for your candidacy if you want to return to software or other type of technology company sometime in the future. The extent of the challenges will depend on the following:

The nature of your substantive practice area.

The more “cross industry common” the practice, the easier a transition back to software will be. For example, many types of technology and commercial agreements can be quite different from industry to industry. So lawyers in this practice area will have more difficulty with a transition. On the other hand, the corporate securities function is similar across the public company spectrum – as the same legal issues tend to be universally encountered. So the role is more transferrable, industry-wise, than most other practice areas.

Strength of academic credentials.

Candidates with great creds get cut more breaks. While this dynamic is diminishing as the profession evolves, those with stellar academic credentials can still rely on this insurance to kick in on occasion. So if yours are off the charts, software employers will take this into account when determining whether to welcome you back with open arms.

Strength of employment credentials.

Tenure with well-branded companies/firms including your current software company will carry weight with employers and allow you to make your case more effectively if/when you are ready to switch back.

The extent of your software industry experience.

Simply put: the more, the better.

Length of absence from the software world.

The longer your tenure in software…and the shorter in life sciences, the easier it will be to successfully transition back. So when does the rope to your prior software role start to weaken? It depends on your seniority. While there is no specific rule, generally speaking if you are a mid-level lawyer, once you’ve hit three years at your life sciences company, employers will view this as significant enough tenure to question whether too much time has passed outside of software. If you are a more seasoned lawyer, you’ll have a little more time (five years) assuming you have logged in a number of years in the software industry. With this said, this is but one factor of several in the assessment exercise. So even if your tenure is longer, you it is still possible to make your way back to the software world.

Depending on the factors above, the challenges could be large…or small. Regardless of which category it falls, as a candidate you’ll need to effectively explain your reasons behind your industry switch…and your reasons for switching back. That will be an employer’s threshold question. A good interviewing strategy will also include clear communication of what you’ve learned during your time in life sciences, how that experience has made you a better lawyer and how it will add value to their company. Focusing on the role and your expertise as opposed to the industry differences will enable you to better bridge the gap for a future employer.

At the end of the day, assessing this opportunity is an exercise in weighing the pros and cons as it relates to your personal and professional happiness. Here, you will need to weigh the pros of a “better title and more money” (and of course assess the role itself, the company, the culture and the executives) with the challenges of switching industries and potentially diminishing your marketability for software company legal roles.

So should you take the job? The immediate answer isn’t always easy. But with the right market insight and careful assessment of your background, your wants and needs, and opportunity at hand…it will certainly become clear enough for you to make the right decision for You with confidence.

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