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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

April 2, 2016
Question

I’m a midlevel associate in a highly specialized practice area and want to change practice areas. How can I overcome my pigeonhole status?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

As an attorney in a highly specialized practice area, you will encounter some challenges as you seek to shift gears. Just how high these hurdles will be will depend on factors both in…and out of your control. So as you strategize your transition, the following roadmap will help maximize your success:

  1. Be Realistic…and Optimistic. Are you facing a stiff wind? Yes. Will your lack of relevant experience disqualify you with some employers? Yes. Could it take awhile before you experience success? Yes. Can hard work and perseverance pay off? Yes. Retooling a practice is not an easy task so success will not happen overnight. It will take some time. So prepare yourself for the road ahead. And remain optimistic. A positive attitude goes a long way – particularly with employers.
  1. Know Your Options. So what are they?

Big Firm: Retooling your practice at a prestigious AmLaw100/Magic Circle/International law firm is the quickest way to reinvent yourself. But unless you are very junior and your academic credentials and grades are in the stratosphere, a big firm move will be a less likely option. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but know the market reality and manage your expectations accordingly.

Small/Midsize Firm: These law firms can be more practice flexible than their big firm counterparts. So this could be a good option as you think about expanding your experience. You may not be able to completely abandon your current practice, but building up your expertise in other areas will enhance your marketability for future opportunities. Some of these firms will hire you as a complete retool if you are well credentialed and willing to be flexible on level and compensation.

In House: The in house market has heated up and corporate legal departments are adding more diverse practices to their ranks. So there are an increasing number of in house opportunities for lawyers in both public and private companies. Some of these employers will hire lawyers that don’t check all the boxes…as long as other important qualities exist. If you can make your case, you’ll get your shot.

  1. Be Flexible on Comp and Title. As a “retool” seeking to switch industries after six years of practice, you’re going to need to be flexible in order to land the job that will facilitate your transition. Why? Because no employer will hire…or pay you for a mid-level role in a legal area and industry unfamiliar to you. But they may be open to a more junior role if you have other compelling professional qualities.
  1. Prepare Diligently. Think skills instead of specialty. And identify the skills in your current role that made you successful. Are you a good writer/drafter? Able to master a steep learning curve? Have a great work ethic? Deal with high stakes negotiation? Possess strong business acumen for successful results? Certain crossover skills are required to be a successful lawyer regardless of practice or industry. If you can identify what value you bring to the table, you’ll increase your chances of landing the job you want.
  1. Construct An Effective Message: Tell Your Story. Make Your Case. It starts with your resume and includes networking and interviewing. Identify the industry/practice you desire and be crystal clear on the reasons for your transition. Why does this other industry appeal to you? What influenced your interest? Articulate how the skills in your current role make you successful and how they will enable you to succeed in a new practice and new industry. Tell your story. Make your case.
  1. Get Educated. In the interim, take classes, attend lectures…and learn. Not to boost your resume (they’re not resume boosters anyway), but to familiarize yourself with this new world you’d like to be a part of and learn the language. Showing the effort and demonstrating knowledge will resonate in interviews.

Making a career U-turn is not for the faint of heart. It can be extremely difficult as well as demoralizing. But it can be done. With patience and the right expectations, preparation and attitude, you can take your pigeonhole status and feed it to the birds.

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Julie has been a great partner and trusted advisor to me over many years. The Lawyer Whisperer is a terrific resource, whether you are new to the profession or a seasoned counsel.

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Julie is the Dear Abby for lawyers. Her column is one of a kind.

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