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Women and the LawThe newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

April 2011, vol. 16, no. 4

Transitions in the law

I recently met with an attorney friend who was exasperated with her legal practice. She was considering giving up the law altogether because she found the area of law that she had practiced for the past eight years both unfulfilling and uninteresting.

“This is not why I went to law school,” she said. “Should I give up the practice altogether?”

Many attorneys have faced this very question when dissatisfied with their present career. Several of my attorney friends and colleagues have felt similarly at times, and some have transitioned out of legal practice or changed careers altogether. Before leaving the law altogether, however, some attorneys should consider transitioning from their present practice area to another practice area more appealing to them. Sometimes this can make all the difference.

Before specializing in an area of law in law school became the norm, many attorneys fell into their present practice of law by chance or mere opportunity. I know from personal experience that changing practice areas can seem like a daunting task at first. Indeed, switching from family law to corporate law, for example, or vice versa might appear difficult, if not impossible. Nonetheless, with patience, perseverance and creativity, transitioning practice areas can be done successfully. Several experienced attorneys shared with me their practical advice on the subject.

Do Your Homework First

Choosing another practice area can be as simple as examining areas of law that interested you in law school or projects you worked on from time to time. However, it might be necessary to conduct more in-depth research through books, journals, and online articles.

After you determine your ideal practice area of interest, articulate clearly your reasons for the transition:

• Why do you want to practice in this area of law?

• What draws you to this area?

• Why would you excel in this practice area?

• What is motivating you to change practice areas?

Your contacts and potential employers will ask these questions. You must, therefore, be prepared to answer these questions as you proceed to the next stage of your career.

Getting Started

Take stock of your contacts. After you identify the practice area you wish to transition into, take stock of your contacts in order to start talking to experienced lawyers in your ideal practice area. To get a better idea of whether you will enjoy an area of law, speaking with other attorneys in that practice area is crucial. If you do not know any attorneys in that particular practice area, start with your mentor and current contacts and ask them if they know any attorneys in your desired practice area that you could talk to for informational purposes. Remember: Asking for a job should not be your priority until you do your homework; networking in the field will allow you to do both research and lay the groundwork for future employment.

You may also want to speak with contacts who have successfully transitioned from one practice area to another for guidance and advice, even if it does not involve your practice area of interest. Ask your contacts if they know someone who has changed practice areas or started a practice in another area of law.

Reaching out to your contacts. Once you obtain at least one contact, approach the contact from a learning perspective and not as a job hunter. Send a resume for the sole purpose of providing your background. Approach this learning stage with the goals of gathering information and demonstrating your commitment to transitioning to your ideal practice area given the opportunity.

Remember to be persistent: attorneys, like you, are busy. Referrals may not return your call right away, so do not wait on one attorney before reaching out to others. When you do speak with your contact, ask the attorney if you can take her to coffee or lunch. Face-to-face meetings will allow you to learn and network in a much more personal way and are strongly recommended; however, many attorneys may only have time for a phone call so use your time wisely if this is the method of communication your contact prefers.

Talking to your contacts. You should approach the discussion with your contacts the same way you would approach an informational interview. Find out how they got into that practice area or why they chose it. Candidly ask contacts what they like and do not like about their careers, and what is challenging about it.

Finally and importantly, ask for thoughts, suggestions or guidance from the attorney on transitioning to your desired practice area. You may want to ask your contact what she would look for as an employer from a transitioning candidate. For example, what would strengthen your resume to show aptitude or enthusiasm in that practice area? Much of the guidance you obtain during your quest to transition between practice areas will come from these contacts, so take advantage of the opportunity to ask specific and thoughtful questions you have about your desired practice area.

Rule of 3s. The most significant piece of advice I obtained was from an attorney who transitioned from corporate to family law after practicing corporate law for many years. The attorney, who is now a partner at a major family law firm, suggested the “Rule of 3s.”

At the end of the conversation or meeting, ask each contact for at least three additional contacts to talk to for additional information. You may only get two contacts, or perhaps only one of the three will return your call, but the “Rule of 3s” is vital to learning and an eventual job search to transition over. Be patient-- the contact who may recommend you for a position may be several levels down the chain. In the spirit of professionalism and graciousness, always send a follow up note or e-mail to thank the contact for her valuable time.

Becoming Knowledgeable

As you continue learning and networking through contacts, you must be able to discuss and show your enthusiasm and dedication to transitioning into your ideal practice area. Future employers will want to see that you are taking positive steps forward that demonstrate more than just a flighty jump to a new hot area of the law or switching practice areas without purpose and direction.

You can show your commitment to another area of law in several ways:

• Writing an article in a local bar journal or newsletter.

• Giving a presentation at a practice area meeting of a bar association.

• Joining a practice area group of local bar associations. Remember to contribute to the association and go beyond being a mere member in order to demonstrate leadership, effort, and dedication.

The above-mentioned activities are an excellent way to get your name out in the community, meet other attorneys in that area of law, learn more about an area of law, and obtain advice about how to transition. The contacts you make could also be potential employers: if you make a solid and genuine impression, people will remember you when they hear of an opening, whether at their organization or another.

Additional Thoughts

Other ways to explore a practice area. Think outside the box when it comes to transitioning between practice areas. Can you build up another practice at your present place of employment? Is this a possibility your firm or organization might welcome? Perhaps specializing in more than one area of law might be a welcome challenge instead of transitioning out of your present practice area altogether. Also, consider volunteering at a legal clinic and/or taking on pro bono cases in your desired practice area with supervision or co-counsel in order to try your hand in that area of law and obtain additional experience in the area.

Excel in your current position. Additionally, continue doing well in your current employment as you make efforts to transition. A recruiter in the area of employee benefits advised me that doing a “rock star job” in your present legal position helps to maintain your reputation and keeps your work ethic solid and continuous.

No excuses. Do not use the economy as an excuse. It is inevitable that more than one person during your journey will tell you to “stay put” in this economy or discourage you from pursuing your desired practice area. If a transition is something you truly desire, kindly ignore the naysayers and be persistent. The economy is not an excuse to stay unhappy or stuck. A transition will undoubtedly take time, but it is not impossible--even in a struggling economy.

Pay it forward. As a final note, pay it forward when it comes to networking with contacts as you make your transition. Every attorney that takes of her valuable time to help you is contributing to the profession. Remember to do the same for other attorneys as you strive to reach your own professional goals. ■

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Shital Patel is an attorney practicing in Chicago. She can be reached directly at spatel0518@gmail.com. She is co-editor of The Catalyst and a member of the ISBA Women and the Law Committee, and immediate past Vice-President and Chair of Women Everywhere: Partners in Service Project. She has practiced in the area of civil defense litigation, including employment law and torts.


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