Changing Horses in Midstream

by | March 31, 2009

Question: I spent a summer with a major law firm at the end of my first year and expect to get a permanent offer. I was exposed to various areas of practice and am 90 percent committed to litigation. My question is, what happens if I change my mind a year or two into practice? How hard is it to make a change? And how amenable are employers to such a move?

Bill: It's a good question and one that many lawyers face at some point in their career. The quick answer would be that the earlier in your career you decide to make a change, the better. It becomes significantly harder down the road.

There was a time when many, if not most, large law firms ran rotation programs during the first year, and some still do. New associates thus gained exposure to several areas of practice before they made the commitment to specialize in one particular practice area. Once that commitment is made, however, the firm typically becomes resistant to change. You are expected to specialize and learn the intricacies and nuances of your practice area, and the firm, rightfully so, needs to have predictable talent resources at its disposal in developing new client matters and handling its existing ones. As a result, after several years into practice at a large law firm, a desire to change practice areas may well result in an icy stare - or worse. Firms make substantial investments in training their lawyers. It's why they hate losing them. Having to retrain them compounds that pain.

So, what do you do if you decide you have made a mistake in your area of specialization? Are you trapped? Well, we don't have indentured servitude in this country (anymore), and I don't think I agree with a lawyer who once complained to me that he didn't have the ability to do anything other than what he was doing right now. Lawyers add to their specializations and often change them outright. It may well mean that a move to a different law firm is warranted, one that will give you the latitude to pick up a new skill. Though bear in mind that the new firm may have you step back a year in terms of salary and partnership track in exchange for providing training for you in your new area. In many cases, lawyers branch out by moving in-house where practice, by its nature, tends to be broader and involves a variety of legal topics. And some entrepreneurial lawyers go into solo practice so as to develop new skill sets.

All that being said, I'll end where I began, with the probably self-evident observation that making a change gets increasingly difficult with time. A firm may well entertain your desire to change departments after six months of practice, but almost never after six years. Besides the retraining involved, the older you get the more you will simply get rooted in what you do. The best advice is to be as thoughtful and reflective as you can throughout law school and in your first years of practice in deciding what specialization you will pursue. A good first choice is the best solution to the problem.

Bill Seaton is the co-founder of EmplawyerNet, which offers the largest legaljobs database anywhere, with over 6,000 job listings.

Filed Under: Job Search


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