April 2018

Is It Time to Change Practice Areas?

By Farah Hansen

Career Advisor, Career & Professional Development Office, California Western School of Law

You’ve been practicing law for five years. You’re sitting at your desk, working on a motion when you look out the window and think to yourself, “I’ve spent five years investing in this specific field of law, and I’m not really sure this is the type of law I should be practicing.” You briefly daydream about doing that nonprofit work you initially went to law school for. However, the idea of starting at the bottom or looking for another job sounds too daunting. So you push the thought to the back of your mind and get back to your motion. Fast forward to one year later … you’re sitting at the same desk, looking out the window wondering how another year has passed by. That little voice has not gone away. In fact, it’s screaming at you louder than ever, “This is not what you should be spending your days doing!” You decide it is time to listen to that voice and start exploring other legal career options.

As a lawyer, you have the luxury of working in so many different fields. There is no reason for you to settle on a career path that does not suit your needs and gratify you professionally. So where do you begin? First, do some soul searching and get to the bottom of your current job dissatisfaction. Is it truly because you do not enjoy the type of law you are practicing, or is it a symptom of your current work environment? Is it possible for you to remedy these issues while still practicing in your same field? Consider addressing your grievances with your superior or look for similar positions at other firms that are a better fit for you.

If you have come to the conclusion that the root of your dissatisfaction is the type of law you are practicing, your next step is to determine what practice area matches your interests and skill set. Do you prefer to be in court or would you rather do transactional work? Do you want heavy client interaction? Are your ideal clients simple individuals or sophisticated businesses? Keep in mind the lifestyle components that accompany various practices – what is the average salary for entry-level attorneys in this field? What are the job growth opportunities? Are their certain geographic areas that are most conducive to this practice? What is the time commitment? Once you have determined your desired practice area, you should put a plan in place to make the change. Here are some tips to help make the transition as smooth as possible:

  • Meet with an alumni career advisor at your law school. We are not only here to assist you with your resume and cover letters, but also to advise you on the most practical ways to navigate this career change. Further, we are often aware of various positions that are available before they are ever posted and can notify you of such job opportunities.
  • Inventory your transferable skills. (See my colleague, Cory Schaller’s January 2018 For the Record article for more on transferable skills). Most legal positions require attorneys to have excellent research, writing, and analytical skills, as well as oral advocacy, client interaction, and dispute resolution experience. Your ability to identify and readily articulate these transferable skills will be essential for you to sell yourself when you are networking and interviewing.
  • Grow your network of attorneys and professionals within your desired field. Attend one of the many SDCBA events or join a committee focused on that practice area. Talk to the attorneys and get the scoop on what their day-to-day life really looks like. Ask them if they are happy doing what they do and why. Be sure to mention that you are interested in their field of practice and looking to make a career change. Emphasize your transferable skills and market yourself during these conversations as it could lead to a job prospect.
  • Connect with a local legal recruiter. Discuss the job market in your desired practice area, and find out what opportunities exist and how competitive it is to secure a position in that field.
  • Update your resume and your social media pages. Make yourself appear as a “generalist” and play-up your transferable skills.

In closing, do not be afraid to take the leap and make a change in your legal career today! You have worked too hard to earn your law degree and you should be investing in a career path that truly fulfills you.