April 2018

How To Strengthen Your Footing — In Your New Firm — When You Move From One Discipline To Another

By Taneashia Morrell

The Salk Institute

There are several factors that may cause a legal professional to switch from one area of practice to an entirely different discipline. Often, hiring managers want to know why you’re reforming your legal discipline. They also want to know if you possess the skills and expertise that will transfer into the new discipline. In my case, I transitioned from civil litigation and family law to intellectual property and technology transfer. In addition to my J.D., I also possess an LL.M. in intellectual property and have previous experience in the technology transfer area. So if you’re looking to make a move into a different discipline, make sure you have some experience in the new field you are pursuing.

What is the adjustment period after you have made the transition into your new discipline?

There is no exact timeframe, but do expect your adjustment period to take a while. Moving from one discipline to another can be incredibly hard work, even with the requisite skills and expertise. You are in a new environment, you’re working with new co-workers, and you’re taking in enormous amounts of new information — all at one time. It is understandable that your adjustment period will take some time; however, when insecurity begins to rear its ugly head, remind yourself that with any new job comes an adjustment period. It may take three to six months before you feel like you have some sense of normalcy at your new firm.

Familiarize yourself with the culture of your new environment.

When I say “culture,” I mean more than just paying attention to what people in your new workplace are doing. It also means paying attention to the types of legal documents that you will be required to handle. Ask if there is a shared hard drive where you can review previously filed motions, case notes, and other pleadings. This will give you a better understanding of how things have been done in the past, and although you will not become an expert overnight, you will gain basic familiarity with your new discipline.

When I transitioned into my new office, there were several hurdles that I had to overcome. First, I transitioned from a law firm to a research institute — where I was (and still am) the only attorney in an office surrounded by MBAs and Ph.Ds. Second, I had to become intricately familiar with the life sciences field; I did this by watching hours of OpenCourseWare lecture videos on molecular biology, genetics, and biochemistry. I also attended (and continue to attend) several science lectures every month. I further reviewed dozens of previously negotiated licenses to gather my institute’s position on various matters, such as insurance and indemnification provisions. Being proactive allowed me to familiarize myself with my new office, my new discipline, and gave me the requisite tools I needed for my professional toolbox.

Be proactive and be curious.

Being curious is perfectly normal. Get to know your co-workers. Go to lunch with them, pick their brains — don’t be afraid to ask questions! Also, ask if you can sit in on a conference call or a client intake. Locate the leaders among your colleagues — you know, the one or two people that the folks in your office look to for advice. You might gain some valuable tools to put into your professional toolbox. It also allows you to bond with your new co-workers.

Don't panic.

A new job can be overwhelming. There are going to be times when you feel as if you’re barely treading water or even worse . . . you’re drowning. Remember, it is perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed in the beginning. I cannot remember how many times I said to myself, “I don’t know where to even start on this matter!” or “How am I expected to do this?” At this juncture in your new discipline you’re going to have to swallow your pride and ask for some assistance from a colleague (see above). Sometimes it is okay for you to know what you don’t know and not be afraid to ask a colleague for assistance. This may save you several hours of frustration. Another method I learned was to put the matter down for a while and take a nice walk around the office. When you’re ready to get back to work, pick up a different task — one that is easy to handle — then go back to the previous task; it might not feel as overwhelming the second time around.

Be encouraged, it will get easier.

Don’t quit. Your new employer has confidence in you, that’s why you were chosen for the job. Although change can be difficult, being proactive and taking the necessary steps to adapt will enable you to make the transition easier.