The Grass IS Greener on the Other Side!

The Grass IS Greener on the Other Side! - How Changing Practice Areas Can Revive Your Career – by Kathleen Harris

There are many reasons why a lawyer might want to change practice areas. Junior lawyers may not have been able to qualify into their first-choice practice, more experienced lawyers might have developed an interest in another area of law or simply had enough of his or her practice area!

As a recruiter, I have experience helping lawyers make a variety of switches from more straightforward moves such as real estate litigation to general commercial litigation, to well out-of–the-box moves such as capital markets to private client. Moves are easiest to make when you are willing to fully commit and prepare for them. When planning a move the following things should be kept in mind:

(1) Be Willing to Compromise

The first thing to remember is that if you are looking at a move to a very different practice area, you will have had very little, (or even zero) experience relevant to the new practice That means that most people who make a move will start roles where they will be considered a much lower PQE level. Even 5 PQE lawyers may have to start as NQs or 1PQE associates. This means there will likely be a (large) drop in pay for most people moving practice areas. Additionally, if you are making a move to a most specialist area, e.g. project finance to media finance, it is likely you will be looking at specialist or boutique firms which pay less than bigger city firms, but are often more accommodating to individuals from non-conventional backgrounds (especially if they have excellent training, regardless of practice area).

(2) Showcase Your Skills

Secondly, you must be able to make a convincing case for your move. Partners want to know that they are getting someone who is genuinely committed to learning about the new practice area and staying in it! There are easier cases to make, such as a move from investment funds to corporate private equity, or from Commercial to Sports, but other moves will require more of an explanation. It is crucial that you have a strong cover letter to submit to firms along with your CV – this should explain both why you want to make that move, and how you can use your current skills to contribute to the new practice area. This will require you to:

(3) Do Your Research

Before you rewrite your CV/Cover Letter, you must first make sure you have as much relevant material for it as possible. There are many ways to demonstrate your willingness to learn and interest in the new practice area. Here are just a few options:

  • Attend seminars, lectures, conferences, or other events relevant to the practice area
  • Complete pro bono work in the new practice area or sector
  • Involve yourself in relevant organisations or societies

All this will help massively to prove your commitment to the move. Next, you must do your research into the practice area. You must be able to pinpoint to any interviewers exactly what it is that attracts you to that practice area (as opposed to your current area of work). Find any overlap between your current practice area and the new one, for example from insurance litigation to employment litigation – Directors & Officers’ Liability litigation is very relevant to both. Once you have identified the overlapping areas between your practice and the new one, make sure your CV has plenty of examples of this work. This isn’t a time to be wishy-washy – only seriously consider changing practice areas if you’re committed to the new practice and ready to do all of the work involved in switching over.

(4) Demand & Supply

Some practice/sector areas are easier to make a move into than others, usually down to supply and demand. Commercial litigation is the best example of an oversubscribed practice area, but corporate and TMT are also very popular. You should keep this in mind when deciding on a move, a good recruiter should be able to give you an overview of demand for certain practice areas in the market at a given time. Timing will affect demand for your skills. As you are likely to have to go into your new practice area as a junior lawyer or NQ, you should try to move before new trainees qualify in March and September. The best times to look at a move are therefore December/January, and June/July. This is when firms will be looking at junior lawyers but will be before trainees start looking actively for roles.

(5) Speculative Applications

Of the two practice-changers we’ve helped in the past few months, both were granted interviews (and eventually offered jobs) based on speculative applications. If you’re a practice changer, and there is a listed job vacancy for a 2-4 PQE, you’re unlikely to be considered favourably against other candidates who actually have been in this practice for that long. Your best bet is going to be working closely with a recruiter to make a few targeted speculative applications. One exception is NQ roles, however for these you’ll still be in direct competition with the best and brightest 4th seat trainees. Speculative applications are, generally speaking, the way to go!

All of this is a lot of work for an individual, especially one who already has a full-time job! A good recruiter will be able to help you with your research and will be able to tell you what to put in your CV and cover letter to make sure you are representing yourself in the best light. He or she will also be able to fully research appropriate firms and roles, and should give you plenty of information on them. The best recruiters are those who will help you make the most complex of moves with ease.