Legal Professionals, Here's How to Change Your Practice Area

By Robert Half on March 12, 2015 at 6:00pm

Q: I’m interested in changing my legal career and possibly switching practice areas. How have other legal professionals made this transition? And in what industries are there the most legal jobs?

There are many factors that could cause legal professionals to set their sights on a new course. You may discover that you specialized too early in your career, or you’ve chosen legal jobs with stagnant growth and limited opportunities.

Read How an Employment Agency Can Help You Change Careers.

Look before you leap between legal jobs

Changing practice areas is a big move that shouldn’t be taken lightly. So before you make any major career transitions, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What are your reasons for switching?

Your first job as an attorney or paralegal/legal support professional shapes what future roles you qualify for. Depending on the field and your skill set, you may have to learn an entirely different facet of the law or completely different procedures. Changing firms is more common. You should be able to articulate reasons for making the switch, since hiring managers will want to know why you’re refocusing your career.

2. Are you comfortable taking a possible step backwards?

Another aspect to consider: Employers pay more for specialized knowledge, and the jobs may not be out there for candidates without the requisite work history. While a change in legal jobs — maybe a turn toward nontraditional legal employment options — can realign your career path with your aspirations, it’s important to weigh the cons along with the pros. Entering a new specialty will likely affect your seniority and land you in a less prestigious role. You salary may also take a hit.

Many legal firms and departments are “looking to bring in experienced legal professionals who can start adding value immediately, without the organization having to spend time or expense on training,” said Paul Farnsworth, past president of the Association of Legal Administrators and the executive director of Woods Oviatt Gilman, in an interview for Robert Half Legal’s Future Law Office report.

Robert Half Legal's annual research project examines key trends affecting the legal field today. Download the your free copy of the Future Law Office report now.

3. Do you possess skills and expertise that will transfer to a new role?

Perform a skills and experience audit. Look at the specialties that pique your interest and what tools you already have in your kit. For example, it’s safe to say that there’s not much overlap between personal injury and tax law, but some of those skills would likely easily transfer to general litigation and healthcare.

When conducting your audit, consider the education you have. If your academic background includes hard science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM fields), then a transfer from your present practice area to intellectual property, patents or healthcare might hold appeal. The key takeaway here is to make good use of the knowledge and skills you’ve already spent years developing and honing.

4. Have you researched the hottest practice areas?

If you’re shifting your focus, why not consider an area that’s got some heat? Here are some in-demand fields, gleaned from Robert Half Legal's Salary Guide and Future Law Office research:

  • Litigation — insurance defense, medical malpractice, commercial litigation and employment law
  • General business/corporate law — contracts, financial reporting, procurement, compliance, and mergers and acquisitions
  • Healthcare — legal counsel to drive strategy and protect against risk, negotiate and prepare provider contracts, and manage compliance
  • Intellectual property — patents, copyright infringements and litigation support, especially in the biotech and high-tech fields
  • Real estate — commercial development/construction, leases, property management, residential sales
  • Privacy and data security — online and mobile technology transactions, regulatory compliance, healthcare privacy, cross-border data protection

5. Do you need to obtain some expert legal career advice?

Confused about career transitions? Seek the advice of a mentor or career counselor. Also contact a recruiter who has experience in placing legal professionals; he or she can give you a realistic assessment of what legal jobs you qualify for and help find a suitable job in your desired field.

Keep track of hiring trends for legal professionals

Career transitions are exciting but disruptive, so it’s crucial to study hiring trends as well as larger industry trends that are reshaping the legal profession. Robert Half Legal’s annual Future Law Office research project offers insight into developments driving change in the legal profession. Learn best practices and future predictions for legal solutions from leading experts in the legal field as well as our legal staffing and consulting professionals.

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