What’s harder than getting your first job out of law school? Switching into a different practice area after accumulating experience in your first field.

Perhaps you’ve become disillusioned with the field you rushed into straight out of law school, or after tracking recent trends, you suddenly find yourself attracted to a new and exciting, or more lucrative field. Whatever the motivation, switching to a new practice area has different challenges than getting hired in the first place. Let’s take a look at the roadmap for a successful transition into a new practice area!

The Niche Switch

Even after just one year of practicing law in a certain field, in many respects, the practice becomes ‘you’. You’re at a cocktail party, and a guest asks: ‘in what area of law do you practice?’ Your immediate answer is ‘real estate’, or ‘patent law’, ‘marital law’, or, ‘mergers and acquisitions’. Regardless of your practice niche, it is what you do. Every day. From 8:00 a.m. to possibly 10:00 p.m. But you don’t like what you are doing, and you need to make a switch. The problem is, it can be very hard to move out from where you are. After all, your resume will show the specialty you have acquired, and in all likelihood, that experience will not easily translate into qualifications for a different practice area.

Switching Within the Firm

For those who are fortunate enough to work in a largemulti-practice firm, the transition may be easier than for those looking to make both a practice specialty move and an employment move. Your professional reputation at the firm is already established, so in one respect, you’ve already crossed the ‘interview and impression’ hurdle. But now, you may have to contend with office politics and budgetary issues as your current boss-partner may not want to lose a valuable associate from his team, and the department you wish to transfer to may not have the budget to accommodate your move, or may wish to expend that budget on a ‘trainee’.

Here is where some lobbying on your part can play an important role. Since you already know the firm and its partners, rather than expressing any disillusionment with your current practice area, it would be best to frame your interest in transitioning to what you see as a fantastic opportunity to latch onto a growing trend in the law. If a complete transition is not feasible, perhaps offering to work on a specific case in the transition department while still practicing under your current boss, might be the best way to ‘gain a foothold’ in the new area without upsetting office organizational needs.

Transition to a Related Field

If the skillset and experience you have accumulated thus far can also be applied to the target field you wish to transition to, all the better. The closer you can stay to your current practice area in terms of skills, the more easily you can sell yourself to the firm or specialty you are interested in. By offering to apply your current skills to a case in a related field, you avoid having to deal with the obstacle of training from scratch. If the field you are interested in is frequently handled by a non-profit organization, such as in the case of immigration law, criminal law, or consumer law, you may wish to offer your services on a pro bono volunteer basis for the purpose of both the specialized experience and resume-building.

On the positive side, coming in with prior experience of any sort shows you can be a firm team player and that you already have broad experience working with client dynamics. These are both tangibles that weigh strongly in your favor regardless of practice area.

What You Might Sacrifice Along the Way

Before you get serious about leaving where you are at and what you do, be mindful of the fact that, depending upon your tenure at your current position, you may be giving up seniority and starting over in a very junior position. Then, there is the issue of a pay cut: your value in your current practice area is not likely to be matched in your new target practice until you have gained considerable experience and proven yourself in your new specialty.

Or, it is possible that although you were top-tier in your previous field, the specialty you wish to move into may be regarded as mid-tier at the firm you wish to transfer to.

As a practical matter, the longer you wait to make a practice move, the more difficult it can be. Consider the position of the first-year associate who is single, with minimal debt, versus the seasoned associate or  junior partner who is married with children, has a mortgage and other financial responsibilities, all of which may seriously impact leaving the security of what you have now for the relative uncertainty of starting over.

Best of Both Worlds

You may wish to ask yourself the question: ‘why transition at all?’ Why not keep doing what you are presently doing, but supplement it with another field? Many attorneys have found that engaging in overlapping fields allows them to greatly expand their practice areas while retaining the same clients and base area of practice. For example, after handling family law matters, your client will likely be in need of updated estate planning services as well as real estate or leasing assistance. If your current practice has focused on employment law, then the addition of a worker’s compensation practice, unemployment insurance, or ADA disability claims practice may be natural extensions of your existing practice.

The Tools of Transition

Among the helpful tools you should consider in transitioning to a new practice area are:

  • Mentoring: There are many attorneys–particularly retired or semi-retired practitioners–who would welcome the opportunity to mentor you by providing valuable insights and practice tips, as well as possibly opening doors for you within the community of practitioners you are interested in.
  • Back to School: Your own law school or a different one may offer advanced courses in the field you are interested in. The advantage of online learning platforms means that, in all likelihood, you do not have to ‘quit your day job’ in order to avail yourself of such training. Furthermore, most graduates from post-graduate legal courses have available  placement services to assist you with finding a new position.
  • Networking and your Bar Association: As with any career move, discreetly let your friends and professional associates know that you are interested in a particular practice area, and they will likely be able to serve as a valuable resource on your behalf. Your local Bar Association can further assist you by putting you in contact with practitioners in your desired area.

Making a career move is never easy, but by analyzing what you have to offer and familiarizing yourself with the opportunities that surround you, getting a foothold in new legal territory might just be the greatest decision of your career.

Executive Summary

The Issue

How to make the transition from your current practice area to the work you really want to be enjoying.

The Gravamen

The ease with which you can make the transition to another practice area will depend upon such factors as your legal training and experience, the type of firm you are currently employed with, and the market for the area you wish to practice in.

The Path Forward

Network within your firm, or, with other outside practitioners to learn what opportunities exist for you, given your particular situation.


1. Trend Tracking

Examine trends in the legal market to determine what new fields are opening up, what fields are expected to be in greater demand in the long- and short-run, and how lucrative those fields may be.

2. Skill Assessment

Spend the time to do a realistic analysis of what skills you currently possess and how transferable those might be to your target practice area.

3. In-house Move

If your current firm has a department that practices in the field you are interested in, offer to assist with work in that department both as a means of trying out the fit and as a way of transitioning without cutting the cord with your current employer.

4. Reaching Out

Contact attorneys who can mentor you in your new field, or, look into online training which will allow you to remain in your present position while acquiring the new skills you need for the target practice area.

Further Reading


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