“Specialisation is for insects,” according to American science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein. In today’s legal world, it is also for lawyers.
Long gone are the days when a practitioner, certainly in one of the big firms, would find themselves in court in the morning and completing the sale of a company in the afternoon. If you tried to do that nowadays in a leading firm you wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Newly Qualified Solicitors now choose their field of specialisation as soon as their training contract ends. Unfortunately, they either don’t always make the right choice, or don’t secure the role they asked for.
“Candidates come to us looking to change practice areas for all sorts of reasons,” says NQ Solicitors’ Managing Director Ian Roberts. “It may be because they find the work boring, they feel like they are trapped in a dead-end practice area or the work simply doesn’t suit their personality.”
The important thing to remember is that you haven’t made an irreversible mistake. It is possible to change path at any time during your legal career, although the earlier you do it the better.
“NQ Solicitors have a window of about six to 12 months post-qualification when they can move quite easily into a new practice area,” says Ian. “Usually this will be to one of the seats they trained in, but it is also possible to move into a fresh practice area.”
If you are an NQ Solicitor and thinking about moving into a new practice area, what steps should you be taking?
1. Be honest with yourself
It is important to identify what it is you dislike about your current role, as well as what you enjoy. You also need to honestly appraise your strengths and weaknesses. Are you more suited to highly technical legal work or are you someone who craves close involvement with the client and other team members?
Think about what your ideal working life would be in terms of the types of clients you deal with, what your job involves day to day and what area will continue to inspire you in the months and years ahead.
By assessing these things, you should unmask your real motivation. Do you really want to move or is the problem just a minor blip in terms of a particular partner you are working for or case you are managing.
2. Do detailed research
Even if you are pretty certain you want to move into a practice area that you gained exposure to during your training contract, spend time on research.
Speak to as many people working in the field as possible, across all age ranges and levels of seniority, and on both sides of the client/lawyer fence. Ideally, try to find someone who is willing to act as your mentor.
Next, establish if your interest in the relevant field is likely to sustain you for the foreseeable future. Read relevant legal publications and go on courses and seminars. Many barristers’ chambers put on seminars that are free to attend for solicitors. These are excellent networking opportunities too.
3. Work out the practicalities
If you are moving say from banking or capital markets to private client or immigration, you have to be realistic and accept that you will probably end up taking a pay cut. Similarly, if you are moving from, say, employment law to corporate finance you will have to consider what that will mean in terms of time commitment and the knock-on effect on your social or family life.
Longer term, assess whether your chosen field will affect your partnership prospects.
Also, will a change into a different practice area mean a move to a regional firm from a central London firm or vice versa? If so, what will be the effect over the longer term to your commute and lifestyle?
4. Find out what retraining you will need to do
This will be especially relevant if you want to move into a field that you didn’t cover during your training contract. The Law Society sometimes offer courses for lawyers who are retraining and it is worth going on one of these even if you are only a couple of years out of law school. This will ensure you are completely up to date and give you an accreditation you can put on your CV.
As well as this, study the field in your own time. Read the relevant textbooks and recent cases so you can at least prove to any potential employer that you are up to speed and committed.
5. Sell yourself on your skills
Don’t over-estimate the importance of your lack of practical experience in a particular area. Employers, especially ones recruiting relatively junior staff, will be more interested in what skills you have and how these can be applied towards your new field. Negotiating skills are as valuable in divorce as they are in litigation. The ability to draft is as important in property as it is in employment. Commercial awareness is necessary across the board. Focus on these and similar attributes, as well as your drive and enthusiasm to learn and progress.
“The most important thing is to think long term,” says Ian Roberts. “Make sure you are moving for the right reasons in terms of your career as a whole and not just because the grass seems greener. Do your research and once you have made up your mind, go for it.”
To discuss how NQ Solicitors can help you move jobs and in to a new specialist field, call us on 020 3709 9165 or email us at [email protected]