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The decline in financial markets in recent months has caused some junior (and even some senior) lawyers to consider whether they might be better off in a practice area more likely to thrive during the economic downturn. Some, indeed, have rushed to make plans to exit their currently-slow practice groups, in hopes of improved employment prospects in another area (and even at another firm). Is this any way to make career decisions? This article addresses some of the essential elements in a successful change of practice areas. The article focuses on lawyers who have been employed in at least one practice area long enough to have developed a personal “brand.” It suggests that “success” must be defined on a career-long basis, rather than on some temporary ability to move out of a practice area that may be slow at the moment. It outlines challenges to such a switch, and practical suggestions for make a move, successfully. PERSONAL BRANDING Every lawyer has a personal brand. It’s the one-sentence description you use to explain “what kind of lawyer you are” to new acquaintances and business contacts. Your brand may be general and broad: “I’m a corporate lawyer;” “I do litigation;” or “I do tax work.” Depending on the sophistication (and interest) of your audience, you can probably provide some additional details regarding your specialty, if requested: “I do securities offerings for major corporations;” “I do product liability defense;” or “I help in the issuance of tax-free municipal bonds.” A lawyer’s personal brand is the product of many things. Experience, to be sure, is a key element of branding. A lawyer who can confidently state, for example, that she has participated in the issuance of more than $2 billion worth of corporate securities over the past five years certainly sounds like she’s an expert in the area. But there’s more to branding. At bottom, branding starts with what you tell yourself about who you are. That self-message, in turn, depends on any number of factors. Why did you go to law school? Who has been your biggest mentor as a lawyer? Where have you found the most fun and satisfaction in your professional life? Ultimately, branding is also a matter of what you want to become. What steps do you expect your career to take? What accomplishments do you hope to achieve? What efforts are you willing to undertake to achieve your goals? This discussion of branding is not an idle aside. It is at the core of a decision to switch practice areas. In substance, if you want to change practice areas, you need to be prepared to change your personal brand. That means changing your self-image. A change in self-image is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is not a small thing, to be disregarded. You cannot change your brand as you might change your suit. Or, at least (to press the metaphor really hard), if you want to change your suit (brand), be prepared to wear that suit every day, for a long time. SELF-ASSESSMENT If you are seriously considering a practice area change, you must begin with some form of self-assessment. The aim here is to state, in concrete terms, what parts of your personality, working habits and experience would match well with your proposed new practice area, and which might not. A candid self-assessment might include: Review your formal and informal education. What parts are relevant to the proposed new area of practice? Review your work experiences, asking the same question. In addition, consider aspects of your client contacts and social network that may (or may not) complement a new practice. Discuss the potential move with trusted colleagues and mentors. Ask them (in substance): “Do you see me as someone cut out for that (new) practice area?” Candid feedback is vital. Consider this: one hurdle you will have to overcome is the natural reticence of co-workers and clients to see you in a new light. If even your trusted confidantes cannot overcome that hurdle, you must either refocus your orientation, or redouble your efforts, to make a successful switch. Another vital element of self-assessment involves a study of your own motivation for making a switch. Is the move purely economic? Is it simply because you have become bored with your current practice? Have you had some dust-ups with lawyers in your current group that you would like to avoid? In short, are you running away from something, or are you moving toward something? There can be many positive reasons to switch practice areas: Take advantage of skills and experiences in one area that “fit” better in another. Develop additional experience and connections that can build bridges toward a life goal (some lawyers, for example, switch practice areas in order to work overseas, or as a prelude to a move in-house or into an entrepreneurial position). Add new skills, which can help the lawyer become even more successful in her existing “core” practice. (A commercial litigator who has had some bankruptcy experience, or a securities lawyer who has done some merger deals, for example, may offer a broader array of talent to potential clients.) The point (as noted below) is that making a practice switch can be quite hard. You may become frustrated and dispirited if, in addition to suffering the burdens of the switch, you also feel in your gut that “this really isn’t me.” That someone else tells you that you should be in a “hot” practice area, in the end, means nothing. No amount of money, or esteem, can compensate you for a career choice that makes you miserable. Choose wisely. Choose to please (and satisfy) yourself, not others. FACING THE BURDENS OF A SWITCH In planning a career change, as in planning any other campaign, “forewarned is forearmed.” The more you know about, and plan for the potential burdens associated with a practice switch, the more likely you are to succeed. Consider: Your first job will be to convince firm administrators (including heads of your current practice group) of the merits of your proposed switch. Unless your firm is unusually flexible about practice assignments, you should expect some resistance. Current practice group heads may feel let down; new practice group heads may feel challenged to integrate yet another new lawyer into their domain. In making the switch, you will inevitably have to let go of some responsibilities in your current practice area. That probably means reassignment of some work to your colleagues. While they may be happy to increase their hourly totals, they may also struggle with learning the minutiae of matters with which you have become familiar. Clients may balk at paying elevated hourly rates for your services in a new practice area, if you cannot perform at the same level as peers of your vintage in that practice. Clients in the new practice area, moreover, may not overlap with the client network you have built to date. These kinds of problems are not insurmountable. But they do mean that a practice switch should not be undertaken lightly. The worst of all possible worlds is to implement a practice switch, invest time and effort and personal sacrifice into the move, only to have the move fail, leaving you more dispirited (and arguably less marketable) than you were in the first place. Slinking back to your old practice area may seem particularly distasteful. And moving on, to yet another practice switch after the failed move, may seem particularly daunting. Thus, make sure you are fully prepared to execute a practice switch, and (if at all possible), develop a “Plan B” in case the switch does not work. PRACTICAL STEPS A practice switch should not be planned (or executed) on a “hurry up” basis. The process should be deliberate, and planned to unfold over a substantial period (3-6 months, at least). And there is real value in implementing a switch in stages, at each point gathering feedback, reflecting on what works (and what does not work) in the switch, and re-evaluating the merits of the switch and re-forming your plans (if necessary). Consider these most essential steps: • Do the necessary research Find out what policies your firm follows regarding a practice switch. Identify colleagues who have switched successfully, and de-brief them. Talk to your mentors about what they see as the best means to effect a switch. • Assemble your credentials Write out, as concisely as you can, any parts of your education, experience, talents, interests, social and business connections, and any other factors that might qualify you for participation in a new practice area. This list will mostly be useful for your own reference. If you must “pitch” your new practice focus to firm administrators, the list will help you organize the core of your appeal. And if, on reviewing the list, you realize that you suffer from some gaps in your qualification (which, almost inevitably, will be true), you can more readily conceive of steps you might take to fill those gaps. • Extend your credentials Here’s an opportunity to get creative. The game is: how many additional qualifications can you add to your list (above), with the least amount of effort, in the least amount of time? Some may be quite easy. Your firm may offer regular training (or practice group meetings) in the new area. Ask to attend. Your local bar association may sponsor committees focused on the practice. Join one or more of them. Senior lawyers in the practice area may be writing or speaking on relevant subjects. Ask to help them. The practice group may sponsor pro bono activities that involve development of relevant skills. Offer to participate. Significantly, many of these things can be done before you make a practice switch. In addition to building your credentials, they can help you decide whether the proposed practice switch really does make sense for you. • Moonlight Even as you remain in your old practice group, offer to take on assignments in the desired practice area. Some of these assignments may involve applying your current skills and experiences in a new way (a securities lawyer, for example, might help litigators better understand and review documents involving a securities transaction that has produced litigation). Some assignments may put you back a step (doing “grunt” research, for example). But all such assignments may give you a chance to “see how the other half live,” and help burnish your credentials for the ultimate practice switch. MAKE YOUR MOVE This preliminary phase (above) may extend as long as necessary. Once you are confident that you have assembled the essential credentials and experiences, and that you have support within the firm hierarchy for your move, prepare to take the full leap. Consider these steps: • Develop practice group buy-in. In addition to obtaining the blessing of your new (and old) practice group heads, you should advertise your move (quietly at first, beginning with practice group members most likely to support your cause). Ask for help in making the transition. Outline your goals and strategy and solicit suggestions for how best to proceed. Broaden your contacts within the group as you progress. Host a practice group lunch; help put on a seminar; contribute to the practice group newsletter. These kinds of activities can raise your profile within the new group. • Pursue work with key practice group lawyers, and key clients Again, such work can raise your profile, but also such work may offer critical opportunities to hone new skills vital to your long-term success. Do some research to identify prime targets for solicitation. Then develop a method to make regular contacts with these targets (not just a single “I would like to work with you sometime” email). The trick is to be persistent without becoming a pest. Often, offering “gifts” (copies of relevant articles, invitations to functions of potential interest) may be the best excuse for repeated contacts. And don’t be afraid to say, directly, “I would like to work with you sometime.” Just don’t make that your one-time message. • Don’t abandon your friends Although you must, after a switch, concentrate primarily on your new practice area, don’t abandon all contacts with your former colleagues. Make sure, for example, that you remain available to help resolve any problems in the matters you turned over to others when you made the switch. And make sure (at least for a decent interval) that you remain available to consult on any matters within your previous area of expertise. (Indeed, many lawyers who switch practice areas continue to wear their old hats at times, effectively serving as cross-over experts, throughout their careers). Mark your progress as a lawyer in a new practice area not so much by outer indicators (like billable hours and client accolades). Those will come, with time. The true measure of success is how satisfied and energized you feel as you develop mastery and confidence in your new practice area. Steven Bennett is a partner in the New York City offices of Jones Day and a member of the firm’s Training Committee. His publications include: “The Path to Partnership: A Guide For Junior Associates” (Praeger 2004).

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