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Anxiety grips many first-year associates as they pass the threshold of their new law firm. With crossed fingers and held breath, they are led to their new office in, say, the bankruptcy department — about four doors away from the one they wanted, in the corporate department. That might not be so bad in the short run, but fear of being locked into a practice area long-term in this slowing economy is a reality, according to associate development professionals. “It’s hard to avoid being pigeonholed when a firm is trying to match an associate’s interest with the firm’s,” says Sharon Buckingham, director of associate development for Pepper Hamilton. “Sometimes there is just not a match, and the firm’s needs have to come first.” A firm’s size and how it integrates entry-level hires into its offices are crucial factors in whether an associate will get his or her first choice of assignments. Associate development professionals say the bigger the firm, the more likely a new lawyer is to get to work in his or her preferred area of law. Comparatively, smaller firms with fewer practice areas tend to be hit harder by the economy and need associates to work in areas that have the most business. Regardless of firm size, the first step to avoid being pegged permanently into a practice area you didn’t want is to negotiate the best deal for yourself. Tactics recommended by directors of development include: � Get a limit put on your time in the less favored department. � Communicate your preferences to your mentor, firm partner or another confidant. They won’t know you want to change unless you tell them. � Introduce yourself to the head of the department you want to be in. He or she could be instrumental in helping you make a switch, should the opportunity arise. � At large law firms, look for opportunities to rotate through different departments or sit in on training programs for practice areas other than your own. At smaller firms, take advantage of chances to work in different areas. Marci Krufka of Newtown Square, Pa.-based consulting firm Altman Weil says these opportunities are few and far between in today’s economy. “Since the economy has slowed there may not be as much work coming in the door,” Krufka said. “It is difficult for a firm to allow too much flexibility, otherwise, they would have no one to fill the less desirable practice areas.” At the broadest level, your placement in a practice other than your heart’s desire might be fortuitous — or at least an informative curse. Deirdre Mullen, director of professional development at Cozen O’Connor, said first-year associates often have an incomplete concept of what lawyering is and what is involved in each practice area. “Until you do the work, what you have is an image but not the reality of the department,” Mullen said. She advises being patient, gathering all the skills you can and being persistent in communicating your preference. Mullen says first-years have a whole new world to get used to, and those experiences can be taken anywhere. “I think the experience of being out in the working world, the practical experiences you build as a working lawyer — juggling deadlines and assignments, interacting with counsel and judges — these are all transferable,” Mullen says. “Build practical skills because there is some transferability.” Steve Brown, associate development partner at Dechert, says changing practices is not all that uncommon. “Most everybody spends some time before they find a niche, and the niches are either by design or love of a particular area,” Brown said. “It is typical to find that a practice is so different than law school.” DECIDING TO TAKE THE LEAP The decision to change your practice area should be made within the first year. While some may disagree with this limit, it is generally thought that spending any more time than that in an area before changing to another is a waste of resources. While firms want happy lawyers, they also want to conserve training and maximize productivity. “The more specialized, the more difficult it is to start over. The sooner they recognize their dislike, the easier the transition,” Krufka says. The economy is an important factor to consider, consultants say. The current market has tipped the balance of favor to the law firms, and associates need to make their choices carefully, as there are fewer jobs, Mullen advises. With enrollment up at law schools, the competitive situation is likely to get worse. Krufka agrees, likening the situation to the recession of the early 1990s, when people didn’t have many options and had to ride out the bad economy. Wayne, Pa.-based legal consultant Robert Denney, however, disagrees. He says that associates should make the decision that’s best for them, even if it means leaving a firm to look for the right job. Without that move, they are likely to be locked in. Ultimately, Mullen said, the question is: Do I want to be a corporate attorney somewhere or do I want to be an attorney at this firm? She says an associate must evaluate which is more important — firm identity or the specific practice he or she wants to pursue. Denney says firms that understand that today’s associates have definitive ideas about what type of law they’d like to practice are more likely to be accommodating. But firms that have a “you’re lucky to be working for us” attitude will not be as helpful in doing what’s right for the lawyer. It is important to gauge your firm’s position on allowing associates a voice in choosing a practice, because it will affect your decision on whether to stay with the firm or look for another job. Before rejecting your unexpected field, analyze the problem, Buckingham counsels. Determine what aspects of the practice area you don’t like, figure out why you don’t like them, and validate those reasons. In the same vein, examine what you like about the area you are in and also what you believe you will like about your preferred practice. Due diligence will be needed to convince the firm that it should allow you to change practice areas. Seek out as many personal stories about climbing the lawyer ladder as possible, Mullen says. It is rare that a lawyer makes a lifetime career choice from his or her first assignment, and these stories will provide a comprehensive picture of options. Start internally and speak to several people — not just one person only once. You may discover over time that you don’t want to switch after all. Krufka says it takes a long time to get a good handle on the substantive area of a practice. Often, associates are uneasy at the beginning, but that feeling dissipates over time as a lawyer’s comfort level and knowledge increase. If you’re still sure you want to make a move, consultants and firms agree that the best time to broach the subject of switching to another department is during a review. Most firms evaluate associates quarterly or semi-annually, so take that opportunity to speak with your superiors about your needs. In addition to using this formal process, associate development directors suggest approaching a mentor or another partner with whom you are comfortable. Ask for advice, and try to create a plan for making the transition to another department together. And remember to tread lightly. “When [associates] finally ask how, they have to be circumspect, because people have made investments of time in them already,” Mullen says.

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