(This was originally published in the OBA's Sole, Small Firm and General Practice Section's Newsletter)
I did not meet a “real-life” lawyer until I went to law school. I had no lawyers in my family. I was the first to go to university. I learned about lawyers from the usual places, like Perry Mason (re-runs, I’m not that old), Matlock (I watched these live, I am that old) Law & Order, and Ally McBeal. I didn’t know the difference between a solicitor and barrister, I thought all lawyers were litigators and went to court. I had no idea what it was like to practice law. I did not understand what the different areas of law entailed in real-life, other than the substantive law I learned in class. I was very naïve. Now, imagine my surprise when I was told that I better choose my articling position wisely because that would determine the type of law I would practice for the rest of my career. Looking back now, it is a silly thing to tell a law student, but many are still being given this advice.
Through my part-time role as Regional Alumni Advisor to the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, I provide career coaching and advice to lawyers in their first ten years of practice. Due to the pandemic, and a less than robust market for legal jobs, many new lawyers have reached out for advice on job hunting. These lawyers were either not hired back after articling or were let go due to COVID after working at the same firm for several years. Some of these lawyers, for a variety of reasons, are wanting to change practice areas. Some chose an area of law that they later learned did not suit their personality. Some thought they would love to argue in court, only to realize they suffer from debilitating anxiety. Others didn’t have a choice and were happy just to find an articling position or lawyer position in any area of law. Now they want to find a job in a practice area better suited to their interests and skill set.
Unfortunately, it is these lawyers who are struggling the most with finding new jobs. Even though they explain in their cover letters why they wish to change practice areas, many hiring lawyers and law firms will not respond or give them an interview. If they do respond, it is with concerns that they will not be “committed” to this new practice area or they question whether the lawyer is “really interested” in this new area of law. Or some hiring firms will not give them a chance because even though the lawyer may have 3-5 years of post-call experience it is not experience in the firm’s specific practice area.
Some well-intentioned lawyers are giving these new lawyers the advice to not even try to switch practice areas because “no one will hire them” and they should “just stick with what they know."
We need to stop doing this.
Imagine your whole legal career being determined by the articling or first year position you just happened to find? Or, what if you discover that your personality and your strengths are not matched with the practice you thought you would love? It should not be the end of the line. Imagine being stuck in a practice that you hate, just because of the outdated idea that a lawyer cannot switch practice areas?
I see a unique opportunity for solo and small firm lawyers to assist these lawyers. We can give these lawyers a chance. If you are hiring a new associate, do not automatically count out lawyers with experience outside of your practice area. I understand most firms want to hire someone with some experience in the firm’s area of law, but a lot can be learned quickly, and many skills are transferrable. For example, all lawyers have clients. Client management, file management, meeting deadlines, organizational skills, communication skills, etc. are all skills lawyers learn and can be transferred between practice areas. Legal research skills are applicable across the board. Courtroom skills are transferrable as well. A criminal lawyer would be on her feet a lot more than a civil litigator at a large firm and can easily transfer those skills from a criminal practice to a civil litigation practice. There’s some overlap between a family law practice and an estate litigation practice. And a corporate litigator may know more about drafting contracts than you might think.
If we cannot assist lawyers looking to transition practice areas by offering them a job, we can at least be a sounding board or mentor. If they decide to start their own firms in a new practice area, solo and small firm lawyers can assist by being that “go-to” person if a question comes up. Or you can introduce them to your network of lawyers in that practice area, let them know about the best resources, or CLE programs, or organizations for them to join to get up to speed.
We can also give encouragement to other lawyers who are trying to make this transition. We should not be telling them to not bother to try. This is how we lose great lawyers from the practice of law. We can all take small steps to assist those who are struggling to switch practice areas. The first thing is to be a little more open minded.
Have you switched practice areas? What worked for you?
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.