Moving practice area or career sector can be daunting. But given persistence and time it can pay off, reports Marialuisa Taddia.

The legal sector is bouncing back and recruitment is too. This is encouraging for lawyers fed up with their practice area and looking for new challenges.

Rita Oscar, who is responsible for career development at the Law Society, says that last summer she noticed an increase in calls from solicitors who were considering switching practice area, moving in-house, or changing profession. ‘The people who came to me did so before [deciding to] move. They just wanted the reassurance that it is possible,’ she says.

That spate of enquiries led to a two-hour evening event on changing career direction, which attracted over 70 delegates, well above expectations. Oscar has since been scheduling spin-off events on the theme, including how to move in-house. Her team is also working on practical guidance on how to change career direction – supported by case studies – which should be available on the Law Society website.

So what are the hottest areas for solicitors with itchy feet?

Private client law is popular, particularly among working mothers. In response to solicitors’ queries about moving into this area, in April the Law Society held a one-day retraining course on wills, probate and trusts. Oscar says delegates were all women solicitors (with one exception) and included practitioners in other disciplines who had taken a career break to have children. There is a shortage of people coming into the area, and, as it involves less court-based work, ‘it suits women juggling a family’, Oscar says.  

‘Private client law tends to be more flexible in terms of working part-time or shorter hours; you can organise your time if you do will-drafting instead of working to court deadlines,’ says Lucy Morrison, managing director of Central Law Training (CLT), a provider of post-qualification training for legal professionals. At CLT, the most popular retraining course is the five-day private client conversion for practitioners wishing to change specialisms. The course runs five times a year and costs £1,195 (for CLT members).  

Responding to rising demand, CLT has added new retraining courses, including two-day certificates in planning law and intellectual property law, and a one-day intensive introduction to residential property, which has been a bestseller over the past 12 to 18 months.

‘There is a continuing demand from people who want to develop new specialisms,’ Morrison says, including from practitioners in areas of law that have been ‘under pressure’, such as crime, family, and personal injury; solicitors who have taken a career break and want to branch out into new areas; and lawyers who want another ‘string to their bow’ by adding a ‘sub-specialism’ to their practice. ‘We commonly see women in their 30s and 40s wanting to switch,’ she adds.

In-house is also a popular choice for lawyers seeking a career change.

Switching back to private practice

Working in-house has become more popular in recent years, but some are bucking the trend by reverting to private practice. Katherine Gibson left Coca-Cola Enterprises, where she was senior legal counsel for four and a half years, to join DLA Piper’s employment team as a senior associate. Three years later Gibson has never regretted the switch.

So why did she do it?

‘I simply wanted to retain my specialism,’ Gibson says. Going up the career ladder would have meant taking on more commercial work: ‘I had to do a bit of soul-searching and decide what it is I wanted out of my career, and the answer was that I wanted to be an employment lawyer, but progress within a management structure.’

Gibson, a former JLD chair, qualified in employment law at regional firm Paris Smith in 2005, moving two years later to Nortel Networks as employment legal counsel. She joined the soft drink giant in 2009.

‘The reason I left private practice in the first place was to get more exposure to business-

related decisions and become more commercial. I didn’t leave to become more generalist; I left with a specific career aim,’ Gibson adds. But more senior in-house roles such as head of employment were few and far between then (as now), Gibson says, so she risked losing her specialism in the time it would take to land a more senior role.

So what are the differences in terms of working environment? ‘The hours are much, much longer,’ Gibson says; at Coca- Cola, she regularly worked from home. ‘But what you get [instead] is far more interesting and varied work,’ she says. For example, Gibson enjoys litigation but as an in-house lawyer her role was to prevent it not facilitate it. Furthermore, she no longer has just one client (her employer) but several, and lawyers are part of a bigger team with plenty of support. ‘You have all the platforms that you need in order to really become a subject matter specialist, so you can really hone your legal skills as well as keeping your business development and client management skills.’

Gibson argues that in private practice, lawyers have ‘more control over their career path. When you are in-house somebody has to leave and then you get their job’. Indeed, practising solicitors can ‘carve their own business path’ by choosing to continue as an employee or take a stake in the business. And the money is better: ‘Unless you are a head of department in-house, you are not going to be making very much money in comparison to what you could make in private practice,’ Gibson says, adding: ‘In the in-house space the purpose of the business you work for is not law, so you are a support function. The purpose of a law firm is to sell legal services so you are part of the important machinery of that business; you are front-office. So there are greater rewards if you are in the money-making end of a business.’

So what are her top tips? If you are thinking of moving back to private practice, don’t worry that you haven’t got a portfolio of clients to bring to the firm (you don’t have to do that). Instead, you should focus on demonstrating the added benefits you bring when advising clients; your commercial awareness; understanding of risk; and billing. ‘You know what it’s like being a buyer of legal services. You can then adapt that in the way that you sell,’ Gibson concludes. 

CLT has introduced a two-day ‘essential toolkit’ for private practice PC holders, which can be combined with a two-day certificate in contract drafting (£500 each).

Leanne Maund, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division, says switching specialism was more prevalent during the recession. ‘Junior lawyers [now] tend to look for advice on how to move in-house rather than how to change specialism within private practice,’ she observes.

‘Traditionally, people have moved in-house for better work-life balance, but I don’t think that is as much of a key factor now. There are a growing number of opportunities in-house. People want to broaden their horizons within a business, rather than focusing purely on their legal skills.’  

So how should lawyers go about reshaping their career?

Rachel Brushfield, a career strategist and coach, acts as a ‘talent liberator’ for lawyers and other professionals. She says: ‘Most of my clients tend to be 42 to 55. They know they are going to be working for a while and they are fed up with feeling fed up [with their career].’ But she says it is harder for lawyers than other professionals because they are by nature ‘conformist’, ‘risk-averse’ and ‘time-poor’.

‘I find, especially with lawyers, that they put you in a box, so it is harder to make a change in direction for a lawyer than it is for a non-lawyer,’ Brushfield says. This conservative approach to change applies both ways: ‘It’s easier for the decision-maker to go for an easy fit, someone who they know through their network or has got relevant experience.’

‘It’s not just about learning new law’

When it comes to changing legal specialism, former Law Society president Linda Lee has more experience than most and has clearly made a success of it.

Lee trained and qualified in 1994 at Hopkins doing trade union work with a focus on mining; by the time she moved to Shoosmiths in Northampton in 1999, she had switched to medical negligence. As a specialist in this discipline, in 2006 Lee took up an in-house lawyer role at Action Against Medical Accidents (AvMA), the national charity. Next, as president of the Law Society, Lee developed an interest in regulatory law which she pursued at the end of her presidential year in 2011. In 2012 she joined London-based RadcliffesLeBrasseur where, as a litigation solicitor, she specialises in solicitor disciplinary and regulatory work.

From Lee’s perspective, moving practice areas was probably a lesser feat than the challenge of studying for a law degree while working and caring for three small children; and then looking for a training contract. Now a grandmother, she qualified at the age of 31: ‘It was not an easy legal market, training contracts were really hard to come by, and I wasn’t the most attractive candidate. I wrote to hundreds and hundreds of firms to get a training contract and went to several interviews.’

The first switch took place at Mansfield-based Hopkins after work in her field declined along with the mines. Lee persuaded the firm to provide her with funding and time to train in medical negligence and build up this practice area for the firm. She attended clinical negligence training courses and gradually became a specialist.

The next switch in specialism happened after she left her AvMA role as head of lawyers’ services to fulfil her full-time appointment as Law Society president. That’s when she developed an interest in compliance matters. So when her tenure was over, Lee decided that ‘it was time to do something completely different’.

This time round Lee did not feel the need to retrain: ‘It was a new and evolving area, so I knew as much about it as anybody else. I had watched it develop as the SRA moved to outcomes-focused regulation. I had read around it as part of my work at the Society, so I had acquired knowledge as it developed.’

Lee broadened her regulatory expertise through a variety of legal chair roles, including at the Boundary Commission for England, PhonepayPlus and the Taxation Disciplinary Board. She has also been a member of the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel.

Lee sums up her strategy simply: ‘I’ve had an interest, got knowledgeable about the subject and moved into it.’  

So what is her advice? First, ask yourself ‘how can I develop myself to look more appealing to employers?’ It’s not just about learning a new area of law, but also about identifying and developing the required skills for practising it.

It is worth approaching your current employer for support with changing specialism. But you have to be prepared to read up on developing case law (Bailii is a good free online resource), attend courses and seminars in your own time, and also undertake voluntary work, which helps with the acquisition of relevant new skills, Lee advises. ‘You need to think: what is it that I want and go out and get it, rather than waiting for someone to bring it to you. In life generally that doesn’t happen.’

Lee argues that the removal of the mandatory requirement for 16 hours of continuing professional development a year ‘will make it harder for young people to develop’, including into new areas of law. But the SRA’s new approach to training, which is based on knowledge and skills outcomes, is nevertheless helpful: ‘You should be looking at yourself and thinking “If I want to get this job, what skills do I need and how do I develop them?”.’

That is why it helps to switch to an area where there is a shortage of good solicitors because recruiters are going to be more ‘receptive’, Brushfield observes.

Hence, conveyancing courses are popular. During the property market downturn law firms laid off conveyancers, but this led to a ‘skills gap’ when the sector recovered. The same applies to private client and in house. ‘Companies are internalising their legal spend so in-house legal teams are expanding,’ Maund says.

Practitioners wishing to change their specialist practice area are mostly self-funded but a more gradual approach may help attract funding from an employer: for example, a general litigator who wants to take on more insolvency or property litigation work. ‘That is one way you can make a business case for your firm to fund you in your training, because they can see that as a result they are getting somebody with additional skills who is able to take on more and varied work,’ Morrison says.

Recruiters note that despite the upsurge in interest, switching is still difficult. ‘Changing specialism isn’t as common today as it was during the recession, when some legal professionals retrained in reaction to instability in the industry,’ observes Lindsy McGowan, senior manager at Hays Legal. ‘But even then the competitive market made it difficult. In today’s more stable market, lateral moves remain the most common career change.’

McGowan observes that where lawyers have successfully ventured into pastures new it is the less experienced who have the edge. ‘The earlier you are in your career the easier it is to change specialism. Your legal knowledge is most varied in the months after your training contract so you can confidently use these diverse experiences to change specialism,’ McGowan says. ‘The longer you practise in one area the harder it is to change. But it can be an option when moving between related fields where you have specific legal or industry knowledge.’

But do not be deterred if your desire for change comes later in life. ‘As a lawyer you have a lot of core skills that you can transfer to another discipline. For example, somebody transferring from litigation to private client will have very well-developed interviewing skills that will help them with preparing a will,’ Morrison says.

As Brushfield notes, lawyers are well-equipped for any career change, thanks to their skills, qualities and experience: for example, they have the research skills to explore new career options; the intelligence to make a good decision; and the persistence to make it work, having spent years training. Critical thinking, client relationship management, negotiation, and the ability to analyse complex information and communicate it in a simple way are all transferrable skills.  

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the mindset of law firms and their recruiters. Morrison says: ‘People’s perceptions differ as to whether you are flexible enough both in terms of salary expectations and your learning ability to switch discipline if you are 15 years down the line.’

Brushfield adds: ‘It is really important to be prepared, to do the research and be very focused and identify blocks such as unconscious bias. It takes someone who is courageous and sets aside time to make it happen successfully.’

Marialuisa Taddia is a freelance journalist

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