How to Change Legal Practice Areas (from Someone Who’s Done It)

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Adding a practice area

At a certain point in your career, you may become interested in another area of law. So interested, in fact, that you decide to change legal practice areas.

Switching practice areas in law is certainly possible. If you find a different practice area that’s more fulfilling, investing in making the switch is certainly worth it. But it isn’t easy. As some lawyers consider adding or switching practice areas in light of COVID-19, it’s important to take a strategic approach—and stay mindful that change won’t happen overnight.

For lawyers who want to change their area of practice, we spoke to Alycia Kinchloe of Kinchloe Law. She switched her primary focus from disability law to family law, and has spoken extensively on changing legal practice areas.

Can lawyers change practice areas?

The short answer to this question is “yes.” With a willingness to learn about an entirely new area of law, you can change to the legal practice area of your choice.

Of course, there’s more to switching practice areas in legal than reading up on case law. Alycia compares the knowledge acquisition needed when adding or switching legal practice areas to opening a new practice.

“Hopefully a lot of it overlaps, so you can use a lot of the same systems, but the best case scenario is where you can add a complementary practice,” she said.

Changing legal practice areas is doable, but it’s a significant undertaking. Make sure this is a path you want to take before you start.

Should I switch legal practice areas?

Switching legal practice areas may be the right move for you and your career, but first consider making  a different type of change in your practice.

Alycia stresses asking yourself why you want to switch practice areas and get really critical before doing so. The reason? You may be able to uncover efficiencies or make changes in your existing practice, and that’s much easier than taking on an entirely new practice area.

“Have a really honest conversation. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? Why is my business not doing well?’ because business may be slower, but a lot of people are still seeing business,” Alycia said. “Ask yourself, ‘Are there things that I didn’t do quite well enough? Is there a particular part of my practice area that I can maybe be focusing a little bit better on?’”

In other words, use caution if your main driver behind changing legal practice areas is slower business. This should be a strategic decision, not a reactive one, so look at improving current practice areas before deciding to switch.

In the meantime, use these tips to weather any slow periods. If your business is facing serious challenges, look at your budget, and follow these tips for improving law firm cash flow.

That said, there are other factors that may signal a switch is right for you. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you unhappy in your current practice area?
  • Do you have evidence to suggest that a different practice area may offer what you seek? (more fulfillment, better hours, etc.)
  • Do you have staff or colleagues with different professional backgrounds you could be leveraging?
  • Are you referring a lot of potential clients to other firms?
  • Is there a market for additional, complementary legal services in your client base?

If any of these ring true for you, ask yourself if you’re truly up for making a switch:

  1. Are you ready to feel like a novice again?
  2. Are you willing to invest substantial time and effort into learning a new practice area?
  3. Do you have a solid explanation of why you want to switch? (This is especially important if you’re an associate: You’ll need to explain why you want to switch practice areas to hiring managers).

This first question is important, as feeling like a novice may be difficult even if you think you’re mentally prepared. 

As Alycia said, “knowing something really well and leaving that, and then going into not knowing something really well—not knowing the players, not knowing the unspoken rules—can be quite an adjustment. And it can do a number on your confidence and whether or not you think you’ve made the right decision.”

However, if you’re willing to become a novice again, and if you’ve answered “yes” to the other questions above, switching practice areas could be right for you.

How to choose a new legal practice area

Woman with a choice near the forked road

The best way to find out about a different practice area is to talk to lawyers practicing in that area. Leverage your professional networks to find lawyers practicing in the area you’re interested in. Take them out for coffee, ask what their day-to-day is like, and even spend a day at the office with them if they’re up for it. 

You might feel like a college student once again, but this is a technique encouraged by Stanford design instructors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of Designing Your Work Life. You may think you’ll love criminal law, but trying it out in-person is one way to make sure the time and effort you put in to switch will be worth it.

If you don’t already have a new practice area in mind, or if you’re considering adding a practice area to your firm rather than switching, you’ll want to be strategic about your choice:

  • Think about the cases you refer to other firms. Could you be keeping that revenue if you added a new practice area?
  • Think about areas where your current practice area may overlap with your new one. (Are cases billed the same way? Are cases structured in a similar way?)
  • Think about where those overlaps give you a chance to offer unique expertise.

The intersection between your old practice area and your new one can be your superpower. For example, Alycia has a unique skill set due to her experience with both disability law and family law.

“For me doing disability and doing family law, it was understanding how social security benefits can affect a child support payment even,” she said. “So, when I found that out, I thought “This is something I really know,” and definitely the first time I was in court and it came up, I could tell that most people didn’t understand how these things work.”

As a result, Alycia became an expert in this “hybrid” area of law, and was sought after by her networks who practiced in both areas. 

That said, the best test is what you see your future self doing, as switching practice areas is not a short-term game. “I think the best thing is to take that look internally and ask yourself why, and is this a practice area you’re going to be wanting to do in a year or two years or three years?” Alycia said.

10 tips to change legal practice areas successfully

At the heart of it, changing legal practice areas successfully will take a committed, earnest effort on multiple fronts. It will also take time and it’s important not to rush the process. It may take 1-2 years before you feel you’ve fully switched to your new area of legal practice.

Alycia has shared plenty of tips on making the switch in talks like this one. We recommend seeing Alycia speak. But for now, we’ve listed some of her tips here, as well as a few extras she shared with us.

1. Study

studying when switching to a new law practice

Switching practice areas in law means you’ll be a student all over again. Get ready to study! Alycia spends 30 minutes a day studying case law, regulations, and other information about family law not related to current cases.

“Even today, this morning, the first thing I did was go onto our Supreme Court website and look up cases,” she said. “I still do it every day for family law.”

2. Find a mentor

Second to regular study, one of Alycia’s most important tips for successfully changing practice areas is to find a mentor.

“There’s just no price you can put on that,” she said. “And you don’t just need a mentor that’s going to teach you about the practice of law, but also the business of it. So, look for someone who can guide you in that area because things are a lot different when it comes to the business aspect of practicing in different areas and you need to understand it well.”

To find a mentor, Alycia suggested looking for those who’ve put themselves out there as leaders in your new practice area community and starting conversations with them. 

“It can be as simple as asking ‘Hey, can I talk to you about this case? Can I talk to you about this challenge I’m having with this particular judge? Are you seeing the same thing? Is it just because I’m new?’ And those relationships build over time.” Alycia said.

3. Write

Writing notes when studying a new law practice

As Alycia points out, the best way to understand something is to explain it to someone else. Don’t just read: Write about what you’re learning. And if you’re up for it, post your learnings on your website once you’re ready to communicate that you now practice in your new area.

4. Network with others in your new practice area

Meeting others who practice in your new practice area can be invaluable for learning about who you might be interacting with. You can learn the nuances about judges in your area, opposing counsels, and more. 

Attend practice-area-specific bar events, reach out to others in your jurisdiction that practice in your new practice area, or plan an event yourself!

5. Do CLEs targeted for your new practice area

Beyond your study of case law, look for quality CLEs as an additional avenue for bumping up your expertise in your new practice area. You need to meet your CLE requirements anyway, so you may as well do so while reaching your goals of becoming versed in a new area of practice!

6. Use Google Alerts

Trying to stay on top of new developments in your new practice area? Consider setting up a Google alert for new results covering your practice area. You can personalize how often you receive notifications, which sites you’ll receive them from, and more, so it’s possible to follow as little or as much as you have bandwidth for.

7. Learn the business side of things

As mentioned above, you won’t just need to learn about the law when learning a new practice area. The business side of things may be different too, and it’s important to acquaint yourself with that, and get help from a mentor if needed.

For example, billing for disability law cases is quite different than for family law cases.

“The work that I did before, it was contingency practice. It was volume. You didn’t have to worry about getting paid. You got paid from social security when the case was over,” Alycia said. “So, even thinking about that and setting up systems for that is very different than doing family law where now you’re asking for a retainer upfront and you have to bill and you have to try to get your clients to continue to replenish the retainer.”

8. Establish a new network

Alycia recommends thinking about the people who are one or two connections away from those you want as clients in your new practice area, and connecting with those people. For example, for Alycia, with disability law, this could be doctors. For family law, this could be therapists. Attending networking events for these groups, building relationships with people in these roles, and making it known you practice in a relevant area of law will help earn you referrals in the future.

9. Don’t forget your old network

As much as it’s important to build a new network, your old network and relationships are still important. They need to know you’re doing something different. As Alycia points out, the last thing you want is for people in your old network to hire someone else for a certain case because they don’t know you practice in that area of law.

And remember, if you’re able to find a powerful intersection and become a “hybrid” expert like Alycia, your old network will be all the more important.

10. Create structure

This tip is especially important for lawyers switching practice areas during trying times. Creating some sort of structure for your “project” of switching practice areas will keep you accountable—and sane.

For Alycia, what works is a “brain dump” each Sunday, from which she creates her to-do list for the week. She looks at her future plans to make sure items that get her towards those goals are on the list, and works through as much as she can through the week.

An alternative to adding a new practice area to your law firm

If you’re looking at switching to practice areas like bankruptcy, employment law, or estate planning in light of COVID-19, Alycia isn’t sure that’s such a good idea. 

“I think that what happens is that you open yourself up to liability issues,” she explained. “If you’re going into bankruptcy, you’re going into employment law, those are areas where you can really be exposed if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

As Alycia further pointed out, you don’t want your clients to be worse off because they hired you and you weren’t fully up-to-speed in that area yet. “When you think about how long it takes to become a master at a particular area or really good at a particular area of law, that’s not really something you can really switch to in a couple of weeks,” she said.

Instead, leverage the expertise of someone else. There are plenty of ways to connect with others in the legal industry and add a new practice area to your firm that way. This might look like:

  • Hiring a lawyer with experience in the practice area you’re interested in
  • Hiring a freelance lawyer to complete cases in the short term (platforms like LAWCLERK, Hire an Esquire, and Legably are great platforms for finding talent) 
  • Build referral relationships with lawyers in different practice areas.

“Maybe have a bankruptcy attorney or unemployment attorney write a guest piece on your weekly blog or in your weekly newsletter, and that way you can drive those referral relationships and you can leverage that,” Alycia said.

 

If you go this route, follow some of the steps above, like networking with those in the new practice area you want to add to make connections with talented lawyers in your area. You may also still want to find a mentor to help you navigate the business side of your new practice area.

Conclusion: Switch legal practice areas the right way

If changing legal practice areas is right for you, and if you’re willing to invest the time, effort, and need to be a novice again in switching, you could be well on your way to a more profitable and/or fulfilling career. Some high-level takeaways:

  • Choose a new area that makes sense for you
  • Look for a strategic intersection of your new and old practice areas
  • Study relentlessly
  • Learn about the business of your new practice
  • Build a new network (but don’t forget the old one)

However, as Alycia stressed, it’s crucial that you’re switching or adding practice areas for the right reasons. Law firms across the country are facing immense challenges due to COVID-19, but a reactive change may not be the answer. Only change legal practice areas (or add a new one) if it makes sense for the long term strategy of your firm.

“The thing is, you’ll come out of this at some point, and you’re going to end up in the same boat in another one year, two years, or three years because you didn’t fix whatever the deeper issues were,” Alycia said. “So I think it’s very important that all of us are using this time to really try to figure out how we can improve our practices.”

Categorized in: Business

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