Switching Practice Areas: My Personal Experience and Takeaways
Burnout is rampant in the legal profession, especially in the first few years. While this is largely due to the long hours and inherent stress of the legal profession, another contributing factor could be the fact that young lawyers are not practising the right kind of law for their skillsets and interests. In this regard, the competitiveness of the training contract application processes often compels law students to undertake a targeted approach in law school, where students will select internships and modules with a certain practice area in mind. This approach allows students to demonstrate their competence and interest in specific practice areas, thereby providing them with an edge when applying for training contracts as compared to students who have not done so. The drawback is that such students may prematurely pigeonhole themselves into certain types of legal practice without having explored other options. This could then lead to young lawyers practising in areas which are misaligned with their capabilities, interests and/or character traits.
I was one of the law students who “specialised” early. After a short time in legal practice with a disputes-focused team, I decided to switch to a practice area which was entirely foreign to me. I thought it would be helpful to share my personal experience and some takeaways in this regard. In full disclosure, luck has played a significant role in my journey to finding a suitable legal path, i.e. encountering the right opportunity at the right time. Nevertheless, I have found that certain tools and steps were helpful in my decision-making process and in transitioning to a new practice area. I have set them out in this article and hope that they will be helpful to any young lawyers or legal trainees in a similar situation.
Why I Decided to Switch Practice Areas
As a young, bright-eyed trainee fresh out of law school, I was excited to begin learning everything about the practice area that I saw myself practising in for the foreseeable future. Despite having great bosses and a nurturing team, I soon discovered that while I enjoyed analyzing and resolving complex legal issues, I was less enthusiastic about the adversarial nature of litigation. I also could not see myself in disputes practice in the long term.
Thankfully, although my legal training was primarily disputes-focused, I was also able to work on matters of an advisory or regulatory nature. Over the course of my training and early practice, I was able to pin-point specific aspects of my practice area which I enjoyed, and other aspects which I did not. I kept these in mind when deciding on a suitable alternative practice area.
For young lawyers who are unsure about whether their practice area is right for them, I would urge you to try and expose yourself to different types of legal work. I appreciate that the opportunity to do so may not be available in every team or every firm, but you can always start with something small. For example, for budding disputes lawyers, negotiating and drafting a settlement agreement would be a good opportunity to get acquainted with contract drafting.
Deciding on a Suitable Practice Area
Having decided that I wanted to stay in legal practice but would like to transition to a different practice area, I then had to decide on a suitable practice area. Ideally, I’d like to have rotated between the diverse range of practice groups available before deciding on the perfect practice area for me. This is, of course, quite impossible to achieve in real life. However, I found that the tools and steps below were helpful in allowing me to (i) distinguish between practice areas that were suitable for me and those which were not; and (ii) further identify, amongst the suitable practice areas, specific practice areas which I found to be sustainable and meaningful.
At the risk of sounding cliché, a career tool that I found particularly helpful was an adapted concept of ikigai. Ikigai is a Japanese concept that roughly translates to “a reason for being”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ikigai as “a motivating force; something or someone that gives a person a sense of purpose or a reason for living”. This concept was adapted by western authors such as Andres Zuzunaga and Dan Buettner (in his Ted Talk on How to Live to be 100+). It eventually gave rise to the Venn Diagram below, which has been used by the likes of HR managers and motivational speakers as a simplified tool to guide one’s career progression and development:
Adapting this to the legal industry, I picked out several broad practice groups which (a) allowed me to engage in legal work which I enjoyed and could comfortably see myself doing in the long term (what I loved and what I am good at); and (b) had a steady and sustained stream of legal work which I found to be meaningful, at least for the foreseeable future (what I can be paid for and what the world needs).
Exposure to Different Types of Legal Work
As mentioned above, even though I trained in general disputes, I was able to discover my preference for advisory work by assisting in regulatory and compliance-related work. This aided my decision-making process in two ways:
- While I was not exposed to any files specifically relating to the practice area that I eventually applied to, I was able to hone the relevant skills that were transferable to the new role.
- Undertaking regulatory and compliance-related work (albeit not in the specific area of law of my eventual practice area) gave me a flavour of my day-to-day job scope if I were to switch to practice areas focused on advisory and regulatory-related work.
Networking with Lawyers in Interested Practice Areas
I spoke to batchmates and lawyers specialising in practice areas that I was interested in. Their candid responses gave me an authentic insight into the nature and scope of work in different practice areas, as well as the relevant skillsets and expertise associated with such practice areas. For example, tech lawyers should have an interest for and aptitude in understanding how technology works while transaction lawyers would prioritize acute business acumen and sensitivity to commercial interests.
Attend Courses and Seminars on Interested Practice Areas
I also attended courses and seminars organised by the local laws schools and Law Society relating to the practice areas which I was interested in. Through these courses, I gained a foundational understanding of some practice areas I was interested in and was able to further narrow down specific practice areas which I found to be particularly interesting and meaningful.
Finding Appropriate Opportunities and Job Application
Having decided on one or two specific practice areas, the next step was to find appropriate opportunities and prepare the job application. In this regard, it is trite that your CV should be tailored to the position and practice area that you are applying for. In my view, it would be good to highlight:
- work experiences that are relevant to the new practice area;
- skills and expertise that are transferable to the new practice area;
- any steps that you are taking to transition to the new practice area (for example, attending courses or reading up on the relevant laws); and
- any additional skills which can value add to the position you are applying for and to the team.
I also found that the courses and seminars I attended allowed me to demonstrate my interest in the new practice area through tangible action.
In terms of interview preparation, I prepared for questions which are likely to be asked during the interview process, including the following:
- Why are you moving out of your practice area?
- Why are you interested in the new practice area?
- What are your relevant experiences for the new role?
- What would make you a competent lawyer in the new practice area?
- Are you taking any steps to transition into the new practice area, and if so, what are they?
Summary of Takeaways and Concluding Remarks
In brief, I found that the following were helpful in my decision-making process in relation to switching practice areas and my subsequent job applications:
- Figure out what you like and dislike about your current practice area; retain aspects you enjoy when seeking out your new practice area.
- Expose yourself to different types of legal work (contentious, transactional, advisory, etc.), even if they do not relate to any specific area of law which you want switch to.
- Lay the foundations once you have narrowed down your practice areas – attend courses or seminars related to these practice areas, read textbooks, link up with fellow lawyers and batchmates in such practice areas.
- As best as you can, tailor your CV to the new practice area you are applying for – highlight any legal work related to your new practice area and any skills you have obtained in your current practice area which are transferable to your new practice area.
- Be prepared to answer the usual interview questions.
Ultimately, finding a suitable practice area in the formative years of your legal career is only one important factor which would influence your job satisfaction and the longevity of your career. Other aspects include working hours, firm culture, etc. I am thankful that I have found not only a sustainable practice which I enjoy but a great team with a good culture.
For the young lawyers considering a switch in practice area, I hope that this article has been useful to you and I wish you all the best in your future endeavours!
A Fellow Young Lawyer
Member, Young Lawyers Committee
The Law Society of Singapore