I started out my career in a big firm doing IP. Now that I have decided I don’t like IP, I want to look for a job in what I have now discovered is my one true love – immigration law. Am I being realistic?
To put it bluntly, no. It is remarkable how often I receive resumes from attorneys who are seeking to change their legal specialties during a job search. In addition to the real-life example cited above, I have seen candidates who want to switch from insurance defense litigation to patent litigation, from general corporate at a small firm to private equity and fund formation at Kirkland & Ellis, and from a combination of real estate, bankruptcy and public finance to corporate mergers and acquisitions. Firms generally have no interest in hiring a lawyer who is 5, 10, 20 or more years out of law school who wants to start in a brand new practice area. Firms typically seek attorneys that have a particular number of years of experience in just one practice area (or perhaps several related sub-practice areas). They do not want lawyers that have zero experience in the desired area. (The only exception is with law student candidates and others who are just starting out). Firms are also not impressed by veteran attorneys who seem to be uncertain regarding their specialty and/or their commitment to the legal profession.
This general rule also applies to candidates who have several unrelated practice areas, but who seek a job that concentrates in only one of them. While these candidates will usually have at least some experience in the desired practice area, it is still not sufficient to meet the firm requirement that the candidate have spent all or virtually all of their time practicing in the desired specialty. For example, consider a candidate who has split their time evenly (33% each) between commercial litigation, real estate and trusts & estates who applies for a 3 year commercial litigation associate position. The firm will most likely reject that candidate and choose instead one of the countless other candidates who have spent 100% of their time (or at least close to it) on litigation for the requisite number of years (3). Even if the first candidate actually did spend the requisite number of years on litigation (say 3 years out of 9 to meet the 3 year requirement), they will still be rejected as far too senior.
This problem often comes up with candidates from small firms, where working in several different practice areas is more common. Larger firms, however, are much more specialized. Consequently, small firm resumes with multiple practices usually do not translate well in big firms. Such candidates are usually better off focusing their search on other small firms who are accustomed to multiple practices. Small firms will still be unsympathetic to attempts to change one’s practice area, however, just like the big firms. In addition to the reasons cited above, firms do not want to spend money training veteran lawyers on new practice areas. The key lesson is that when doing a legal job search, veteran candidates should stick to their one specialty area (or at most, two in some rare cases). While a particular veteran candidate may have sound reasons for wanting to change their specialty, the reality is that the days of experimenting as a summer associate with what area you wanted to be in are long past. The time to change a specialty, if at all, is after you have spent years working for a particular firm.