As someone who made a significant career change a few years into my legal career, I often have lawyers seeking my advice on how they can do the same.
For some, that transition might simply be a matter of stepping into a different type of organisation (e.g., from a boutique firm to a mid- or top-tier firm), while for others it could involve switching practice areas or even getting out of the law entirely.
Particularly for the more dramatic transitions, the decision making process will probably involve lots of soul searching as well as seeking advice from people with more in-depth knowledge of your new focus area.
For me, the process of deciding where and how high to aim was best attacked methodically. I recommend the following steps:
1. Wrap your head around exactly what you want to do, and why
First, ask yourself why you want to make this move. Are you looking for more sophisticated work? Shorter days? Do you find your work unfulfilling or think there might be some better way to play to your strengths?
Then, speak to professionals in your new area and ask them about how they spend their days. Picture yourself in their shoes to make absolutely sure that your planned moved will give you what you’re looking for.
Remember – if you can’t succinctly explain to yourself why this transition is a considered and strategic career move for you, you definitely won’t be able to convince any prospective employer.
2. Set your expectations
How hard it will be to make a career transition will likely depend on the extent of the transition you’re looking to make. It can be helpful to view this as a spectrum of timing. While transitions are usually possible, the further you are looking to stray from your core skillset and past experience, the longer it will take you to be able to pull it off.
Organisations will almost always try to fill job vacancies in the first instance with candidates with direct experience in a similar role. If they can’t find that, they’ll next look to candidates with skills or experience that are only one-step removed. For example, a candidate with relevant experience but in a smaller firm, or one with big firm experience in a complimentary area of law.
Once you are looking to make a move that is two or three steps removed from your existing experience, the challenge will increase significantly.
When assessing whether a move is achievable, it’s important to remember that it may not be enough to be capable of doing the job – you will also likely need to succeed over other candidates with more relevant experience.
3. Look for case studies
Try to find other people who have made a similar transition. If they exist, they may be able to provide a blueprint for how to go about things. If they don’t exist, you might need to consider a stepping-stone.
4. Consider a stepping-stone
A top-tier M&A team categorically will not hire a litigator from a boutique firm.
However, from a boutique litigation team, it may be achievable to move to either a top-tier litigation team or a boutique M&A team, which in turn could put you on a pathway to a top-tier M&A team.
A stepping-stone role may increase the time it takes you to make your transition by a couple of years, but is often the path of least resistance.
5. Start applying
While the above steps all proved helpful to me and many lawyers I’ve advised, everyone’s situation and CV is unique. Sometimes, the best way to figure out what is achievable is to simply start applying and then use the feedback from unsuccessful attempts to guide your next moves.
Just be careful not to burn bridges with applications that are unrealistic or too much of a stretch.