From Jobless to Employed: How I Switched Practice Areas During the Great Recession

How to switch practice areas
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In August 2008, my employer, a real estate boutique law firm in Atlanta, began firing their associates because the economy was tanking. I suddenly found myself unemployed.

It was traumatic to be jobless. This role was my first “real” job after law school. I just passed the bar and, after three years of law school, obtained a Masters in Urban Planning to enhance my real estate expertise. I spent two summers working for my firm and had been a full-time attorney there for barely a year.

Real estate attorney had become my identity. My law school loans were coming due, and now I did not have a way to pay them. I spent a few days licking my wounds and realized I needed to figure something out. I took some time to analyze what would contribute to a lasting career change. This allowed me to rebrand from real estate attorney to family law attorney during the Great Recession. Here is what I did:

1. Analysis of Hard & Soft Skills

The first thing I did was analyze my skill set. I considered what areas of practice were tangentially related to what I was already doing. I initially thought my very narrow experience in homeowner and condominium association law would translate into a broader real estate practice. However, real estate work dried up during the recession, so that was not fruitful. Further, I had only a year of very niche real estate work under my belt, so I was no longer a competitive real estate candidate.

I considered what other skills I could bring to bear on a different practice area. I had done a few name changes and adoptions as pro bono work, which would be applicable to a family law practice, if someone could teach me the ins and outs of divorce and custody law. I also had fundraising and marketing experience from a prior non-law job and via volunteer work. I thought I could use that experience and my vast connections at a small, family law practice, given that family law marketing tends to very network-based.

2. Analysis of Interests

I am an advocate at heart. One thing that was missing from my real estate practice was that my work did not directly impact individuals. I considered trying to shift into business law or real estate litigation, but neither of those practices appealed to me because they did not have a direct impact on individuals’ lives. It was important to me to consider areas of law that appealed to my interests.

I asked myself: Are there things you enjoyed from your pro bono experience? Have you taken CLEs that were particularly interesting, but not related to your current area of practice? Do you have hobbies that lend themselves to other areas of law? Were there certain classes in law school that you found appealing but didn’t pursue? In thinking through those things, I kept coming back to my pro bono experience and family law courses I really enjoyed. I liked the idea of doing adoptions, assisting same-sex couples navigate ownership issues and helping a single parent get more time with their child.

 3. Analysis of Industry Needs

The hardest part of reconciling my job loss was considering the market during the time of the Great Recession. My goal of staying in real estate in 2008 was virtually impossible, given that the practice area had all but disappeared. So, I considered what was in demand. I read the latest industry news; I talked to my mentors and professors; I even called a recruiter to find out what areas were hiring.

Areas that tend to tick up during recessions include ERISA, labor and employment, many types of litigation, and regulatory practices, such as healthcare and data privacy. Family law and criminal law also tick up during down markets, unfortunately—hence why I chose family law; it checked all the boxes for what I wanted in a practice and was in high demand.

4. Rebranding

Once my analysis was complete, I started to rebrand myself as a family law attorney. There were several things I did to change my image. First, I joined the family law bar to meet other attorneys who were doing what I wanted to do. I thought they might know of job opportunities and would give me the “ins” and “outs” of being a family law attorney.

I took CLEs focused on child custody disputes and volunteered for organizations focused on same-sex marriage. Working directly with the types of clients I hoped to serve helped me gain a sense of what life would be like as a family law attorney. I was also able to show the much-needed experience on my “family law” resume that would get me in the door for an interview.

There are other ways to build your brand in 2020 that did not exist or were not as prevalent in 2008: launch a blog, a podcast or video series where you can share your knowledge and establish your credibility in a particular practice area; get published in the legal trade within your community; join Twitter, Instagram and Facebook groups that are relevant to your new brand; or take on pro bono cases in your chosen area to gain experience.

Immerse yourself in the area of law you have chosen to pivot to and focus on one area so you can demonstrate to potential future employers that you are committed to the new practice area.

With a lot of thought, determination and hard work, it is possible to rebrand yourself into a new practice area once you have experienced job loss. It takes planning and work, but it is possible gain enough knowledge and to make the right connections to demonstrate your commitment to your new area of law.

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