Unlike many other professions, we as lawyers benefit from the ability to expand and evolve into new areas of practice.
Last week, for example, as I was sending out my second engagement agreement of the day to a potential probate client, I suddenly realized that nearly six years ago when I joined my current firm, my practice was exclusively litigation-based and I had handled exactly zero probate cases in my career. I also realized that in the six years in between, I have come to enjoy my probate cases, gained a pretty solid grasp on probate law and even taught a CLE on probate principles.
I say this not to needlessly self-promote. I offer my personal example up because I have recently spoken with a number of attorneys in their first or second years of practice who feel trapped. These new attorneys are practicing extensively (or exclusively) in an area of law that they don’t find enjoyable. Yet, at the same time, these young attorneys feel that as they gain mastery within their present area of practice, they are making it even harder to someday leave that area of practice.
To that I say a few things.
First, adding a new area of practice to your toolbox is not easy. You must find good mentors, good resources, good CLEs and perhaps good co-counsel as you acquire the necessary competence in these new practice areas.
Second, if you perform work on an hourly fee basis, you must understand there is a high likelihood you will be writing off substantial portions of your time in the first few cases in your new practice area. Simply put, new cases will take you longer and it may be dangerous (or even a Rule 1.5 issue) if you are billing your client for your learning curve.
Third, be mindful that if you are practicing within a law firm, your new practice area may or may not fit with the brand of the firm. Consult with mentors within the firm to see if dipping your toe into a new area of practice will be something your supervising attorneys might be on board with. Perhaps your supervising attorneys will find marketing a new type of practice will be complementary to the services your firm already provides and will wholeheartedly support you as you venture into this new practice. Be ready with a business plan.
Fourth, and finally, adding a new practice area may make you more marketable, both to clients and to other firms. If you really do come to enjoy a practice of law that is not consonant with your present firm, open your eyes to opportunities elsewhere. You will bring expertise in multiple areas of practice, even if one of the areas of practice isn’t necessarily your first love anymore.
The practice of law can be draining. It can also be rewarding. If you find yourself trapped, it’s rarely too late to expand into a new area of practice. It may not be easy, but it may be well worth it.