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The Brief

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Sinead Donnelly, senior associate in the Employment Law team at Clyde & Co, discusses her experience of moving practice areas…

Choosing the practice area you wish to specialise in is one of the most important decisions for any lawyer and it is one normally made very early on at a time when you may not have had much experience of the law outside of your academic studies and your training contract seats. As a result, you may not have much of a feel for the subject, and what it will be like to actually practice in that area for the rest of your career. On top of that, the risk of not having a job may force some to accept whatever role is offered upon qualification.

The economic recession of 2008 has been a big factor impacting the areas of practice open to lawyers, and with significant opportunities for NQs disappearing virtually overnight in certain sectors, many have ended up in areas more by default than choice. With the UK having experienced a double dip recession, we have seen redundancies across many firms and some practice groups. The uncertainty now facing many lawyers may force some to consider diversifying and/or changing their area of specialism.

Some areas such as employment are extremely popular and will always be more difficult to either qualify into, or to later move into. Competition amongst NQs for these kinds of roles remains stiff with firms rarely needing to advertise externally. When I qualified, employment law was my first choice but the lack of a vacancy at my firm left me considering my options. I was intrigued by the offer of a role as a share schemes lawyer with a leading accountancy firm; I knew relatively little about the area but was excited about the role. However, after five years in practice I found that my enthusiasm had waned slightly and I found it increasingly difficult to get excited about a potential exercise of share options, when my employment colleagues were describing animatedly their day at tribunal and chatting about the unusual cases they were dealing with! Fortunately, the combination of a very supportive Head of Department and the decision of a colleague to go travelling gave me the opportunity to move into employment and I have been specialising in this area for the past seven years.

Of course, such moves are not always straightforward and making a change in a difficult legal market is no easy task. Competition is tough and the decision to change may be one reserved for the bravest with a number of key factors including academics, experience, the condition of the legal market, the market demand of the practice area you are leaving/joining and your own determination and drive, all playing a part. For more experienced lawyers, the contemplation of a change may be more daunting as there can be a degree of uncertainty surrounding a fresh start coupled with an initial lack of knowledge and contacts, not to mention the prospect of a potential salary drop.

However, some recruiters suggest that despite a highly competitive market, demand is slowly beginning to outstrip supply in certain areas; in particular, those hit hardest by the recession. As a result, some practice areas are beginning to see a revival which may offer opportunities for those considering a move.

It is obviously much easier to make a transition if your current area of practice is not dissimilar to the one you wish to move into. Moving from share schemes to employment was certainly made easier for me given the overlap but generally, the basic legal skills required are similar and where they’re not, they will certainly complement each other. With hard work, drive and ambition, further skills and knowledge can be picked up quickly so this should, in my view, not be a deterrent to anyone considering a change.

I am forever grateful for the opportunity which enabled me to change practice area. I love my job and would encourage anyone experiencing a desire to move, to consider making the change sooner rather than later. With many of us spending longer hours at work, it is more important than ever to enjoy what you do.

In an increasingly competitive market – where firms are moving away from the traditional model of reward based on PQE alone – adept networking and cross-selling skills are enhanced greatly when you can display true passion, interest and enthusiasm for your subject, leading ultimately to job satisfaction and career success.

To sum up, don’t be daunted by the thought of a change as it could be the most rewarding decision of your career.

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