How Much of a Career Risk Should You Take Switching Specialties?

Question.iStock_000011272724XSmallIt's a sure-footed, absolute and positive, no mistakin' it gamble. Switching specialties, that is. Bored with what you're doing? Fed up with a paltry salary? Peeking over the fence to see who makes more money? Seeking that enigma: better challenge?

Tonya Pierce addresses the topic today. She's making some good points. The main one being: THINK before you leap (and other relevant cliches). Enjoy!

The days of general practice law firms may have passed. Many attorneys are choosing to specialize to be more marketable. Law firms are following suit [pardon any puns] by specializing in one or two areas of law. An attorney who can advertise that he or she is an expert in a certain area has an advantage over an attorney who practices several types of law. In reality, clients who hire an attorney who specializes gets one that has the right experience and most likely, is on the forefront of current laws and trends.

Paralegals are following with some paralegals going into a specialty area directly from school. While this presents some benefits, I am glad that I did not. I worked for a general practice law firm that did mostly real estate and family law but took just about anything that came in the door with a few exceptions.

From working in a situation where I had to think on my feet, find resources, research various areas of law and remain calm while I had no clue what I was doing, I learned skills that have served me very well in my paralegal career.  Later, however, I specialized in bankruptcy law which I found to have tremendous advantages.

Why Paralegal Specialization?

  • Advantage over other applicants. When searching for a job, having a wealth of  experience in one area can give you an advantage over applicants with minimal experience. Attorneys love to hire paralegals who can walk in the door and hit the ground running with very little training. By working in one area, you automatically become a valuable asset to an attorney who is also specializing.
  • Becoming a Certified Paralegal. Several national paralegal organizations [such as NALA and NFPA] offering certification programs have added specialization certification. Achieving certification as a specialist demonstrates that you have attained a higher level of experience and skill giving you a distinct lead over other candidates. 
  • Advantage in certain areas of laws. Some areas of law are very specialized with fewer attorneys (i.e. bankruptcy or intellectual property). Therefore, there are fewer experienced paralegals. I can't even begin to tell you how desirable you become. 
  • Higher salaries. Just as attorneys who are specialists charge higher fees for their increased experience, paralegals who specialize can also earn higher salaries.

Disadvantages of Paralegal Specialization

  • Fewer job opportunities. Depending upon the area of law that you choose to specialize, you may have fewer job opportunities. If you choose an area that is highly specialized such as complex foreign litigation, there are simply fewer job opportunities than those more generalized because there are so fewer attorneys.
  • Disadvantage compared to other applicants. When an attorney is looking for a well-rounded paralegal, you may be at a disadvantage compared to that of a paralegal with experience in several areas of law. Here's where it backfires: You are not as marketable because you have limited your experience to one specific area.
  • Legal trends have a large impact on your career. If the specialized area of law experiences a decrease in business, your career is impacted more severely than a paralegal who has experience in several areas. For example, when bankruptcies dropped by 20% several years ago, bankruptcy paralegals had a very difficult time finding another job because staff was cut. Attorneys began to look for paralegals with experience in other areas to expand their practice.

Whether or not you decide to specialize, choose an area that you enjoy. Being a paralegal is very rewarding; however, it can also be very stressful. By choosing an area of law that you enjoy, you will find that during stressful moments you still enjoy your job rather than being filled with dread going into the office each morning. Doing something that you enjoy is much more fulfilling and sustains you during those days when you momentarily wonder why you ever decided to become a paralegal.

Tonya Pierce is a paralegal with over 24 years experience in several areas of the legal field (17 years as a bankruptcy paralegal and trustee paralegal). She regularly writes advice columns for AgileLaw, the industry leading provider of paperless depositions.

If you are seeking to expand your career, you'll need to get continuing legal education. Nothing impresses attorneys more than plenty of quality continuing legal education. For more opportunities, go to the Paralegal Knowledge Institute, a well-respected training organization designed specifically for the paralegal assignment. or contact me at and let's chat about how to be in charge of your future in the paralegal career.