Many paralegals who want to switch practice specialties write their resume with exactly what it is they are doing now, send out a cover letter stating they have lots of experience in their current practice area and are “detail oriented, a team player and a quick learner”. In other words, “here I am, take me as I am and, oh, please train me”.
And expect that will get them a new job in a new specialty with a new firm.
Changing practice specialties is harder than getting your first job – much harder. Your experience in one arena probably does not translate into another and budgets being what they are today, few firms want to train and pay you anything other than entry-level salary.
Given that people spend most of their lifetime at work, enjoying what you do is especially important. However, how you landed in your specialty is often by accident. It’s not surprising then, that many paralegals call me frequently seeking to switch practice areas.
Your ability to switch specialties depends upon your academic background, length of time in the field, the law firms you have been with, market demand, practice areas you want to leave and enter, skill set, geographic location, recent continuing legal education, contacts and just plain ole good luck.
Switching practice areas is not a decision taken lightly. The type of work you should be practicing should be a function of your strongest skill sets and interests more than anything else. You have to love it, otherwise, why do it? Simply switching firms to learn a new practice area may not always be appropriate either. For example, you may be able to switch practice areas within your own firm.
You may be in a practice specialty by default: it was simply, the best job you got after paralegal school. Sometimes, the condition of the legal market forces you to choose a particular practice area. For example during the recession because of weak market conditions, many paralegals fell into litigation or bankruptcy rather than corporate or real estate.
Why do you want to switch? Paralegals choosing to switch practice areas for the "right reasons" often do so because they realize that they are not suited for the practice area they are in. It is critical that you totally evaluate why you want to change. Be realistic. Were you listening to colleagues boast about the mega merger deals they worked on, or the salary they command? Does a colleague work for a glamorous entertainment firm with lots of wrap parties and you’d like to be part of that?
Have you thought about whether you are seeking to change practice areas because you are unhappy with your current firm? In such circumstances, changing firms may ultimately be the right choice instead. Perhaps you just need a vacation after working for 30 days straight on a trial in the middle of nowhere eating junk food and soothing upset, agitated, grumpy attorneys.
Whatever the reason, you need to be clear and identify the reason you are seeking change. Make sure that your reason has been thoroughly explored and is compelling. You do not want to find yourself in a similar situation in another year.
What is the new specialty? Sometimes it’s a matter of, “Just get me outta here!” Other times, you already know where you want to go. However, if you don’t, here are a few steps you can take:
- Shed your preconceived notions. Many of us think we know all there is about various specialties. But if you’ve never actually worked in those areas or spoken at length with someone who does, chances are your perceptions are inaccurate.
- Explore your options. Go to LAPA job seminars, find webinars, read articles, join LinkedIn groups, connect with paralegals on Facebook, attend association meetings. This is a great way to find out what’s out there and learn more about different specialties. Read job postings. Join practice specialty sections of your association. Look up attorney and paralegal job descriptions. Attend lawyer association meetings and find out what lawyers do. They all need paralegals. Read journals. Google different specialties. Take a paralegal to lunch.
Take steps to successfully assimilate. Once you’ve decided to make the change, immerse yourself in the specialty. Immediately join that specialty association. Get out to meetings, read journals, go to state and national conferences, and consider getting active by joining a committee. Many paralegals make the transition to a new area and then bail when they feel like a fish out of water. They don’t give themselves a chance to learn and grow into the new position or develop expertise. Remember that it takes three to six months to master a new environment – sometimes longer, depending on the complexity of the specialty.
How to make the change. Once you have identified the reasons to change your practice area, are convinced that the reasons are compelling, have done a requisite critical self-analysis and examined your academic qualifications and experience, the next step is to plan how to proceed.
- New projects: To make the transition to a new specialty, you’ll need a record of projects showcasing your new skills and definitely additional training. Even then, expect to start at the bottom, both in terms of pay and job responsibilities.
- Transferable skills. The biggest mistake paralegals make is to assume employers will take them as they are. That is, they can simply go from one arena to another. Telling employers you are hard-working, can handle a large volume of work, and a quick learner means nothing. What skills do you have that are transferable? Are you a litigation paralegal seeking to become a corporate paralegal? Did you ever work on a case where you had to look into the corporate formation? Do research on the corporate structure? Those are the transferable skills.
- Continuing legal education. You must take continuing legal education to show that you have the right skills. Are you a corporate paralegal seeking to go into litigation? Take seminar/webinars in eDiscovery and state and federal rules. Put those courses on your resume. Now, you can show potential employers you have some current knowledge of the specialty. This is the most important step you can take to switch specialties. Can’t find a paralegal course? Take attorney seminars or webinars. You will gain a lot more knowledge than you realize.
- Get cross-trained in your current firm. The paralegal that brings the most value to firms today is one that is cross-trained. You may not have to leave your firm to learn a new specialty. Find out where your firm can use your talent and get cross-trained. You’ll bring added value to the firm and ensure better job security in the process.
Make an impression. During interviews, be the standout candidate by talking up the actions you've taken that prove your commitment to the field. Reveal your practice specialty knowledge, and mention events you've attended or associations where you volunteer. Write articles on LinkedIn, for LAPA or other legal publications that demonstrate the value you bring. You can even start a blog or utilize social media.
Your goal is to make potential employers see you as someone already in their industry and in it to stay, regardless of whether they hire you. Don't leave the impression that if they don't hire you, you will do something else.
Think small. Bigger firms may offer a broader range of opportunities and even more money, but a smaller firm may give you the chance to work in a jack-of-all-trades capacity to develop skills outside your area of expertise. Also at smaller firms, job roles may be more flexible, thus allowing you to gain exposure to other responsibilities.
Change your resume. Another common mistake is to use the same resume that worked in previous specialties when pursuing new ones. Instead, resumes should be reworked to emphasize key qualifications for new objectives. The best way to get started is to research the specialty you're trying to break into and understand what hiring managers want. Learn about the skills and other credentials that are important in your new career and put those skills first in your resume. Don’t assume employers will know you have those skills. They don’t.
It’s exciting and daunting at the same time to make a switch in practice specialties. Take the proper steps and don’t expect to make a change without some bumps in the road. It’s possible, it’s being done and you can do it. Just one more positive line on your resume on your road to paralegal success!
Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing. She is the author of 10 books on paralegal careers and a former Paralegal Administrator for two major law firms. Chere is the CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute, the President and Co-Founding member of the Organization of Legal Professionals and a former executive in a $5 billion corporation. She has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Forbes.com, Above the Law and other publications. She is a LAPA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and national seminar speaker. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org