Legal Career Transitions

Over the course of our legal careers, we need to make many transitions. It all starts as we move from being a law student into the “real world” of being an attorney (whatever that really means.) Then we make lateral moves, we change practice areas, or we leave the practice altogether.

Whatever our transitions look like, there are particular skills, behaviors and habits that will help those transitions be as smooth as possible. Here are a few tips I offer law students and lawyers that I work with who are making significant career changes:


1Come to accept a temporary feeling of ignorance. Face it: you are going to feel like you just took three steps backward. You will likely feel lost, clueless, and somewhat inept. If you are changing practice areas or jurisdictions, you may have a steep learning curve in front of you. Of course, if you are just graduating from law school, the learning curve is even steeper as you launch into practice. There’s a lot to absorb, and you are starting to realize that there is a lot you don’t know. Accept that uncomfortable feeling, acknowledge it will pass, and be patient with yourself.

2Step up and start learning. You’ve likely been comfortable in your old ways. You knew your way around your school/workplace. You knew the rules, written and unwritten. You knew where the bathroom was. You knew where to catch the bus. You knew the office politics. You had your routine. But now all of that has changed, and it’s even harder to learn new routines and habits than it is to learn one in the first place. It’s frustrating to have to learn new ways of doing things, but it’s part of the transition. Just remember that it will be worth it in the end, and quit resisting the change.

3Take a little time to test the waters. You may feel swamped, but taking a little time to learn the ropes is time well-spent. If you can manage it at all, set aside some time to learn how things are done in your new firm/office/workplace. Or, if you are changing locations or jurisdictions, take some time to do some research on your new legal community, new applicable rules/statutes, etc. It’s better to do this learning on the front end rather than making all sorts of mistakes or wasting time looking for things or information. Hopefully anyone you are working with will understand that you must take this time to get up to speed as soon as possible. And if you are striking out on your own, spend time doing this homework to save yourself time and angst later.

4Set reasonable goals. It may feel and be completely daunting making your transition. There is likely an enormous amount of things to do and adjustments to make. Try to set realistic goals for yourself in terms of how much you can get done, what new things you want to learn, and when you want to complete particular tasks. Maybe you need to learn your way around the area/library/office. Promise yourself that sometime in the next two weeks you will set aside time to do this investigating and you will do enough research/learning to feel comfortable by your self-imposed deadline. Take it one step at a time. You won’t feel at home in your new place overnight. But you will get there if you keep setting reasonable, manageable goals and try to complete them one-by-one.

5Ask for help. No matter what, try to reach out to a friend, colleague, or mentor when you need help or support. Whatever transition you are facing, it’s likely that someone you know or can connect with has faced it before and can help shortcut your learning curve. Don’t try to be a hero. Ask your questions of someone you know and trust. You’ll save time, energy, and suffering in the long run.

We all have or will face transitions in our careers. Some transitions are rocky and painful, but if you can utilize some of the tips above, hopefully your transition will be as smooth and positive as possible.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/theskinimin/524525740/)

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