Reinvention is part of being a solo lawyer. Some solos decide to become publishers or journalists or law clerks, leaving the practice of law behind. But sometimes it is a new practice area that defines a lawyer’s reinvention. With so many options in established practice areas and new ones being created through changes in law and through innovation, there are limitless possibilities for redefining your practice.
Lawyers adopt new practice areas for all kinds of reasons. Some practice areas are legislated away so that when a law is changed, a practice area might be wiped out entirely. A new practice area is sometimes required for survival. Sometimes a lawyer is just bored with what they are doing and wants a new area of focus, or their interest is piqued when they come into contact with a new area. And sometimes, laws change and create entirely new practice areas, and lawyers want to get onboard, such as the rapid growth of marijuana law.
Lawyers add many skills to their repertoire over the course of law practice, and sometimes a new practice area comes from learning a new skill. For example, a transactional lawyer who oversees a single real estate transaction that goes bad might then decide that he wants to branch out into real estate litigation.
A new area might be chosen because it is not only new to the lawyer but new to everyone. This has been true of marijuana law as the drug has slowly become legalized in several states; a couple of decades ago, seat belt laws were a significant change (and source of traffic tickets). Think about the new practice area that is being created with the advent of self-driving cars: out with DUI and in with AI failure. When the law evolves, so too must its practitioners.
Once you choose to add a new area of law to your practice, how do you go about achieving a level of competence in the new field? After all, you do not want to violate the duty to provide competent representation on your first case in the new practice area. Thankfully, there are resources available even when the area of law is brand new.
Read the law. If your new practice area relates to a discrete law, your first stop should be the legislation itself. The underlying legislative history and any regulations flowing from the law also need to be read and thoroughly digested. When you are dealing with a new law, this will be a relatively manageable universe of material. If you are evolving into an existing field, the actual law might be more voluminous and the legislative history less relevant.
Read the cases. Like legislation, the key cases in a practice area are critical reading. The volume of key cases will vary based on practice area, but if you use resources like practice guides, you can likely narrow down the most important cases to get a better handle on the authorities governing your new field. You do not want to get caught not knowing a major case in your new practice area.
Other resources. Unless you are transitioning into a brand new area of law that no one has begun teaching or presenting about, the chances are good that there will be resources available for learning the basics and the details of a new practice area.
- Online articles. Look for sources of information such as blogs and articles. Keep the source in mind as you use the information, but since blogging is a simple and effective way to share first-hand information and research, it might be very useful so long as it appears reliable.
- Find online CLE presentations on your new area. Large CLE providers have hundreds of programs available online and one may be what you need. Individual lawyers practicing in the field may also offer CLE programs on their websites, often for free.
- Search for Slideshare materials from talks on your topic. Presenters from programs can post their slide decks through Slideshare, and often the slides alone are enough to educate you.
- Print publications. Books and other publications can give you the background you need in more established areas of the law. Law libraries will typically carry practice guides, and a thorough reading of a practice guide can educate you to a great extent.
Mentors. Reach out to people working in the field. Take someone to lunch, pick their brain, and learn about your new area. Go to an in-person conference and meet people practicing in the area; listen to the speakers, introduce yourself to practitioners, and absorb the information while seeking out a mentor.
Reinventing your practice, to some extent, is bound to be a part of your firm’s story. Embrace the evolution of practice, and redefine your work with competence.
Originally published 2017-06-20. Republished 2020-01-09.