When is it too Late for an Attorney to Switch Practice Areas? | BCGSearch.com

When is it too Late for an Attorney to Switch Practice Areas?


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I was wondering if it is too late for me to switch practice areas. I currently am a senior tax associate (8th year) at one of the largest firms in Chicago.
A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes

Q: I was wondering if it is too late for me to switch practice areas. I currently am a senior tax associate (8th year) at one of the largest firms in Chicago. It appears my prospects of partnership are very slim. Over the last couple of years, I have taken on some trusts and estates work and have enjoyed it very much. I guess this leaves me with a few questions: Will I be able to find a position in trusts and estates at a comparable firm? If so, how much of a hit will I have to take in class year? Also, at this point in my career, I am amenable to moving to a smaller firm, but how much of a difference in compensation should I expect?

A: The partnership issue you present is one that a number of senior-level associates are faced with, particularly in the current legal market, where competition for partnership slots is fiercely competitive. Many firms have changed their partnership requirements midstream, and many senior-level associates find themselves playing "catch up" or being passed over altogether.

I believe it is quite realistic for you to transition to a trusts and estates (T&E) practice at a comparable firm, assuming the T&E practice at your current firm is highly regarded in the marketplace and mirrors the T&E practice at the firm you are pursuing. Although T&E practices often stand alone, they are often slotted as subgroups under the tax umbrellas in many law firms. T&E attorneys generally need to be well schooled in tax matters, as they are required to provide expert tax advice to high-net worth individuals with very complicated estate plans, which most often require sophisticated tax planning. You have six solid years of training in tax and two years focused in T&E. This argues for any T&E group to take a very strong look at you and argues that you would be able to immediately and significantly contribute to a T&E practice in another law firm. (You will, of course, need to be able to convince a firm of your strong desire to refocus on T&E and be able to effectively answer any questions about why you are deciding to do this eight years into your career.)

Your question about class level is a good one and tells me that you are thinking clearly and realistically about effectively making this transition. As I indicated above, I believe you bring a wealth of experience that naturally translates to a T&E practice. Because it does not sound like you have portable business and you have not yet made partner at your current firm, you need to be flexible about the class level at which you would join another firm and remain open to either a mid-level or senior-associate position with a reasonable track for partnership.

If you are concerned about moving to a smaller firm and the effect it will have on your compensation, you should be. If when you say "smaller," you are referring to a mid-sized firm, a sophisticated trusts and estates boutique, or a spin-off group from a larger firm, it is unlikely you will be able to match your current compensation level. You will have to be open to taking a significant cut in pay and perhaps a marked change in the sophistication of practice and clients you will service. You will need to ask yourself why you are seeking to move to a smaller firm and have a clear sense of your long-term objectives. Compensation may not necessarily be the driving force behind your move. You may, for instance, be interested in transitioning to a small firm because you believe a small firm may provide a better lifestyle, a lower billing rate structure that may enable you to more effectively develop your own clients, and/or a more collegial environment. Because you are currently practicing at a prestigious large firm, you should seriously weigh the pros and cons of a move to a small firm and the potential effect it may have on your legal career over the long haul.

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About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is a prominent figure in the legal placement industry, known for his expertise in attorney placements and his extensive knowledge of the legal profession.

With over 25 years of experience, he has established himself as a leading voice in the field and has helped thousands of lawyers and law students find their ideal career paths.

Barnes is a former federal law clerk and associate at Quinn Emanuel and a graduate of the University of Chicago College and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at the University of Chicago and a member of the University of Virginia Law Review. Early in his legal career, he enrolled in Stanford Business School but dropped out because he missed legal recruiting too much.

Barnes' approach to the legal industry is rooted in his commitment to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. He believes that the key to success in the legal profession is to be proactive, persistent, and disciplined in one's approach to work and life. He encourages lawyers to take ownership of their careers and to focus on developing their skills and expertise in a way that aligns with their passions and interests.

One of how Barnes provides support to lawyers is through his writing. On his blog, HarrisonBarnes.com, and BCGSearch.com, he regularly shares his insights and advice on a range of topics related to the legal profession. Through his writing, he aims to empower lawyers to control their careers and make informed decisions about their professional development.

One of Barnes's fundamental philosophies in his writing is the importance of networking. He believes that networking is a critical component of career success and that it is essential for lawyers to establish relationships with others in their field. He encourages lawyers to attend events, join organizations, and connect with others in the legal community to build their professional networks.

Another central theme in Barnes' writing is the importance of personal and professional development. He believes that lawyers should continuously strive to improve themselves and develop their skills to succeed in their careers. He encourages lawyers to pursue ongoing education and training actively, read widely, and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

In addition to his work in the legal industry, Barnes is also a fitness and lifestyle enthusiast. He sees fitness and wellness as integral to his personal and professional development and encourages others to adopt a similar mindset. He starts his day at 4:00 am and dedicates several daily hours to running, weightlifting, and pursuing spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Barnes is a strong advocate for community service and giving back. He volunteers for the University of Chicago, where he is the former area chair of Los Angeles for the University of Chicago Admissions Office. He also serves as the President of the Young Presidents Organization's Century City Los Angeles Chapter, where he works to support and connect young business leaders.

In conclusion, Harrison Barnes is a visionary legal industry leader committed to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. Through his work at BCG Attorney Search, writing, and community involvement, he empowers lawyers to take control of their careers, develop their skills continuously, and lead fulfilling and successful lives. His philosophy of being proactive, persistent, and disciplined, combined with his focus on personal and professional development, makes him a valuable resource for anyone looking to succeed in the legal profession.

About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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