Plainly and simply, jumping to a new practice area is a very difficult, and often entirely unrealistic move to make. The following are just a few reasons why:
-Structuring and client optics. I have written more extensively about this before, but at the bottom line, most law firms do not want to hire more senior attorneys at a “discount.” Maybe one or two years adjusted from an attorney’s graduating class year, especially if that attorney has been in house, which most law firms do not view as the equivalent in work experience or training relative to years spent at a large law firm. But by and large and medium size firms tend to be fairly rigid in their class year composition (smaller and boutique firms less so). Reasons include wanting to structure their practice groups and overall attorney staffing to ensure a consistent flow of promotion and advancement at the appropriate class and skill level; not being able to justify higher billing rates on their client matters by staffing more senior attorneys (and on the flip side wanting to avoid the optics of a client wondering why a Class of 2002 attorney is being billed out at a first-year rate and the perception of that attorney not being “good”); and wanting to avoid turnover when a more senior and skilled attorney gets bored doing lower-level work and sees another lateral opportunity on the market when the economy improves.
-Training. It costs a lot for a firm to hire and train an attorney, and even if you are one of the best mid-level litigators the 21st Century has ever seen, a firm with a dire need for a mid-level transactional associate because of a large client matter is not going to want to spend the time or effort required to re-train that attorney into an entirely different practice group. They also cannot justify billing out that attorney at their appropriate class year if the attorney does not have comparable skills, in which case you are talking about a class year discount, which gets into the issues in the section above.
-Perception. If you are 4-5 years out of law school, and all of a sudden want to switch practice groups entirely and “start over” from the bottom, just imagine for a second how that is going to look to a prospective employer. Will they be overjoyed they get a more senior attorney at a discount, or will they be wary that this candidate did not demonstrate the foresight to pick the right practice area to begin with, or have the fortitude and commitment to stick it out and be successful in their current practice area? Most job seekers tend to employ at least a little bit of wishful and creative thinking, which is great when you are trying to market yourself to a particular position where your skill set might not be an exact fit, but this can be a liability if it leads to being completely unrealistic in terms of your lateral job search.
All of this is to say that if you are going to transition to an entirely new practice area, say from litigation to transactions, it can be done (and I have placed a number of candidates in this manner), but it must be done within your first two or so years of practice. Any later than that, and you begin to run into the huge wall of issues above.
On the other hand, if you are wanting to transition into a practice area that is at least moderately related to work you were doing before, say going from commercial litigation to labor and employment litigation, or going from corporate transactional work to technology transactions, there is a lot more potential to have this be a viable option even 3-5 years out in your career. Any more senior than that, and it becomes an extremely difficult proposition if you are targeting medium to large size law firms.
The broader lesson is to really think hard about what type of practice you want to have before leaving law school, and try as hard as you can to get into that practice area, or at least a closely related practice area, because there is a fairly small window of a couple of years to make a large change once you have started your career.