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Question: Should I Change Practice Groups or Firms?

Attorney Career Question: I am considering changing practice groups.  I am currently a litigation associate and I am frustrated with working on cases that are too big for me to meaningfully participate in.  Our real estate group is much smaller and there is more potential for greater responsibility and client contact.  How do I know if changing practice groups, rather than firms, is the right choice?

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While it is tempting to transition to a new practice area if one is unhappy, it bears remembering that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

The critical analysis here is to determine what environmental, cultural and other factors are causing you to be unhappy with your litigation work and then determine which of these factors would be addressed if you switched to the real estate group (at your current firm or a different firm).

You indicated a strong interest in client contact. But how do you know that you'd necessarily obtain more client contact in the real estate group? It may be a smaller group, but that doesn't mean the partners in the group are necessarily good mentors who will take an interest in training you. You should speak with other associates in the group and find out how much autonomy they exercise in handling deals and working with clients. Don't make assumptions based solely on the size of the group.

As between real estate groups at different law firms, I think it is a fair assumption that at a smaller firm you may get more client contact since the clients of such firms don't have the resources to "overlawyer" deals. As a result, you could find yourself riding solo after some training since the clients at small firms are not willing to pay for an army of attorneys. Of course, as noted, make sure the supervising attorney(s) you'll be working with seem to take an interest in mentoring younger associates.

You also indicated that the gargantuan nature of the litigations you are handling is a problem. It sounds like there must be a huge amount of detail to address in each case, and perhaps you find it tedious. But real estate deals can also involve tremendous detail and be very tedious and you may not be any happier with the kind of work you are assigned in such deals. Again, speak with some associates in the group if you can about the nature of the assignments they handle on a day-to-day basis.

Is "culture" an issue? Are the litigators in your group (primarily the partners or senior associates who supervise you) difficult to work with? Are they insensitive to your personal needs? If so, you'd want to learn more about the personalities of some of the senior attorneys working in the real estate group. Are they casual or serious? Do they have lives outside the firm? Sensitive to personal needs? What is the culture of the group?

Of course, culture would also be an important factor to consider if you decide to interview at other firms.

Consider also the nature of the work. Litigation involves alot of writing, but alot of it is "storytelling" in the sense of artfully describing the facts of your client's case. A field like real estate, on the other hand, involves drafting lengthy, formulaic documents. Consider what type of drafting you would prefer doing on a regular basis.

Are you turned off by the adversarial environment of litigation in general? If so, you'd probably be unhappy being a litigator at any firm. Real estate, on the other hand, tends to be more collegial. While there will be screaming and shouting, and negotiations can get tense, ultimately both sides want to get the deal done so there is an element of collaboration underlying the transactoin. That may suit you better depending on your personality (consider: do you prefer confrontation or collaboration?)

In sum, before making a leap, carefully analyze why you are unhappy, and then see whether transitioning to real estate - whether at your current firm or a different firm - will address some of those factors.

You'll want to put some thought into what type of legal work you would like to do and will find satisfying in the long run. Too many lawyers end up in a specialty they haven't chosen, but they started in by chance, and before they know it they are specialists in an area they don't find satisfying but find hard to leave because they are not trained to do anything else. So chose your specialty carefully. For example, if you enjoy transactional work, then you might enjoy real estate. If you enjoy writing, persuasion, and public speaking, then litigation would be a better choice. To determine which choice is best you might consider a professional assessment of your skills, interests and personality traits. For more information -- and a sample "Free Test Drive" of your career needs -- you can visit:

http://www.careerchangeability.com/lawyers/html/test_drive.html

I am a real estate attorney (shareholder) at a mid-sized firm. I've been practicing for 20 years. In my group, we sometimes get inquiries from litigators about whether they can fill openings in our group, which is much smaller than the litigation group. Once in awhile we accept. Here are the questions you need to ask yourself:

(1) Do I really love real estate?
(2) Since real estate is mostly business, do I really like the business aspects of the practice of law, including drafting and reviewing often long and boring leases, loan documents, and similar documents as well as the intricate financing devices that make modern real estate transactions interesting?
(3) Am I prepared to climb a steep 3-year learning curve at this stage of my career?
(4) Am I prepared to have partners and other supervising attorneys frustrated at how little I know?
(5) Am I prepared to possibly delay the track to partnership?
(6) (In your case) am I prepared to be part of a smaller and possibly less visible or less respected department?

If the answers to any of these hard questions is "no" or "I'm not sure," you're probably better off remaining a litigator and maybe changing firms.

For myself, I switched firms about 9 years out of school and haven't looked back. I generally liked what I did but didn't like where I was doing it. It took me about 3 years to adjust to fully fit in here, but now I feel like I'm an important part of the firm.

Please be aware that the practice of law usually doesn't get really fulfilling until you are 10-15 years out of school. Why? I'm not really sure, but I think it's because it's hard to have long term client and colleague relationships until you've been practicing for a long term. Also, I think young people tend to garner less respect, even when they are very good. Finally, I think young attorneys underestimate the importance of just sticking around and slowly building up a reputation.

Bottom line: if you really like litigating, don't just bolt because the grass looks greener. Stick with it and try to find a better place to do it. If you do stick with it, I think you'll find it rewarding.

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