Changing legal specialties or practice areas is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Although most states do not require any special training or even allow lawyers to use the word ‘specialties’ in their advertising, changing practice areas is still a weighty decision for a few reasons.
In states where you can ‘specialize,’ you should consider getting a certification from a recognized organization. Without this, you might be at a competitive disadvantage compared to those that are certified. Currently, 11 states have optional certification, including California, Connecticut, and New Jersey. In these states, you can practice in an area without a certification. However, you will be competing against other lawyers who do have certification.
Think of it this way — in most states, a general contractor can build a roof. But in some states, a contractor can get a roofing contractor trade license. Many customers will assume that a ‘licensed roofing contractor’ is better than a ‘licensed general contractor,’ even if they are both qualified to build a roof.
You also may need to change firms or practice groups within your current firm to change practice areas. This may affect your earning potential and your prospects for partnership. You might need to give up all your current clients as well. Unless you plan to have multiple areas of practice, which can be difficult, you will need to develop a new client base in your new area of practice.
One area of practice, patent law, has special rules for admission. Changing legal specialties to patent law will require you to study patent law and patent office procedure and pass the patent bar exam. On the other hand, changing your practice area can have many benefits. For example, if you have been ground down by the stress of litigation, shifting to a transactional practice might relieve some stress and give you new life.
Here are some areas of practice you might consider and what lawyers in these areas do on a daily basis.
Changing legal specialties to family law can be very rewarding. Even when dealing with highly contentious issues like divorce, family lawyers can take solace in the fact that helping people end a broken marriage usually makes them happier. In fact, well over half of divorcees say they are happier after divorce, with women being twice as likely as men to say their divorce improved their lives.
Family lawyers also deal with issues that bring joy and happiness to families. For example, family lawyers help families gain guardianship over children in difficult conditions. For example, if a child’s parent is arrested and incarcerated, a family lawyer can help a grandparent, aunt, or uncle gain legal guardianship over the child so the child does not need to go into foster care.
Likewise, family lawyers help families with adoption. Although the rules for adoption vary by state, family lawyers can help prepare the legal paperwork for both the adoption agency and the state court. This paperwork will make the adoption official. In most states, the court will approve the issuance of a new birth certificate after the adoption is final. The new birth certificate officially lists the adoptive parents as the child’s parents and changes the child’s name to the adoptive family’s name. With all the work involved in bringing an adoption to a close, many parents consider the family lawyer part of the family and may even invite the family lawyer to the adopted child’s birthday party every year.
Business law covers many tasks within the law. As a result, switching legal specialties to business law might require some soul searching to decide what you want to do within the field of business law. Some examples include:
- Tax law: Taxing authorities have immense power to collect taxes. Tax law involves the regulations used to calculate, pay, and enforce taxes. Tax compliance can be one of the most important roles of a CFO for small business. Without tax compliance, the business could get hit with a huge tax bill or face enforcement action.
- Securities law: Securities law deals with the offering of securities, like shares of stock. The U.S. and state governments are very protective of investors. This means that companies that offer stock to investors must comply with many hundreds of regulations that cover mandatory disclosures and shareholder rights. Securities lawyers also play a role in mergers and acquisitions to ensure that the correct and complete disclosures are made to shareholders and regulators.
- Corporate law: Corporations are legal entities. This means they only exist because a legal process created them. Corporate lawyers deal with the formation and maintenance of corporations. While many small businesses can form a simple corporation without a lawyer, large business or complex structures often require a corporate lawyer.
- Professional licensing law: Many professionals, such as a building contractor, audiologist, or medical doctor, require a license to practice their profession. Business lawyers help professionals apply for licenses, overcome licensing rejections, defend against complaints that threaten a license, and maintain license compliance.
Most lawyers involved in business law have a transactional practice, meaning that they spend most of their days negotiating deals, preparing documents, and responding to regulatory agency inquiries. Many consider changing legal specialties to business law because it provides many opportunities for advancement and has a regular schedule except when a large transaction or emergency occurs.
Real Estate Law
Some states require a real estate lawyer to complete the sale of property, whether it is a home, commercial building, or vacant lot. But even in the states that do not require a real estate lawyer for every property sale, a real estate lawyer is always busy.
Real estate law generally falls into a few categories, including:
- Disputes: Disputes over boundaries, water rights, mineral rights, and easements can arise long after a piece of property is sold. These rights are often more valuable than the land itself. For example, a piece of land in an arid region sold without water rights might be unusable.
- Transactions: Real estate transactions, such as leases and sales, will require a contract and compliance with federal and state regulations. Many of these regulations affect the nature of the transaction rather than the property. For example, communities and landlords are prohibited from discriminating against buyers and renters on the basis of race. Real estate lawyers also help developers obtain permits and zoning variances for their construction projects.
- Compliance: Real estate often comes with regulations about its development and maintenance. Some of these regulations include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. Developers often need a real estate lawyer to help them develop a compliance plan and ensure that they comply with laws covering accessibility, dust and emissions, and water treatment during and after construction.
Real estate lawyers often spend most of their days advising clients and preparing documents. Real estate lawyers will occasionally appear in court or before planning or zoning boards. Again, an appeal of changing legal specialties to real estate law is the regular schedule and relatively low stress compared to other practice areas.
In a sense, global climate change will bring environmental law into almost every other practice area. But lawyers who consider changing legal specialties to become full-time environmental lawyers usually have a special motivation.
Environmental law involves three general areas:
- Legislation: Environmental lawyers help draft and lobby for environmental laws and regulations. These laws and regulations are usually directed to a specific problem, such as thermal management of power plant emissions, rather than broad policies, like reducing global warming. But every bit helps and applied across an entire industry, laws, and regulations can have a big impact.
- Enforcement: Many environmental laws provide enforcement mechanisms where either a government agency or a private entity can file a lawsuit to stop a planned action that violates environmental laws. For example, a homeowner can file a lawsuit against a developer that is planning to pave wetlands near the home because the paving may cause flooding of the homeowner’s property. Environmental lawyers can also file complaints against the developer to push the state or federal government to stop the development.
- Compliance: Not all environmental lawyers work on the side of environmentalists and landowners. Environmental lawyers also work for businesses covered by environmental laws to help them maintain compliance. For example, energy companies hire environmental lawyers to make sure their practices comply with laws that cover water pollution, air pollution, and toxic waste disposal.
Environmental law can give you the opportunity to practice law in a new way. Working for an environmental group allows you to review legislation and coordinate lobbying efforts. You will still use your legal training and skills but for a broader purpose.
Personal Injury Law
If you enjoyed torts class in law school, you might consider changing legal specialties to become a personal injury attorney. Personal injury lawyers help people who are often in desperate need of money. After an accident, an injured person needs medical attention but often does not have the means to pay for medical treatment and therapy. Worse yet, the injured person is often unable to work because of the injuries and loses income as a result.
Personal injury lawyers negotiate with insurers and the people or businesses who caused the injury to attempt to settle the case. If a settlement cannot be reached, the lawyer can file a lawsuit to seek a damage award to cover the injured person’s damages.
Although many personal injury lawyers work strictly as a car accident attorney, personal injury law can cover many other types of accidents and incidents including:
- Premises liability accidents, such as slip-and-falls
- Animal attacks, such as dog bites
- Criminal acts, such as assaults
- Medical malpractice
- Workplace accidents
Health law is good for a lawyer changing legal specialties who already has a background in insurance or medicine. This is because lawyers for healthcare providers face two primary issues:
- Insurance regulations: Healthcare providers and their lawyers spend a lot of time working with insurers to receive payment for services rendered.
- Medical ethics and liability: Lawyers for healthcare providers have to deal with both the legal and ethical duties of their doctors, nurses, and dentists. For example, if a dentist must perform oral surgery on a person with drug addiction, a lawyer might need to figure out how to anesthetize the patient without exposing the dentist to a malpractice lawsuit.
As baby boomers age, the need for estate lawyers will explode. Changing legal specialties to estate law might not just give you a new field of law to learn, but may also give you a ready-made client base. Estate lawyers deal with:
- Estate planning: Estate lawyers figure out the legal instruments to help someone carry out their wishes while minimizing the risk of disputes over the estate. Estate lawyers also find ways to minimize costs and taxes for carrying out the person’s wishes.
- Guardianship: Occasionally, a senior will need so much assistance with their legal decision-making that guardianship must be awarded to a caregiver. For example, someone with dementia might be unable to pay bills, make healthcare decisions, and manage day-to-day tasks.
Until the 1990s, there were no disability laws. But with the ADA, the federal government began protecting people with disabilities from discrimination and requiring reasonable accommodations for their disabilities. Disability lawyers can represent either side of a dispute:
- Disabled person: The disability lawyer provides notice to the allegedly discriminatory business of the violation and proposes reasonable accommodations. For example, an apartment building with a broken elevator might merely need elevator repair to accommodate its disabled tenants.
- Business: The disability lawyer seeks to comply with the ADA without either admitting liability or incurring extraordinary costs.
Changing legal specialties is a weighty decision. However, it is also a decision that can reinvigorate your love of the law and move your practice in a more positive direction.