Advice for Effective Retooling

I have coached many attorneys who are retooling whether learning a new area of law after having practiced for a few years or starting over with a new employer in a new area either as practicing attorney or in a non-practicing role.  In fact, I’ve done so twice over the course of my career – once shifting from a corporate generalist position to being the lead employment and labor lawyer for my first in-house role and, second, when I left legal practice to focus full-time on attorney professional development.  Retooling can represent a tremendous opportunity to grow and expand your network, skill set and substantive knowledge.  It also is a strong signal that your employer believes you have what it takes to be nimble and focused in order to take on something new. In order to do what you can to successfully make the transition, I’d like to share actions you can consider taking in order to make your transition to a new role as smooth as possible.

First, own the process.  It will be important to drive the process by which you will learn about the new area of practice, track your progress and generally gauge what you know and do not know along the way. Do not assume anyone (including your employer) will do this for you.  If a process is in place, that is great. If not, or if the process seems inadequate, then it will be even more important for you to be in action.  By own the process, I mean identifying resources you can access in order to help you make the transition and learn as quickly and thoroughly as possible.  If you work for a firm or other organization with staff dedicated to knowledge resources, meet with the relevant people, share your background and new role and map out a plan forward.  (This may be a good topic to discuss as part of your negotiations about accepting the role.)  Once you start the new role, I recommend meeting with your boss and sharing your transition plan, including the resources you are accessing, to ensure you are moving in the right direction, reviewing the right things and on track.  This activity needs to happen shortly after coming on board.   It may be too late to do so several months after you have joined the team as, over time, the expectation will be that you are up to speed.  You do not want your credibility to be compromised if that is not the case. 

Second, dive into the substance. Whether it’s reading form agreements, case law, articles, books, attending CLEs, accessing bar association resources, take charge and start absorbing the substance related to the new area.  Regardless of how hard you are working, you may need to put in extra time in the beginning to get off on the right foot. If you have time off between your old and new position, consider allotting some portion of that time to begin your substantive learning process. While it may not be ideal (especially if you have a relaxing vacation planned), it absolutely could pay off in the long run.

Third, do not assume everyone you work with knows your work history and that you have recently started practicing in that area of law or working in your new area of focus.  The only people who definitely know about your move are the people directly involved in your hiring process.  Even if a welcome email was circulated prior to your arrival, you cannot assume everyone read it, and the email may not even mention that this is a transition role for you.  This is especially important if you have been practicing for a while.  For example, if you’re technically a 5th year associate but you are functioning more like a 3rd year associate in your new practice area, that is material information.  Discuss with your new boss how to handle letting people know about your background. If you do not do this, you run the risk of people thinking you are not performing at the proper level without knowing why that may be the case. One word of caution, while I agree it is important to let your colleagues know, there will come a point where that may no longer be appropriate.  There’s no hard and fast rule on how long is too long, but use your judgment as to when it has run its course.  For example, saying you’re new to an area over a year after joining the team could be deemed too long.  Talk with your supervisor about how long they think it will take for you to get up to speed and track your progress along the way.    

Fourth, try to have fun.  There may be moments when it is humbling particularly if the colleagues who are more junior to you know more than you do initially. Embrace the opportunity and get to know the people on your new team, learn the ins and outs of how the department works, any interesting shortcuts or secrets and continue to move forward. 

At the end of the day, retooling can broaden both your substantive knowledge and your career trajectory.  Keep the lines of communication open with your new colleagues, particularly your supervisor, as you go through the process.  If you take on the challenge, go into the new role with a renewed sense of energy and focus and enjoy the ride.  

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