Changing Specialisms as a Successful Lawyer

Senior Shift: Why Changing Law Specialisms Shouldn’t Be Feared

You may be looking for a new challenge, maybe what you do doesn’t drive you anymore, either way, you’re looking to re-specialise in a new field of law. Consultant Susan Bywater-Lewis at QualitySolicitors J A Hughes recently made the shift into equine law from the Civil Litigation Department. Below she describes her process and offers some insight into the benefits of jumping ships.

In a modern workforce where disruptive innovation is good and reinvention is the catch-cry of success, we can splash some of that mentality onto the wall of our careers and see what sticks.

Over the course of our careers we can feel the pressures of needing to stay relevant and diversify our skillsets to in turn offer our clients more valuable and varied services. Part of this pressure can be linked with wanting to ensure the success of the firm we’re invariably tied into, but it can be much more inward facing too.

Often, the need to specialise in a particular law type so early on in our careers can funnel us into a particular career path that is very different from the journey we first thought we’d set out on. The law specialism we move into can be so dependent, for example, on the type of training contract we’re able to secure or how successful we are at getting our top job preferences as a new graduate.

Likewise, for people who may be entering the legal profession through different streams, the early training they do and type or size of firm they join can have a major influence on the rest of their career path. This can of course be for the better, where we coincidentally find a specialism we’re well-suited to which feeds our sense of purpose as to why we started law in the first place – one that may be different from what we idealistically thought we wanted.

Choosing to stick with a specialism we just happen to find ourselves in can also be a matter of getting too comfortable and not wanting to move; we’ve done our time climbing through the ranks and becoming experts and the thought of having to start afresh to find our feet again in a new law specialism is an unwelcome one.

As senior lawyers reflecting on our careers, we can wonder just how exactly we ended up specialising in what we did, including all of the conscious or fluid choices along the way. If there’s a level of dissatisfaction in our answer, the reality we need to face is what we’re going to do about it. Will it be a hard swim across the channel to change law specialisms? Will I be happy with my choice when I get there? Do I have the time and energy to commit to any necessary retraining before I set out against the tide?

Hitting refresh on your career can be daunting, but then again so is the thought of staying in an unfulfilling role. Overarching modern workplace trends tell us we should prepare for five career changes in a lifetime, which can seem like a lot when you apply that to a traditional setting like law. While general workplace trends might not be readily transferrable to the legal profession, what we can takeaway is that change can be good. Even if you enjoy your current specialism, exploring a completely new or complementary practice area of law can add fuel to the fire of a passion to solve problems and support clients.

Today I’m a specialist consultant in equine law for QualitySolicitors J A Hughes, but I haven’t always had that legal specialism. I started my career defending litigation claims for a well-known Agricultural Insurer. As well as becoming specialised in litigated Agricultural Claims, I later became more involved in litigated equine cases. While this shift into equine law started early and was a business decision, this default was met with open arms.

I’ve always had an interest in horses having ridden since I was five years old. I currently own three dressage horses, train every day, visit a trainer monthly and have competed at the National level; so it’s safe to say horse riding and everything to do with horses is a little more than a hobby of mine.

My experience outside the legal profession certainly helped equip me for the gradual transition to the equine law specialism. More and more I worked with anyone involved in the equine industry – from riding schools, tracking centres, training establishments and colleges, riding instructors to riders themselves.

Equine law was, and still is, a niche specialism. A lot of my learning has stemmed from taking cases to trial to learn through judicial guidance. So that was a very real challenge in being able to support clients with a sense of certainty about a case outcome.

I also spent a number of years having to feel my way around the niche practice area of law and building up the appropriate Barristers and Experts to rely on. However already having an understanding of the horse world, particularly in being able to relate with clients on a different level really helped. As with any specialty area, it can come with its own language; knowing that language and having that knowledge has helped make the transition a lot easier.

The decision for QualitySolicitors J A Hughes to offer equine law services has only been a recent one. I started in the civil litigation team and, seeing a gap in the market and using my specialised skill set, proposed a shift into this area. It wasn’t a hard sell with the team as there was already a natural demand in our local area. Extending the law services on offer can be one way of moving into your field of choice without having to change teams entirely, providing it makes business sense for the firm and there’s profitability in it.

The transition is not always so natural, but it’s worthwhile looking at how you can transition if that’s really where your passion lies. Whether you’re looking to pursue a different law type stems from wanting to upskill and remain indispensable as a professional, or you’re making a conscious decision to chase the specialism of your dreams, in my opinion it’s worth it. You may have to go through some uncertainty first and a lot of trial, error and in habitual supervision, but life’s too short not to be doing what you love.

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