Retooling for a Career Pivot: A Conversation with Beard Strategies Consultants
The legal industry is in the midst of rapid change; succeeding in the coming months requires a proactive focus on ensuring you are positioned to meet the needs of the landscape of the future. As the market changes, you might find that your career plan needs to adjust as well.
Whether you’re currently employed or looking for a position, one strategy that can support your success is considering how you can “retool” your skillset—or even make a career pivot—to be where the market demand will be. In fact, this time of change may be an opportunity for you to shift your focus to seek more satisfaction and purpose in your work.
At Beard Strategies, we’ve helped scores of attorneys make career transitions—and have seen first-hand what leads to a successful outcome for those who wish to retool their skill sets. Our team sat down (virtually!) to discuss key questions when making a career pivot and what we’ve seen succeed for clients. The conversation below reflects the range of wisdom that the Beard Strategies team has gleaned from supporting attorneys who want to move forward by moving in a new direction.
How must attorneys shift their perspective when approaching a career pivot?
Naomi: The legal industry is in the midst of changing to adapt to challenges brought by this year—and you may be anticipating your own career pivot as a result. Doing so can feel uncomfortable—shifting professional identities and facing uncertainties. It’s important to acknowledge that this discomfort is part of the process, and doesn’t signal you’re doing things wrong, but opens the door to new possibilities.
Joey: When you came out of law school, you were like a blank canvas—you learned the skills you needed for your specialty on the job. Now you’ve developed a toolkit you can leverage in new ways. If you’re a litigator, for example, you can learn a new area of law where you can apply the litigation skills you’ve developed.
Jessica: Get comfortable with articulating your intention—it will feel like sandpaper in your mouth at first. Conversations about your pivot will feel awkward at first. Keep stating your intention aloud so that you feel more and more comfortable with this new idea of your professional self. A useful mantra is “in the future, this has already happened.”
Susanne: Before you can convince someone else that you can do something, you have to first convince yourself. Look inward and explore what experiences and perspectives from your life help you see yourself in a new light.
Naomi: Get clear on your goal in retooling—to get a promotion? to set yourself up for a changing industry? to land a new job? Once you know your purpose, you can research what you need to do to achieve it: the new skills you need and how to use your existing experience to your advantage.
How can attorneys retool by using their existing skills and experience in new ways?
Jason: Reflect on all the ways your past experience has exposed you to the practice area you’d like to pivot to. Especially if you’re more junior, look beyond the narrow pieces of a matter you worked on—your understanding of the bigger picture of each matter has exposed you to much more than you may realize.
Susanne: Pay attention to the ways in which your current practice area intersects with other areas. For instance, if you’ve been working in bankruptcy law, you’ve naturally gained insight into relevant governmental systems. Think critically about how what you know applies to problems in many different situations—that’s where you can find opportunities for a pivot.
Elaine: You can leverage core legal skills (like client negotiations and contacts) in many different areas. But also dig into your transferrable skills from any experience you had before you entered the legal field. This could be subject-matter expertise from non-attorney positions, managerial skills, etc.—you may well have a wealth of experience that can help you retool.
Lauren: Research legal industry trends and practice areas that are growing. Examine what ties your existing experience might have to those areas. Then look for opportunities to get more hands-on learning that builds on your skills; for example, try to get staffed on relevant matters at your firm.
How can attorneys develop the new skills needed to retool?
Nina: Find out exactly what skills you need to develop by speaking with peer attorneys who practice in burgeoning areas. Ask their advice about ways to parlay your skills into getting more work in a hot practice area at your firm—and be sure to pursue continuing education to help you along your new path.
Jessica: Develop fluency in the language of the practice area you want to pivot to. Webinars, podcasts, informational interviews, and CLEs are all great sources. Use what you learn to start conversations with people doing the kind of work you want to move into. Ask them what you need to bring to the game to succeed, what skills they bemoan new lawyers not having—and then get really geeky about online educational tools to become great at those skills.
Susanne: Network outside your usual groups—if you’re just spending time with your usual contacts, you don’t have the chance to develop affiliations that grow your experience and show your credibility in a new area. The ABA is a great resource for getting out of your comfort zone; look for bars organized by specialty and get involved in areas you want to move toward.
Joey: One of the most powerful ways to add to your skills is to help others. Offer your support to colleagues or people in your network who do the kind of work you want to be doing—pick up pro bono work, help write articles, pitch in on their matters. Helping others helps you gain skills and relationships that will support your pivot.
Lauren: A mentor is a great resource to help you develop the new skills and experience you need. Whether you’re part of a formal mentoring program or simply have good rapport with a more senior attorney you admire, tap into mentorship to support your retooling.
Naomi: Practice “future-casting” by staying on top of news about the legal industry as a whole. Firms are shifting in response to the market, companies will need help navigating the fallout of the sweeping changes happening right now, and timelines for deals are changing. Focus your skill-building efforts to align with areas that will be in demand in the near future.
What practical approaches can attorneys take when looking for a new job to pivot their careers?
Jason: Remember that you control your own marketing. I often see attorneys get stuck describing themselves in the way their firm describes them. Break away from how your current employer sees you—use your resume and cover letter to tell the story of who you are in the context of the specific new area you’re aiming for. And always tailor your application materials to the specific employer, especially when you’re making a pivot.
Joey: Talk about your why—make it clear why the new area interests you, why your transferrable skills are an asset, and why this new direction is important to you.
Susanne: Position your “outsider status” as an asset. When you’re the only person in the room with your particular expertise, think about what unique value you bring to the table. A successful pivot can hinge on finding the balance between building credibility in a new area while leveraging your experience to bring a fresh perspective.
Nina: Track reputable job boards to find out which practice areas are growing and hiring; those are good areas to target for your retooling. In your cover letter and during interviews, build a strong case for how your skills are relevant to the new area you’re targeting.
Jessica: Switch to a functional resume format. This approach shows off your expertise in a way that’s not tied to specific employers or job titles. It gives you the autonomy to shape your story and the flexibility to highlight the full range of your talents that are relevant to a new area.
Elaine: Networking is crucial to any job search—even more so when you’re retooling. Taking a bold step in a new direction requires you to put yourself out there and tell people what you’re aiming for. Your network will help you if you make the effort to tell them how and why you’re hoping to pivot.
Bottom line, what should attorneys keep in mind when retooling for a career pivot?
Naomi: A career pivot often comes with a “haircut”—which might take the form of lower seniority or salary for a while. And that’s okay—if you’re patient, that step back will help you take many steps forward along a path that ultimately leads to more success and satisfaction.
Nina: It’s more practical for junior attorneys to retool because they have the benefit of time to hone new skills and firms are more likely to hire them with a step back in graduation year. But partners and senior attorneys can make a successful pivot too with time and effort—especially if they focus on a burgeoning area when others are on a down trend.
Jason: Remember that there are more opportunities than meet the eye. Job boards don’t always tell the whole story—plenty of firms and companies are hiring for jobs they haven’t posted, and there are positions just waiting for the right candidate. This is why tapping your network and considering a skilled recruiter can be enormously helpful in making a pivot.
Joey: You can be a generalist who specializes in certain areas or a specialist who can generalize. Look at legal practice from every facet; if you’re a litigator who wants to move to transactions, remember that your experience looking for ways to pull a contract apart has taught you to draft an airtight contract! Try not to pigeonhole yourself when imaging a new career path.
Jessica: Think about what drew you to the law in the first place. Before you were shaped by the structures of law school and firms, what did you think you’d be doing with your legal career? Retooling might be an opportunity to breathe life back into the dreams and sense of purpose that started you down this path in the first place.
Lauren: Take this process one step at a time. A career shift is best achieved when approached in small increments. Know your overall goal and then plan the steps to get there. Focus on the one thing you need to do next. Celebrate after achieving each step and then move on to the next one.
Elaine: Cultivating your internal resources and resilience is an important part of this process. Give yourself time and resources to move forward at whatever pace works for you. If you need reassurance that a career pivot isn’t a crazy idea, ask people you trust for support and input.
Susanne: In many ways, you’ve been in a cocoon—focused on a single practice area. Look around to see what’s happening in the industry at large and what you can deduce about the future from the current situation. What can you do to emerge from your cocoon and become a butterfly? This moment of change can be a huge opportunity for those who want to grab it.