Just as the discussions of navigating a “new normal” in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic began to disappear in the rear view, legal professionals worldwide have found themselves faced with a multitude of new lines of inquiry from clients. A number of developments in the post-COVID world have led to rapidly changing client needs. For example, many companies and institutions have increased their focus on environmental, social and governance initiatives, seeking advice on design and implementation of best practices. Significant technological developments, such as the availability of increasingly powerful artificial intelligence tools, have brought previously niche lines of inquiry into the mainstream. Market volatility driven by uncertainty due to a changing political landscape, rising interest rates and the inflationary environment have further impacted the types of legal work that are most in demand today.
While conversations about the volume and nature of the legal work that is currently at the top of client agendas are regular topics of discussion among practitioners, it is equally important to consider the impact of volatility on the development of an attorney’s legal skill set and how professionals can best prepare themselves to respond to demand for their services in times of rapid change. A decade of steady growth in the global financial markets has been advantageous for legal professionals in that a stable market environment allows for consensus to grow around market practice, which in turn enables legal professionals to work efficiently on behalf of their clients and to better predict outcomes. Predictable legal process and a steady flow of transactions in a growth environment results in a high rate of specialization, as it allows legal professionals to deepen their expertise by examining similar inquiries from various angles. The result of this specialization is often clear division of labor within legal departments and at law firms. This familiarity is beneficial for both practitioners and consumers of legal services, and can also result in creativity and refinement within an area of expertise, as practitioners explore variations on a theme to improve results for clients.
However, stability and specialization are not without opportunity cost to legal professionals: as regulatory change interrupts established process and businesses pursue innovative financing solutions in response to volatility, the imperative to expand one’s legal skill set becomes clear. There are a number of obstacles legal professionals face to cultivating a diverse skill set. Some of these obstacles are institutional: purveyors of legal services are often under substantial pressure to maximize efficiency and contribute to market-leading expertise. Additionally, the start-up costs to exploring new areas of law or transaction types can be high in the sense that resources must be invested in research, training, and navigating a new area of practice. Further, organizations may take into account the risks associated with venturing into new areas of legal inquiry, considering these to be not worth the potential benefits gleaned from such endeavors. In addition to these institutional factors, there are powerful social elements undergirding the tendency towards specialization. It is natural to prefer the comfortable role of the expert to the cautious role of the student. Psychologists refer to the tendency to avoid tasks that are important but uncomfortable in favor of less-important but more familiar ones as “priority dilution.” This tendency is common among high-achieving professionals and can be problematic as it provides a sense of accomplishment despite delaying progress on important goals.
While the powerful draw of familiarity is undeniable, there are a number of ways legal practitioners can use the resources available to them in the workplace and through professional organizations to expand their legal skill sets while continuing to pursue their regular practice. In fact, working to diversify one’s skill set to keep with recent trends may not only increase professional knowledge, but also boost confidence and help to build professional networks that will yield value in the future.
Below are some suggestions for practitioners that find themselves compelled by the changing legal and economic landscape to broaden their areas of practice:
Consider what new areas might make the most sense for you to direct your efforts towards and what lines of legal inquiry are the most complementary to your existing skill set. While this decision may be informed in part by the needs of your organization, consider the ways in which you might leverage your understanding of regulatory process and the application of regulation to new topics such as cryptocurrency or artificial intelligence. Similarly, if your background is transactional, consider expanding your repertoire to include secured financings, restructuring, or offerings of novel derivative or structured products that are becoming more popular in response to the current economic environment. If you have industry-specific expertise, consider whether it might make sense to broaden your practice on the basis of that experience.
Exploring the current needs of your organization or institution is also an effective way to identify an in-demand area. While using this strategy might require you to venture out of your comfort zone given that existing needs may not be a direct match for your current skills, the benefit of this approach is that it will yield real-world opportunities immediately. Inquire with colleagues outside of your working group and with individuals responsible for allocating work within your organization whether there are any initiatives underway or departments that have found themselves short-staffed. In order to determine whether these might be a fit for you, set up informational interviews or propose forming a working group to deepen organizational knowledge within that area.
Prepare a presentation or other informational materials
As you begin to familiarize yourself with a new-to-you area of legal inquiry, one way to quickly grasp the big picture is to offer to give a presentation to interested parties at your company, bar association or law school or to publish an article or memo on the topic for circulation. Presenting on a new subject has several benefits: it will help you orient your own understanding of the topic, as working to prepare a clear discussion for the benefit of colleagues will lend structure and depth to your knowledge base. In addition, a presentation, however informal, can serve as a commitment device for a thorough and purposeful review of the relevant materials. In addition, it will raise your profile as a practitioner that is interested in, and making a foray into, this area of practice, which may in turn help you to establish a network that will be useful to you in the future. Finally, investing resources in a presentation that will benefit peers and colleagues will help to build investment in this subject within your organization while simultaneously highlighting the relevance of the topic.
Leverage your Network.
Reach out to contacts, legal and non-legal, in areas of interest that you have identified in order to discuss the market and to understand recent trends, common inquiries, and the types of advice sought in this subject area. Consider proposing to your bar association or affinity network a mailing list or working group in which individuals interested in this area can trade ideas, practice tips, and useful resources. This will help you to grasp the issues from a number of angles and introduce you to like-minded attorneys with whom you can share ideas and practical advice.
You can also work to build a network of individuals that might find this area interesting or useful within your organization. You should not be surprised, having identified an in-demand area of practice, at how broad-ranging the inquiries can be. For instance, attorneys that devoted time and energy to an understanding of cryptocurrency and the various platforms that support these financial products have of late found themselves in high demand and consulting on the projects of many different legal departments, from finance to litigation. Similarly, lawyers that have focused on developments in environmental regulation worldwide have been swept up in a wave of inquiries and transactions that rely on their knowledge of ESG matters.
Overcome apprehension about the unknown:
Undertaking to educate oneself in a new subject can be daunting, in particular for seasoned professionals who are accustomed to being knowledgeable and self-sufficient in their respective areas of focus. Career coaches suggest that in approaching a new discipline, professionals start small (for instance with research) and first accomplish a few more limited projects rather than delve headlong into a complex assignment. Another recommendation for professionals seeking to broaden their skills is to establish a network of individuals interested in the subject matter, in particular, one that includes others that are relatively new to the subject, as other novices are often well situated to share the best resources for improving one’s knowledge base and tips that would be most helpful to a new practitioner.
In addition, attorneys looking to broaden their skills should remember that the most important skills lawyers bring to their practice are portable and inherently versatile: effective communication, attention to detail, organization, confidence in managing process and ability to anticipate issues are capabilities you have been honing in your legal practice to date and which will apply in any new area you elect to pursue. In this regard, cultivating a more diverse skill set is an opportunity to leverage the skills you have already developed and bring them to bear in new areas of legal practice. You may be surprised to find that you encounter more similarities than differences in how to effectively analyze and solve problems and advocate for outcomes across your practice areas, and further, that the skills you have built to date provide context and know-how that makes a transition into a new subject area easier than anticipated.
About the autor:
Stephanie Monroe Rohlfs is an associate at Cleary Gottlieb. Her practice focuses on cross-border financing transactions, with a special focus on Latin America matters. Stephanie has represented issuers, underwriters, and other market participants in a broad range of securities offerings, including initial public offerings, high-yield debt issuances, and private placements. In addition to capital markets work, Stephanie has diversified her skill set to include a variety of bank finance and restructuring transactions. Stephanie also counsels clients on compliance with the U.S. securities laws, including periodic reporting obligations and the preparation of insider reports and related liability issues under Sections 13 and 16 of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Act of 1934.