The Benefits of Jumping

Lawyer jumping

Hollywood is replete with stereotypes: Scientists are nerds, hackers spend their free time at raves, white men can’t jump. In the legal industry, we have a similar stereotype that established lawyers can’t jump … into a new area of law.

A tax lawyer, as the theory goes, must remain a tax lawyer for 35-plus years. A divorce lawyer, same thing. The idea being that after 10 years or so, we are stuck to our familiar, well-trodden practice areas. Something about our profession seems to create this sense that we’ll ruin everything we’ve worked so hard to build if we try something new. So the tax lawyer may indeed wish to switch to admiralty law, but doesn’t. It could be that their kids are in an expensive private school or the high monthly law school loan obligation that holds them back from making a needed change. The list of reasons why things can’t change is long, and it’s full of reasons beyond money.

Once you know something well, who wants to throw away all that knowledge? Plus, there’s the fear of losing referral sources. What of the established client base? Lawyers can spin up plenty of reasons to support the idea that, indeed, lawyers can’t jump.

I certainly fell into this way of thinking. For 25 years I practiced retained criminal defense. I practiced everywhere—tribal, federal, and state court—but always the same thing: criminal law. For most of those 25 years, criminal defense was a consuming passion. I was able to handle the burden. The victories were like summiting Everest. If I lost a case, I could grieve, cope, and function all at the same time.

Oddly, with the passage of time, the losses became too personal. I couldn’t shrug them off like I used to. Despite what you may have read in advertising literature, no criminal defense lawyer wins them all. Clients I cared deeply about went to prison. This reality forced a decision:

  1. Agree to be miserable until retirement;
  2. Retire now; or,
  3. Jump into a new area of law.

Spoiler alert. I chose option No. 3. Ever mindful of the duty that RPC 1.1 places on us to have the legal knowledge, skill, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation of every client, I began in earnest to reeducate myself. Initially, I simply changed the focus of my continuing education courses. Then I began going to the law library to browse the personal injury section. I read local rules and, later, I attended two trials conducted by well-respected plaintiff’s lawyers.

I now have exclusively civil practice cases. Looking back, the systematic changes made the final jump oddly anticlimactic. Little changed. Despite my initial fears of the jump, it was just lawyering before the jump and lawyering after. Clients want someone who cares, regardless of their case. (Maybe not a big surprise!) I still get to help the little guy stand up against the powerful. Only now, the powerful is played by the insurance industry instead of an assistant U.S. attorney or a deputy prosecutor. In short, I’m still in a trial practice.

Now the worst that can happen for my client is a defense verdict. Still a tragedy, but not prison. Plus, since I’m taking cases that are not normally handled by the traditional personal injury firm, I’m often the client’s only viable option for effective representation. For instance, one of my pending cases involves a male prison inmate who was sexually assaulted by a female transport officer contracted with our state’s Department of Corrections (DOC). Though the perpetrator pleaded guilty in criminal court, there remain issues of apportioned fault between the DOC and the private contractor’s direct employer. While the case is not overly complicated, it is certainly not the standard rear-end car accident case for which many of my colleagues are competing. I was the third lawyer he tried to hire. The first two said “no thank you.” That’s fine with me; I like being in a group of one.

To summarize, the best reward of a career change for me has been forced learning. All these hours paid off. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. It’s me excited about the law again. Maybe not like when I was just starting, but I feel reenergized. I’ve increased my staffing. I now read the advanced sheets at home like I used to do when I first started out so many years ago. In short, change for me has been good.

I can’t dunk a basketball, but as far as taking on a new area of law, this lawyer can jump!