How To Really Learn A New Area of the Law

When I started my solo practice, I was confronted with one salient issue.  Do I continue to practice law in the area where I have the most experience or do I try something new?

I’ve always loved entrepreneurship, business, and intellectual property and took a few classes in law school.  However, my former legal career was not focused in those areas.  I certainly didn’t want to do a disservice to my potential clients or get into ethics trouble by biting off more than I could chew.  At the same time, I wondered – if I have the interest, the passion and the desire to do the work, how do I begin to acquire the skills necessary to represent clients competently and effectively in a new legal area?

Ultimately I decided to open my practice to serve clients that I love – entrepreneurs and small business owners.  I reasoned that I wasn’t the first lawyer to practice in a new legal area, and I certainly won’t be the last.  So, I told myself if they could do it, I could too and came up with the following guideposts for learning a new legal area.

Don’t Sell Yourself Short or Long.  From your course work in law school and the experience you’ve had in practice, you’ve honed legal skills that are necessary no matter what area of the law you decide to pursue.  These include legal research and writing, negotiation skills, documentation and record keeping, attention to detail, an understanding of fundamental legal principles, etc.  These transferable skills are an asset no matter what area you decide to claim as your own.

At the same time, you must be honest with yourself and your clients about what you know and what you don’t. If it’s your first time handling a particular matter, take your ego out of the equation. Tell your clients that this is your first case but ensure them (and make a promise to yourself) that you will do what is necessary to represent them competently including handing the matter off to a more experienced attorney if necessary.

Seek Out Legal Mentors Like A Missile. There is an old saying that goes, “there is nothing new under the sun.”  It’s the same with the law.  There may be nuanced changes each year, but the really radical changes only happen every so often.  So there is always a practitioner out there who knows the game, the players, the resources, the rules, and probably was involved in the seminal cases.  Seek out these practitioners and ask questions even if it means paying for their time.  When you are entering a new area, you need a go-to person who can answer questions, help you plan strategy, and give feedback often.

Read The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast by Josh Kauffman.  Attorneys are not the only professionals who’ve explored the question, “how do I get up to speed in an area quickly?”  Josh Kauffman, the founder of The Personal MBA book and blog, wrote a book about it.  In The First 20 Hours, Josh describes a process called rapid skill acquisition.  The method helps those of us who’ve been out of the practice of learning new skills for some time establish competency in new areas.  For Josh, it was skills like yoga and coding.  For me, it’s a new practice area, and maybe, the piano.

The process has five major steps:

  • 1) choosing the skill you want to develop,
  • 2) deconstructing the skill into the smallest possible sub-skills,
  • 3) learning enough about the sub-skill to practice and self-correct,
  • 4) removing any barriers to practicing, and
  • 5) constituently practicing the most important sub-skills for 20 hours.

The book and process are interesting and practical. Will it make you a master in your chosen legal niche?  No.  Mastery, like wisdom, takes years.  However, it will bring you up to speed in a new area in a focused and deliberate way and beats all the other vague advice out there.

Find Great Resources and Study Them.  Not all CLEs, treatises, and practitioners’ guides are created equal, but you need the most helpful resources at your disposals when you venture out into a new area.  It takes a bit of investigation to discover the best ones for you. So to avoid spending money on resources that don’t work, check them out at you local law school library first.  You can peruse the books there before making a significant financial investment in your own copy.

Develop a ‘Can Do’ Attitude.  One of my favorite quotes from this year comes from actress Gina Rodriguez of the show Jane the Virgin.  In her Golden Globes speech Gina went on to say,  “[m]y dad used to tell me to wake up each day and say, ‘I can and I will.’ Well, dad, today’s a great day. I can and I did.”

As lawyers, I know we don’t always value mindset work because it seems a little “out there” to our practical minds.  However, everyone needs encouragement and motivation to accomplish anything.  Lawyers are no different. Taking on the task of learning a new legal area is no small feat and having a proper mindset about learning is as important as developing the new skill itself.  A proper mindset will help push you past obstacles like procrastination, self-doubt, and fear and keep you focused on your goal.

Do you have any tips or tricks for learning a new practice area?  Please let me know in the comments below. 

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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6 comments on “How To Really Learn A New Area of the Law

  • 11 years ago I began the transition from a solo-insurance defense lawyer to a solo trusts and estates attorney. I had a great attorney landlord mentor, took many legal education classes and spoke and wrote about the topic. Today I have a very successful solo t&e practice. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. T&E is a people practice and it can be learned with dedication to the steps above. A mentor is key to provide a start for the documents used and to answer questions you’ll have. It can be done.

    • Hi Nick,

      Thank you for your comment, and congratulations on your successful practice. Most businesses do not last past year 1, and you’re at year 11. That is in inspiring. I’m looking forward to making it there too.

      I agree that a mentor is key to learning a new practice area. Unfortunately, some attorneys are not as willing to help as your mentor, but I’m sure you are paying it forward because of the help you received. I think that is the key to transforming our profession.

  • I don’t have any tips beyond the excellent suggestions, only a comment. I find it really discouraging at how difficult it is for lawyers to move between practice areas, notwithstanding that skills like analysis, writing and working with clients ought to be readily transferable. My husband was a 30-year veteran of the computer industry – and during his career, he worked in five different industries and probably learned 10 different computer languages. His varied skills and background came to be regarded as a benefit rather than a drawback. Yet in the legal profession, experience gleaned in one practice area is regarded as largely irrelevant in another – even though let’s face it, law is far less technical than computer science.

    • I’m honored that you took the time to read my post, Carolyn. I’m such a fan of your work and love your ideas for pushing the practice of law forward.

      There are some legal skills that apply across all legal areas. (Litigation is litigation whether the topic is med mal or breach of contract.) However, I think the difficulty in getting up to speed in an area is that lawyers seem to guard legal knowledge like its the last piece of bread on earth. To really learn an area, you have to experience it and practice it, and there aren’t enough attorneys who are willing to coach you through that practice.

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