Make the switch: Three tips for moving sectors

Paul CumminsMilton Keynes Council

Paul Cummins gives his top three tips for in-house lawyers considering a move to a new sector.

People walking

In this article, I set out my three top tips for lawyers considering a move to a new sector. In using the term ‘sector’, I mean the different parts of the economy, such as commerce and industry, government, local government and charities. Many of the points I make will be relevant to anyone applying for any new role.

The three tips all interlink, so whilst the first is about confidence and the second and third are about preparation, it obviously follows you will feel more confident if you are well-prepared.

1. Be confident

A lack of confidence is a big factor, maybe the biggest factor, in holding people back in their careers. It is easy to say to someone “be confident in yourself”, but how do you build that confidence? If you are reading this because you are considering moving sector, then you can make that move and be successful in that new role. Any lawyer can embark upon a new area of law or change the sector in which they practise.

My favourite quote from Einstein is: “Stay away from negative people. They will find a problem for every solution!”. Negative people will drain your confidence. To build confidence to make that move to a new sector, you must surround yourself with positive influences.

They are people who believe in you, usually friends and mentors. Friends will give you positive encouragement. The role of mentors is much more significant: they will give you good positive advice and help you to focus on key areas.

One activity which will both build your confidence and is vital in your preparation is to list:

  • all your achievements
  • complex cases you have dealt with
  • projects you have lead on or contributed to
  • responsibilities in your current role
  • difficult challenges you have overcome, and
  • anything else where you have been given credit by your manager, colleagues or senior people in your organisation.

Also, don’t forget any relevant achievements from outside work, such as official roles, positions, community projects and qualifications.

Discussing the list with a mentor will help you to see just what you have achieved, as well as identifying your transferable skills. This process will make you feel more confident about yourself and what you have to offer. Employers are usually looking for a long-term investment in an employee and therefore their focus should be on the skills and aptitude of candidates. A mentor will help you to express your skills and attributes confidently. If you are unsuccessful applying for a role, a mentor will also assist in debriefing, analysing any feedback and, importantly, ensuring you do not lose confidence after a setback.

Make use of inspiring articles and career stories. The writers often give good advice on how they achieved specific career milestones, including changing sector. There are many such articles on the Law Society website, but also search on sector-specific or organisations’ websites. You may find an example of a lawyer in your prospective sector who has a similar background career history to yourself.

2. Understanding your current role

When applying for a role in a different sector, it is vital that you can articulate your current role effectively. It is unlikely the recruiting employer will have good knowledge of your current sector or role. Worse still, they may have preconceived ideas about your sector, e.g. if you are from the public sector, they may assume you’re not commercially minded.

You may therefore need to change this perception at the same time as you clearly express what you do in your current role and, importantly, your transferable skills.

The starting point in this process is to pull together information about what you do in your current role; it maybe advising the board / senior management, drafting contracts, managing staff etc. This activity will also assist with listing your achievements (see above). If you are unsuccessful in a job application, the task is not wasted, as you will need the same information for future applications and even internal processes.

When compiling the information about your current role, you also need to ensure you are thinking about how you would describe what you do in a way that will be understandable to people outside your sector. Don’t underestimate aspects of your current role that you find easy just because you do them all the time – an outsider may be highly impressed.

At the same time, you need to consider those parts of your current role and achievements which are transferable. Discussing the specifics of your current role and your achievements with mentors or friends, without any detailed knowledge of what you do, can be particularly helpful: if they cannot understand it, then it is unlikely someone in a different sector will be able to.

3. Learn everything you can about the new sector

It goes without saying that you need to find out as much as you can about the new sector. For a start, you need to know if the new sector is really for you. The first question at interview is often about understanding a candidate’s motivation. You will not be successful if the first time you think about why you want to move to a new sector is upon being asked that question at interview. Your reasons need to be cogent and plausible.

When you have found a role to apply for, besides studying the job description and role profile you also need to follow up on any other suggested information. Application packs will often refer to a corporate plan, corporate strategy and organisational structure. If there is no reference to these documents in the application, you can usually find these documents on the corporate website.

These documents will help you to understand how your prospective role will be involved in the organisation’s future planning. Sometimes, the advert or job information will set out the expected role of the position in the organisation’s future ventures, but this is not always the case. All the time, you will be noting down how all your transferable skills and experience relate to the role in the new sector.

Often in job adverts, there will be a contactable person for more details about the role. My advice is always to contact that person, although make sure you have also done some preparation first. What questions do you want to ask? Importantly, how can you sell yourself to that person, who will usually have a formal role in the selection process? That person will often give you greater insight into the role and may even describe the type of candidate they are looking for.

Building a network of contacts in the new sector will also give you valuable insight on an organisation or the sector in general. Sometimes, your contacts can flag up issues (“My friend had a bad experience working there”). You can build your network in a new sector via your existing professional or social network, for example, a friend of a friend. A bolder strategy might be to directly contact individuals.

Conclusion

To increase your chances of being successful in moving to a new sector, a fair amount of work is involved. Many candidates do not put in the effort required, and so those that do will already be giving themselves more of a chance. Like other walks of life, hard work usually pays off.

Hold your nose and jump Robyn Sandilands

Robyn Sandilands, head of legal at Pets at Home Plc (Veterinary and Specialist Hospitals) gives her personal take on changing sectors.

I have moved both sector and specialism over the course of my legal career. I started as a commercial lawyer and then moved to litigation. I went in-house to a telecoms giant as a litigator, then took a leap of faith to a generalist role at Pets at Home plc, where I am now head of legal.

Each career move I have made has been investigated, thought through and planned. Ultimately, though, in a (lawyerly) methodical way, I have had to be brave, taken a risk, ‘held my nose’ and jumped right in.

Moving sectors isn’t easy. It takes some grit. This is because the comfort zone of familiarity, the sector or specialism that you know, is so… familiar.

For anyone looking to make such a move, my key advice would be to ask yourself why. What is your end goal? Sit with this question, brainstorm it, draw it out (prepare a concept map, if that is your thing), but ultimately, make sure you can answer the ‘why’ question and work backwards from there. 

If you score an interview, the questions of ‘why us?’ and ‘why move?’ will come up. The answer is not: ‘I loathe my job and so I will take anything.’ Believe me, I have been at an interview where this was my ‘why’, and whilst I didn’t say so (I did at least try), my ‘why’ was pancake-flat, had no energy behind it and was as embarrassing for the interviewer as it was for me.

Why did I want the job? Well, actually, I didn’t. I just didn’t want my existing job. Make sure you are jumping to something you want and not just looking for an exit. Know your why, and your move will be a good and a smart one for you.

Never underestimate your own experience and how transferable your skills are. Gaps in knowledge can be closed over time and new skills learnt. What will always shine through is existing knowledge, potential, and enthusiasm.

When you do get the job, go for it. Be brave. You will have days where you will feel embarrassingly out of your depth, but those moments will pass and soon you will be flying.

Paul and Robyn both took part in a webinar on moving sectors as part of In-house Week 2020.

Our expert panel covered topics such as moving from private practice to in-house and switching sectors, how to go from one specialism to the next, skills to look for when hiring new people, things to consider when switching sectors and how to approach potential employers. This webinar is free to view.