There are several reasons you may be asked to take a step back in class year at your new firm.
First, there will be a learning curve, no matter how much transferable skill you have. Whether you are transitioning to an area that is broader or more specialized, you will need to learn a new area of the law, new statutes, and new industry knowledge. Don't underestimate the initial effort you will have to make. The law firm reasons that while you are getting up to speed, they shouldn't have to pay you as much, or promote you to partner as quickly. They view you as a promising junior associate.
Second, the law firm recognizes that they are doing you a favor by allowing you to make this transition. And they are - whether you are transitioning to a hot new area or you simply didn't like your old area, you are being afforded an opportunity to enter a field that you have chosen after your initial choice didn't work out. Most attorneys who don't like what they do don't get that chance. Moreover, you may or may not enjoy or be good at the new area. The law firm is taking a chance on you and your ability, and it makes sense from their perspective to minimize that risk by asking you to take a step back.
Third- you may be asked to take a step back because the firm simply has work for a lower class associate. Many firms are rather regimented about how they delegate work and at what level. I work with many firms who will only look at certain class graduation years when looking to hire, and they won't budge a class year in either direction. Many of these firms are pretty stringent on work assignments as well, and if they have work for a second-year, that will be your class level, period.
At the end of the day, if you want to make the transition badly enough, you will have to make some sacrifices. Don't underestimate the effort you may have to make put in to transition to even a related area of the law.
Summary: There are several reasons you may be asked to take a step back in class year at your new firm.
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