Every field of law is different and transitioning from one sector to another brings its own set of benefits and challenges. For those who are considering transitioning from government to private sector law, this article will discuss the different facets between the two.
Colby Wegman is the Founder of Wegman Partners, a legal search firm that places candidates ranging from the partner level to legal support staff and all positions in between. For those looking to change tracks either for the financial incentive or professional growth, Colby Wegman explains what you need to know about transitioning to private sector law when coming from a career in government practice.
Government lawyers can work at the local, state, and federal levels. Wegman Partners explains that these are sometimes called “public interest” attorneys. They can cover civil rights, labor, environmental, tax, energy, banking, antitrust, consumer protection, and various other legal spheres.
Government lawyers represent and advocate for the citizens as a whole or government institutions as opposed to representing an individual or corporation.
Private Sector Law
Private-sector practitioners represent individual plaintiffs or defendants, as well as corporations and companies of differing sizes. These lawyers are compensated either hourly or by a flat rate, and “partners” at private firms also have an equity interest in the firm.
Those leaving the government sector for private practice may find work in a law firm, working in-house for a private company, in academia, or at a non-profit or trade association.
Pros and Cons of Transitioning
Colby Wegman notes that transitioning from the government to private sector work takes some effort. While these are generalizations, lawyers may suddenly be responsible for hourly billing or find themselves with much longer work hours than their government counterparts. The government sector is also known for offering better benefits and more job security.
On the other hand, a benefit of private practice includes generally higher salaries than those offered by the government sector. This is particularly true for those attorneys with more experience under their belt.
Another benefit of this transition includes the opportunity for vast professional growth. In the government sector, you’re often representing vague concepts such as “the people” or “the government”, whereas in the private sector you are representing a true single client or entity.
As a private-sector lawyer, Wegman Partners explains that there can be interesting variety in your work, as representing diverse clients with different legal needs will expose you to new aspects of the practice area you’ve chosen.
How to Transition from the Government to Private Sector
Wegman Partners explains that the first step to transitioning to the private sector is planning your departure accordingly. Your departure from the government sector should be planned in detail to avoid burning bridges and ensure you don’t have any wait time between positions unless so desired.
In-house searches for lawyers can take up to a year, while law firm recruitment typically takes 3-6 months. The hiring process generally slows down during school holidays and breaks, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the summer months. Share your intention of leaving only with those who need to know; typically, this includes your key colleagues and supervisors, ethics officer, and references.
Colby Wegman says you’ll need to prepare your resume and references far before departing from your government position. References should be those who can attest to your work ethic and interpersonal skills. In the case of choosing references, choose quality over quantity.
If you’re interested in pursuing positions within law firms, you may want to work with a firm like Wegman Partners who can reach out to multiple firms on your behalf. For those looking at in-house roles, you can work with multiple recruiting agencies to maximize opportunities.
When interviewing for private sector positions, always remember to negotiate on behalf of yourself and your abilities. Assure that your prospective firm knows the breadth of your experience and make the case for why you should receive your expected level of compensation and origination credit.
Once You’ve Transitioned into the Private Sector
Wegman Partners explains that once you have transitioned from the government to private sector law, it’s important to clarify the expectations for your first year at your new position. The first few months at a private-sector position are often filled with getting to know new colleagues and clients and sending out announcements about your new position. Sit down with those in your office to get clear on what’s expected of you.
Once you have your own clients, you’ll need to learn how to communicate with each one. In private law, many decisions first require client approval, so it’s important to know when and how you should reach out to your clients when large decisions are hanging in the balance.
Another part of working in the private sector, especially when representing individuals, is budgeting. Cost can be a major concern for clients, so it’s important to estimate and itemize legal expenses whenever possible.
Finally, make sure you get to know your new colleagues and stay in contact with your old ones. Networking is essential for both professional and personal growth, and it is a great way to get yourself known at your new firm.