Every area of law is different and transitioning from one area to another brings its own set of benefits and challenges. For those considering the transition from government law to private sector law, this article will discuss the various facets between the two.
Colby Wegman is the founder of Wegman Partners, a legal research firm that places candidates ranging from partner level to legal support staff and all positions in between. For those looking to change paths, whether for financial incentive or professional growth, Colby Wegman explains what you need to know about transitioning into private sector law after a career in government practice.
Government attorneys can work at the local, state, and federal levels. Wegman Partners explains that these are sometimes referred to as “public interest” attorneys. They can cover civil rights, labor, environment, tax, energy, banking, antitrust, consumer protection, and various other legal spheres.
Government lawyers represent and defend citizens as a whole or government institutions rather than representing an individual or a company.
Private sector law
Private sector practitioners represent individual plaintiffs or defendants, as well as corporations and businesses of various sizes. These lawyers are paid either by the hour or on a flat-rate basis, and the “partners” of private firms also hold a stake in the firm.
Those who leave the public sector for private practice may find work in a law firm, work in-house for a private firm, in academia, or in a nonprofit or trade association.
Advantages and disadvantages of the transition
Colby Wegman notes that transitioning from government work to the private sector takes some effort. Although these are generalizations, lawyers can suddenly be responsible for hourly billing or find themselves working much longer hours than their government counterparts. The government sector is also known to provide better benefits and job security.
On the other hand, an advantage of private practice includes salaries generally higher than those offered by the government sector. This is especially true for lawyers with more experience under their belt.
Another benefit of this transition includes the possibility of extensive professional growth. In the government sector, you often represent vague concepts such as “the people” or “the government”, whereas in the private sector, you represent a real customer or a single entity.
As a private bar lawyer, Wegman Partners explains that there can be an interesting variety in your work, as representing diverse clients with different legal needs will expose you to new aspects of your chosen practice area.
How to move from government to private sector
Wegman Partners explains that the first step in transitioning to the private sector is to plan your departure accordingly. Your departure from the government sector must be planned in detail to avoid cutting bridges and to ensure that you do not have any waiting time between posts, unless you wish.
Finding in-house lawyers can take up to a year, while hiring a law firm usually takes 3-6 months. The hiring process typically slows down during school vacations and breaks, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the summer months. Share your intention to leave only with those who need to know; typically this includes your key colleagues and supervisors, the ethics officer, and references.
Colby Wegman says you’ll need to prepare your resume and references long before you leave your government job. References should be those who can attest to your work ethic and interpersonal skills. In the case of the choice of references, favor quality over quantity.
If you want to fill law firm positions, you can work with a firm like Wegman Partners who can contact multiple firms on your behalf. For those looking for positions internally, you can work with multiple recruitment agencies to maximize opportunities.
When interviewing for positions in the private sector, remember to negotiate on your behalf and according to your abilities. Make sure your potential company knows the extent of your experience and explain why you should receive the expected level of compensation and original credit.
Once you have moved to the private sector
Wegman Partners explains that once you’ve transitioned from government law to private sector law, it’s important to clarify expectations for your first year in your new role. The first few months in a position in the private sector are often spent meeting new colleagues and clients and sending out announcements about your new position. Sit down with the people in your office to clarify what is expected of you.
Once you have your own customers, you will need to learn how to communicate with each of them. In private law, many decisions require client approval first, so it’s important to know when and how you should contact your clients when important decisions are at stake.
Another part of working in the private sector, especially when it comes to representing individuals, is budgeting. Cost can be a major concern for clients, so it’s important to estimate and itemize legal fees where possible.
Finally, be sure to get to know your new colleagues and keep in touch with your old ones. Networking is essential for professional and personal growth, and it’s a great way to get exposure in your new business.