Making the Move from Public to Private Practice
J. Samantha Vacciana is an assistant regional counsel with the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel in West Palm Beach, Florida, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
As a former Legal Aid attorney at Legal Aid of Palm Beach County, Florida, my decision to make the move to private practice was primarily an economical one and was very difficult to make. On the one hand, I enjoyed advocating on behalf of indigent clients, but, on the other hand, I was a mother of children about to head off to college, I had my own substantial student loan debt, and I was living in perhaps one of the most expensive areas in the country. I had to be practical. In retrospect, my Legal Aid experience was excellent preparation for my transition to private practice.
At Legal Aid I represented clients in the areas of family and immigration law. By its very nature, Legal Aid is a volume practice, so I had the opportunity to work on several hundred cases per year from inception to completion. As a result, I was able to develop and hone my litigation skills. Today in private practice I am very comfortable with examining witnesses in court or introducing evidence at trial because I had tried over a hundred contested cases at Legal Aid. I am also very comfortable conducting depositions, handling mediations, and handling pretrial discovery, again, because I had handled these aspects of litigation so many times at Legal Aid.
Additionally, my time at Legal Aid allowed me to build solid relationships with other lawyers and nonlawyers both internally and externally. The senior attorneys at Legal Aid were always willing to discuss case strategy with me, review and critique documents that I prepared, or simply serve as a mentor to me. For example, I did not have a family law supervisor at Legal Aid. On many occasions I would go to a senior attorney at Legal Aid to discuss strategy in a family law case, find out who was the best expert witness to use in a domestic violence case, or ask for advice on a motion or memo I had prepared. When I moved to a private practice, I practiced family law exclusively and was fortunate to still be able to rely on those relationships.
Joining the bar section in my practice area while I was at Legal Aid has also been instrumental in developing professional relationships. As a member of the Florida Bar Family Law Section, I am exposed to many attorneys who collectively have been practicing family law for decades and who are a great resource for information and advice. In addition, as a member of the Family Law Section I am on the cutting edge of new family law legislation and changes in the field.
Perhaps, the greatest challenge I have faced in making the move from Legal Aid to private practice is tracking my time—a necessity in order to bill clients. Unlike public interest work, which is usually grant or government funded, billing clients for attorneys’ time is the lifeblood of private practice, and most firms require minimum billable hours. If you are interested in making the move to private practice (or if you think you will be some day), developing a timekeeping practice now will prove invaluable in the private sector. If like most public interest organizations yours does not have time tracking software, use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, or keep a notepad with you at all times, and record each phone call you make on a case, or when a client or opposing counsel calls you, or when you draft a document, and so on.