August 31, 2020

Career transitions: Tips from those who’ve been there

by Jennifer Wills

This article is the third in our new Advanced Practitioner Series, which is designed to provide our readers with expert analysis of trends, as well as advanced practice tips, in established practice areas. The series also covers professional and career issues of interest to environmental, energy, and natural resources lawyers.

There is something you might find more difficult than the legal problems you face every day: deciding when and whether to make a career change. The breadth of experience within the Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources is astounding, and no matter where you are in your career, there are others who’ve been in your shoes and have made successful transitions. These are their tips.

Types of career transitions

There are two main types of career transitions that environmental, energy, and natural resources lawyers make: (1) changing sectors—e.g., private firm to government and (2) moving from law to non-law, e.g., consultancy, policy, academia. This article mainly consists of tips from lawyers who have practiced law in different sectors.

Twenty tips from Section lawyers

There are some themes in these tips, which are in the lawyers’ own words: your network is critically important, be kind to yourself and also push yourself, things may turn out differently than you expected, and take the time to understand the culture of your new organization.

Susan Floyd, senior counsel with a utility company:

  1. The skills and abilities you acquired in your previous position have led you to this new position. Consequently, continue to hone and develop those skills and abilities so you do not lose any “muscle memory” in those areas.
  2. You will start the new position excited and ready to get things done and prove that you were the “right” hire—so stop, breathe, and take the time to get to know the culture of the entity where you now work and to understand the communication preferences of those that you are working with in your new position.
  3. Be kind to yourself—remind yourself of how you have grown, what you have learned and why you wake up every day and do what you do. Reflect on your strengths while being open to where and how you can continue to grow and learn. Take every opportunity to push yourself at crossroads. By continually reflecting and reminding yourself of what is important to you, you will avoid doing things without thought and direction.

Juge Gregg, law firm; government (DOJ); in-house at a large tech firm:

  1. Don’t pick a destination; pick a next step. Think about your next step and what gets you most excited about it. Don’t take a job you don’t want to do because you think it will get you where you want to be.
  2. Keep your eyes open. Maybe you are not “ready” to move, but keep your eyes open for opportunities.
  3. Build and maintain your network. Stay in touch with colleagues. Former colleagues and Section colleagues can help you with your career moves, preparing for interviews, etc.

Stacey Halliday, law firm and government (EPA) experience; military spouse working overseas:

  1. Map out scenarios for your transition, with an ideal outcome and a few alternatives that incorporate your upper and lower limits (including salary, benefits, etc.).
  2. Identify dedicated sponsors to inform your options and invest in supporting your transition—be as transparent as possible with these sponsors to ensure that they are fully informed of the dynamics at play.
  3. Don’t be afraid to take a little (informed) risk to challenge yourself, build resilience, spark progress, develop new professional muscles, and—in the best cases—surprise yourself.

Brenda Mallory, law firm; government; NGO:

  1. It rarely works out exactly the way you imagined. Sometimes that’s good; sometimes, not so much. It’s helpful to recognize this going in; you’ll spend less time focused on your disappointment. You have to go into each new situation prepared to make the best of whatever it offers.
  2. When transitioning for the first time from private firm to government or NGO, don’t underestimate the cultural differences between those various communities. The culture affects how you interact, get things done, the career path, and opportunities, just to name a few. You should try to explore those differences as part of considering options but recognize that many things won’t be obvious until you’re on board. Be prepared to adjust.
  3. The personal strengths and qualities that got you to where you are will get you through the transition. Personal resilience is key to whatever you do. You work on building it early and then tap into it during whatever life challenges you face. Navigating your way through transitions is no different. You just have to remember to go back to whatever are the “basics” for you.

Roger Martella, government (DOJ and EPA); law firm; in-house counsel:

  1. Surround yourself with people who can give you advice and who have your back. Your network is important for finding opportunities, seeking advice, and helping you prepare for a new role.
  2. While it’s important to have a network to reach out to for support and advice, ultimately, you should trust your own judgment and listen to your inner voice on what’s the best decision for you based on your personal goals. You’ll always be most successful when you’re doing something that you’re passionate about personally.

Jonathan Nwagbaraocha, internal transition at a large workplace technology company to EHSS counsel:

  1. Relationships matter: Get to know the team you are counseling because this is important when trying to establish an open and candid line of communication. The team you want to counsel needs to know the type of person you are, and it is equally important for you to understand the processes, policies, and decisions that the team is dealing with.
  2. Give yourself a break: Any job transition requires you to recharge/recalibrate/refresh. Find the opportunity to have a week or more break before you start a new position.

Lauran Sturm, large law firm; state environmental department:

  1. Be prepared for the financial impacts of moving to government. You’re probably already aware of the discrepancies in salary, bonus structure, and pension/401K arrangement, but there are other perks that you may be accustomed to in firm life that you’re less likely to find in government.
  2. 18.  Be aware of potential time-management changes. Depending on your level in the firm, you may be spending a lot of time on business development activities in the evenings. While your schedule should free up in that regard when you move to government, you may find that your days quickly fill up with various committee or client meetings, meaning less desk-time. It may take some time to learn how to balance the meeting expectations with your actual day-to-day work.

Jennifer Wills, EPA lawyer to professional coach:

  1. If possible, try the other career as a side hustle for a little bit. You may learn some ways to become more successful when you finally make the switch. You may find that you don’t want to make the switch after all!
  2. Undertake formal training if the transition is significant—not necessarily a master’s degree; there could be a certificate or online course or two to learn more about the new job/career and build your credentials.

Continue the conversation at SEER Connect.

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Jennifer Wills


Jennifer Wills founded J. Wills Coaching to provide coaching to sustainability and environmental professionals seeking personal and professional growth. She has been an active member of the Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources for over a decade, where she has served in leadership capacities on numerous committees and participated in the Leadership Development Program in 2014.