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February 05, 2024 Feature

Reflections in the Rearview Mirror: Tips for a Successful and Fulfilling Career in Public Service

Lesley Fair
One predictor for a satisfying career in public service is working for an agency that reflects the values you hold dear.

One predictor for a satisfying career in public service is working for an agency that reflects the values you hold dear.

JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

I remember the first time I sat at counsel table in a hushed courtroom, ready to represent the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in a consumer protection matter. The courtroom clerk cried in the judge with the formal “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez.” When His Honor asked, “Who represents the United States in this matter?,” for just a moment I swiveled my neck in the hope of catching a glimpse of such an esteemed attorney. That’s when I realized, “Oh my gosh, he’s talking about me.” That was more than three decades ago, and I still marvel at the good fortune of serving as a government attorney for 36 years and the profound responsibility of practicing law in the public interest.

I’m now at the stage when I’m asked to advise those just beginning in the public sector. Here are some reflections I see when I look at my career in the rearview mirror.

Work for an Agency Whose Mission Stirs Your Soul

Maybe you advise a school board, strive to keep air and water clean, protect public health, or represent cities or states in high-stakes litigation. One predictor for a satisfying career in public service is working for an agency that reflects the values you hold dear. As an Army brat who grew up watching systematic economic abuses of America’s servicemembers—rental rip-offs, used car scams, credit cons, etc.—ensuring a fair shake in the marketplace for all consumers is a cause close to my heart. Even on the most disappointing day at the office, I still feel like my efforts move us toward this goal.

That said, public service can be frustrating for people whose primary objective is immediate societal change. The process of thorough research, careful investigation, and collaborative problem-solving can be painstaking. Advocates looking for quick results may not be suited for the deliberate i-dotting and t-crossing that government service requires. The good news: There are outstanding nonprofit organizations where your passion can help craft sound public policy. But if you’re up for the long-term challenge, government service can offer rewards available on no other career path.

Become a Subject Matter Expert While Remaining a Generalist

Whether it’s understanding the intricacies of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, reviewing randomized clinical testing, evaluating the inner workings of apps that steal consumers’ confidential information, or tracking down scammers’ ill-gotten gains, I have the privilege of working alongside acknowledged experts in their fields. Every attorney in the public sector has the opportunity to become that leading light. It’s a rewarding feeling to know your agency—and the public—are counting on your experience and expertise.

Now for the contrarian part of that advice. While developing a name for yourself as an indispensable specialist, keep yourself open to opportunities to learn new skills and explore areas adjacent to your chosen field. After decades in litigation, I took on the task of creating an agency blog aimed at attorneys and businesspeople. After the initial “OMG. Me? A blogger?” the shock wore off, and I learned the importance of translating complex cases into actionable advice. Going to court to challenge illegal practices that harm consumers remains job number one in my office, but offering guidance on how to comply with the law may play a role in preventing consumer injury in the first place. Taking on new challenges can be an effective prescription to cure on-the-job staleness and can introduce you to exciting new ways to serve the public.

Look for Opportunities at Work That Aren’t Directly Related to Work

Maybe it’s volunteering for an agency-wide charity event, serving on a personnel-related committee, or even playing on the office softball team. Take advantage of opportunities to meet colleagues in other branches of your agency. Network with those who attended your law school or share your interest in a particular issue. Attend optional brown bag lunches or CLE presentations to learn more about what coworkers in other offices do.

Building those networks can be challenging in hybrid workplaces. But I don’t know a single attorney who could resist an invitation for coffee or a teleconference chat when it’s prefaced with the sincere statement, “I’m new here and have been following your Jones case. Can you tell me more about how you put together that summary judgment argument?” You’ll gain a broader perspective of your agency and foster partnerships that may prove helpful down the road.

Understand How Supervisors Define Success

Twice a year, the FTC evaluates attorneys’ performance using a series of what it calls “critical elements.” Years ago, in an HR orientation session, I misheard that phrase as “critical elephants.” Looking back, maybe “critical elephants” is a more accurate characterization after all, given that those performance standards are large, dominant, and they never forget. Understand the standards by which your work will be reviewed and keep accurate records throughout the reporting period to demonstrate how you met—or exceeded—the goals your supervisors set for you. In some offices, you may be asked for an initial draft of your evaluation. Eschew self-deprecation. And most importantly, align your accomplishments with those “elephants.”

Reconsider How You Define Success

Not every good lawyer can rise through the ranks to be the Deputy Assistant Whatever—and not every good lawyer should want to. In my experience, lawyers tend to be inspiring personnel managers, effective litigators, or creative policymakers, but it’s a rare attorney who possesses all three skill sets. Furthermore, the not-so-secret secret is that the higher an attorney’s place on the organizational chart, the more removed they may be from the in-the-trenches mission of the agency. Of course, skilled managers pave the way for the rest of us to do our jobs more efficiently. But in mapping your preferred career path, conduct a ruthless self-assessment of your talents. Law firms may adopt an up-or-out personnel strategy, but in my experience in the public sector, a larger office and a more impressive job title don’t necessarily correlate to the quality of one’s contribution to the mission of the agency.

That Greener Grass May Be Artificial Turf

In the words of the melodious 1960s trio the Shirelles, “Mama said there’ll be days like this.” No matter how satisfying you may find your job, you will encounter seasons where you experience less career satisfaction. Unless there’s a genuine concern about your physical or mental health, do your best to power through. Whether it’s a leadership change, a challenging relationship with a coworker, or just the occasional sense of ennui, don’t make a major move without carefully considering the consequences.

For a government attorney, the grass isn’t always greener at a law firm. First, the financial benefits are often overstated. Yes, some of the nation’s largest firms have been known to add a zero to the salary of high-profile former public servants who make a lateral move, but those are the exceptions. Many attorneys at small-to-midsize firms may actually make less than government lawyers when you factor in health care costs, retirement benefits, and other perks. There may be other hidden benefits for public sector employees—transit subsidies, childcare accounts, eldercare assistance, and the like.

Be aware that some firms recruit former government attorneys with the expectation that they’ll quickly become rainmakers. Is that a role you want to play? Will your dedication to the mission of your former agency make that a difficult transition for you?

If you ever get to the stage where you think, “I can’t take it one more day” (it happens to everyone), investigate formal intra-agency transfer or exchange programs to help you gain a fresh perspective. If your office doesn’t publicize these opportunities, create one for yourself. Pitch it to your boss as a way to return “home” after six months or a year with new skills and renewed energy.

Remove the Hyphen from Work-Life Balance

Striving for work-life “balance” on a day-to-day basis can be a fruitless effort. My contrarian advice is to aim for a life that brings you joy from all your endeavors—personal and professional. And if your job doesn’t add to that happiness, you may not be in the right place.

There is a baseless stereotype that paints public servants as indolent workers who punch out at 4:59 pm. The barrels of midnight oil my colleagues and I have burned over the years belies that image. The difference, of course, is that when you’re devoted to a project that advances the public interest, work doesn’t necessarily seem like work. There will be times when professional duties will require personal sacrifices, but in my experience, colleagues and supervisors will close ranks in support of a coworker who needs to devote more time at home or to another personal obligation.

Nurture Relationships

It’s a cliché to talk about one’s “work family,” but in the case of many public sector offices, there’s truth behind the cliché. From the outset, we have a powerful connection that unites us: a commitment to the mission of the agency. That common focus seems to foster friendship, collaboration, and teamwork. In my own experience, those larger goals also tend to squelch the sometimes lawyerly tendencies toward unhealthy ambition and credit-grabbing. It’s refreshing for me to be able to delight in colleagues’ successes without worrying about whether their ascendancy in some way diminishes my position.

That’s why most of my best friends are my work friends. We share each other’s personal losses and rejoice in moments of happiness. Every day, I observe them to be honest, ethical, sensitive, and devoted. Those are qualities I admire in attorneys and seek out in friends.

A Word to Supervisors

There’s no shortage of books on leadership, but they suffer from the same flaw. They’re all written by leaders. If you really want to know about effective leadership, don’t ask the leader. Ask the led.

I’ve been fortunate to work for terrific bosses at the FTC, but I appreciate that retention can be a perennial problem for public sector supervisors. The possibility that private sector employers are eager to nab your staff may well be a compliment to your ability to nurture legal talent. Of course, some people leave government agencies for reasons that are outside their supervisors’ control—financial needs, family obligations, relocation, etc. But supervisors who earn long-term loyalty tend to have some characteristics in common.

First, to the extent possible, minimize time-wasting administrative tasks that fall on attorneys’ shoulders. Law firms recognize the penny wisdom and pound foolishness of having lawyers and other skilled professionals spend hours photocopying documents, collating materials, filling out forms, and performing other administrative functions. Piling too many of these tasks on already busy public sector attorneys can send the unintended message that their time and expertise aren’t valued. “But we don’t have the budget for support staff,” supervisors may say. Then they will continue to spend precious resources training attorneys who leave as soon as opportunities arise. Yes, there will be all-hands-on-deck emergencies when we all must pitch in. But in general, my advice is to let lawyers be lawyers.

Second, recognize the demoralizing impact of micromanagement. Of course, an appellate brief, a proposed rule, or draft legislation requires multiple layers of review. But nothing says “I don’t trust you” like subjecting every routine memo to that same level of scrutiny. It’s an inefficient use of supervisors’ time. What’s more, it may have the unintended consequence of discouraging careful work. Attorneys who know that a dozen people will weigh in with their own edits have less incentive to give it their best shot the first time.

Third, let your staff know you appreciate them. Whether offering praise or critique, be as specific as possible. “Good job” is good, but “Your analysis of that new Supreme Court case was insightful and persuasive” is better—and will help attorneys strive to be their best the next time around. Furthermore, invite each member of your staff to an informal one-on-one review of your performance as a supervisor. Set up an appointment separate from the employee’s performance review and ask for feedback on how you’re doing. You may be surprised to learn that a tiny tweak in tone, policy, or procedure may keep them on the job for years to come. It also gives them a chance to express their appreciation in a setting that won’t be misconstrued as an evaluation-time attempt to curry favor.

Give Back to Your Community and Your Profession

When law students ask me if government attorneys can do pro bono work, I remind them that, in a sense, a career in the public sector is a lifetime commitment to pro bono work. That said, volunteering your legal skills outside your office can be a refreshing and rewarding way to amplify the contribution you already make to your community on a daily basis.

Many city, state, and federal agencies have pioneered programs where public sector attorneys can take pro bono cases in a way that doesn’t create a conflict of interest. But even if traditional pro bono representation isn’t an option, consider other ways to spend a few hours a week in service to your community. Serve as a moot court judge at a local law school. Coach a high school mock trial team. Help veterans complete necessary paperwork. Or take a cue from some of my colleagues and create a presentation on identity theft prevention to present at PTA meetings, senior centers, or places of worship.

Service to the legal community is another rewarding experience that also may have professional benefits. Volunteering your time to the American Bar Association’s Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division (GPSLD) is an obvious place to start. Serve on a committee. Coordinate a CLE event or a non-CLE panel. Write a newsletter article. The GPSLD welcomes volunteers while offering the camaraderie of 9,500 other committed public servants willing to share their experience with you.

Finally, Focus on the Mission of Your Agency

Most of us work in offices impacted by politics. Of course, it’s wise to stay current when our agencies are in the headlines. But as a Washington-based employee, I like to describe my position as “inside the Beltway but out of the loop.” Unless your job responsibilities are directly related to the political process, my suggestion is to remain focused on the mission of the agency and leave the politics to the designated experts. In my 36 years at the FTC, dozens of appointees of all political perspectives have arrived at the agency, worked hard to shape the agenda, served their country with honor, and then departed for other endeavors. Remaining to carry out those policies is the dedicated cadre of attorneys—and investigators, administrators, support staff, and other professionals—committed to public service.

War, civil upheaval, natural disasters, and global pandemics place unanticipated obstacles in our path, but it remains our job to do good and to do it better. In the words of President John F. Kennedy, “Let us not despair but act. Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past—let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” And that responsibility now rests with a new generation of attorneys committed to practicing law on behalf of the most important client: the public interest.

Words of Experience

Sanjeev Bhasker
U.S. Digital Currency Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice

I serve as a DOJ subject matter expert in cryptocurrency-related prosecutions, policy, and forfeitures. As a federal and state prosecutor for almost two decades, I’m grateful for the opportunity to prevent crime and help victims achieve justice. It is rewarding to serve others.

Donna Y. Frazier
Caddo Parish Attorney, Louisiana

My work is threefold. First, I work with the elected officials of the Parish Commission to ensure that they understand the law and regulate community members appropriately. Second, I work with the parish’s administration to provide the necessary legal support to facilitate quality service to our citizens. Last, I work directly with the citizens, when necessary, to answer their questions and show them how to work effectively with the parish to achieve their desired results. I am honored to provide public service that helps our local government operate effectively for all citizens.

Will Glasson
Senior Assistant County Attorney, Multnomah County, Oregon

Working for Multnomah County has been the highlight of my career. Why? First, because my colleagues in the County Attorney’s Office and in the departments I counsel are incredible—smart, thoughtful, outcome-oriented, and with their doors always open to help me hash out an issue. The next “why” for me is the work itself—it’s varied, interesting, and consistently tied to issues that serve the public interest. In our office, we frequently encounter matters of first impression (issues that bear on immediate public concerns) and respond to events as they are unfolding in our community. I find it tremendously fulfilling to be able to contribute my efforts and (hopefully) good work products in ways that advance the outcomes that best serve Multnomah County residents.

Linda America Santiago
Attorney-Advisor, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

This year, I celebrate 15 years of federal service. What I have found most fulfilling in my various roles is the ability to contribute toward the agency’s mission. Serving something greater than myself—a higher calling. You’re given a lot of responsibility right out of the gate. Run with it. Grow with it. Become the expert.

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Lesley Fair

Federal Trade Commission

Lesley Fair is a senior attorney with the Federal Trade Commission, where she has spent 36 years protecting the interests of America’s consumers. In addition, she is on the adjunct faculty at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and the George Washington University Law School. Her comments reflect her personal opinions, and she doesn’t speak for any of her employers.