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Mid-Career Transitions: Moving from Private Practice to the Public Sector

Andrew Chapin

Considering a transition from private practice to the public sector? It may be a surprise to learn that many mid-level and even senior private sector lawyers make this change for a variety of reasons. For those with client contact and litigation, pro bono, and practice-related experience, it is often an easy and sometimes speedy transition. However, I regularly counsel alumni from various law schools who have unrealistic perceptions about the ease of transitioning to the public sector and what it takes to do so. Five Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division members recently volunteered to share short versions of their transition stories. Here is what they had to say.

Jacob Inwald (George Washington University School of Law) made his transition after a long stint as a commercial litigator at a large international firm to a leadership position for a New York City legal services organization. His work now focuses on foreclosure prevention and predatory lending practices.

After 25 years in private practice working for corporate clients, Inwald began to feel discontent and thought that his work was no longer fulfilling. At the same time, his wife’s career success positioned him to pursue opportunities that he felt would be more meaningful rather than highly paid. Inwald was surprised how quickly his transition occurred — it took about five months from locating an opportunity on to receiving an employment offer. Inwald believes he was unusually fortunate to rapidly find such a perfect opportunity that aligned with his experience and his values.

Inwald reports he would not have considered this now-perfect position even one year prior. He advises job hunters to seek a position closely associated with their experience and to keep an open mind to “random opportunities.”

“What I like best about working for Legal Services NYC is that I am surrounded by smart colleagues with shared values,” says Inwald. “We work together to provide critical assistance to communities victimized by the foreclosure crisis and abused by our country’s largest financial institutions. My hard work is dedicated not to making equity partners rich, but to helping the community at large. That’s a value that can’t be monetized.”

Matt Widmer (William & Mary Law School) spent almost five years in a small private practice in rural Alaska before he moved to criminal indigent defense with the Alaska Public Defender’s Office in Anchorage. Now there for five years, Widmer transitioned to public service because he wanted to specialize in criminal defense which had been only a part of his practice. Widmer credits his job hunting strategy with his successful move. He made it his mission to actively reach out to colleagues and friends to tell them about the position and why he was seeking it. He was eventually recruited by colleagues to his current position because of networking and his experience.

Alisa Ferguson (University of Richmond School of Law) transitioned from a small trusts and estates firm to counsel for the Virginia College Savings Plan (a state agency). Ferguson worked at the firm pre-law school as a paralegal and then as a lawyer after she graduated. After that firm dissolved, Ferguson formed a small firm. Then a headhunter approached her to work on a contract basis for the Virginia College Savings Plan. That opportunity eventually evolved into a permanent position. Ferguson advises job seekers to reach beyond their usual practice area to try new things. She also recommends making use of CLE opportunities and bar association committees to network and develop professionally.

Melissa Keyes (Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law) worked for a large plaintiff’s law firm in Indianapolis primarily in the medical device, pharmaceutical and class action practice areas. After about two years, she left that position to serve as the director of legal and advocacy services for Indiana Protection & Advocacy Services. Keyes had previous experience as a research consultant at the Autism Society of Indiana, and she wrote a note in law school that was published in the law review. She also maintained a monthly blog about disability rights. Keyes past experiences demonstrated her passion for disability rights and made her the preferred candidate for this dream opportunity.
“[In my job] I am able to blend my passions, my experience, and my education to help effect change for people with disabilities,” says Keyes. “There is much work to be done in the world of disability rights but, at the end of the day, I know I’m working at the right place with the right people to make things better.”

Todd Starr (Creighton University School of Law, Boston University School of Law LLM) was in private practice in Cortez, Colorado. As part of his practice he had a contract to serve as the Dolores County Attorney. After serving as a contract county attorney for approximately nine years, a headhunter called and recruited him into his current position with Archuleta County. Starr knew he loved public service through his contract work. He decided to forgo income for the opportunity to serve the community full time and because of the quality of life. Starr has been a full-time county attorney for six years and feels that decision is regularly confirmed. He says he lives in the most beautiful place in North America, where he can ski, rock climb and mountain bike every weekend. During the week he gets to participate in policy decisions. He hopes that in 10 years he will be able to look back on his career knowing he contributed to his community.

All of these transitioners were open to experiences and duties outside of their comfort zone. But that alone would not have led them to new opportunities. They actively engaged with their colleagues and demonstrated a strong interest for their job position goal. Their passion and experience resulted from accepting pro bono cases, volunteering in community activities, serving on boards, or involvement in a specific practice area.

Ready for a Career Change?

If you’re ready to take the plunge into the public sector, consider these steps.

  1. Contact your law school alumni advisor and have the counselor assess your strengths and weaknesses. Do this in a face-to-face meeting if possible so that you can establish rapport with the advisor.
  2. Discuss job options and determine which organizations are involved in the kind of work you are seeking. Resources include:
    • - available by subscription or through your law school or bar association
    • Your law school network
    • Your state or local bar association network
  3. Begin informational interviewing to focus your search before you make direct applications. Arrange a few practice interviews until you are confident with your “elevator pitch” which should succinctly enumerate your strengths and experience. Make sure that you have strong positive responses to all potential interview questions, especially the more challenging ones.
  4. Ask a colleague or your law school career services to review your resume and cover letter for a particular opportunity you are seeking.
  5. Make personal contacts by attending CLEs or bar association meetings and conferences, or anywhere you can interact with and meet attorneys doing the kind of work you want to do. Volunteer for committees and other projects.

Instituting these strategies will put you on the path to your next position. For a lucky few it will take several months. More commonly your search will take a year or more. For those who have trouble finding a position, common challenges include a lack of practice area experience, unrealistic salary expectations, an inaccurate self-assessment, reluctance to network or the inability to put in the required time. The good news is that the job market is improving, and a shrinking applicant pool makes more opportunities accessible for you.

Andrew Chapin is the director of Public Interest Scholars & Counseling at Fordham University School of Law in New York. Chapin has more than 20 years of experience advising law students and attorneys on career development.

Sidebar - Mind Your Ethics

If you are considering a career switch, you may face a conflict of interest. ABA Model Rule 1.9, Duties to Former Clients, and Rule 1.10, Imputation of Conflicts of Interest: General Rule, may come into play. Make sure you check your state’s analogous ethics rule.

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