Practice Tips from Happy Public Lawyers

Katherine Mikkelson

Lawyer discontent is common. Many of us know colleagues and law school classmates who are generally dissatisfied practicing law. What is particularly interesting, however, is that public-sector lawyers are happier than their private-sector counterpoints, according to a 2015 survey by Florida State University law professor Lawrence Krieger and University of Missouri psychology professor Kennon Sheldon. More than 7,800 bar members in four states responded to the survey, and the authors obtained 6,200 complete responses. The survey found that lawyers in “prestige” jobs (those working in firms of more than 100 lawyers and those working in areas such as corporate, tax, patent, securities, estate-planning and plaintiff’s tort law) were less satisfied than lawyers working in public-service jobs (defined as legal-aid lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders, government lawyers and in-house lawyers for nonprofits) despite significantly higher salaries.

Intrigued, we asked our members for practical tips that lead to job satisfaction. All of the public lawyers with whom we spoke have been in practice for 10 years or more. Read on to glean some wisdom from these savvy veterans. 

Seek Feedback from Your Clients

Naturally, everyone wants to focus on their strengths and accomplishments, as well as the accolades they receive from others. Sometimes, however, the best way to improve is to learn from one’s mistakes or weaknesses.

The smartest practitioners seek feedback from a client who they know will not be complimentary. “After a matter is resolved, sit down with the client and ask them, ‘What went well?,’ ‘What could have gone better?,’ and ‘What are the lessons learned?’” says Rich Melnick, associate county attorney in Rockville, Maryland.

Melnick recommends instituting free-flowing communication between attorney and client by promoting a positive relationship based on trust, collaboration and an open atmosphere. Even if the relationship is strained, meetings that encourage open dialogue will go a long way toward showing that you are looking out for your client’s best interests, and they may even help to repair damaged bonds. “Being honest about the good, the bad and the ugly will help improve client interactions, as well as processes and results.”

Sharon Pandak, a partner at Greehan, Taves & Pandak and former Prince William County attorney in Virginia, values the benefits of face-to-face meetings with clients: “Public attorneys often have ready access to their clients. They can meet the client at their workplace and observe their efforts. Inviting a client to talk to legal staff about their expertise can also build rapport.”

Pandak advises attorneys to dig deeper and not rely on instincts or become complacent when it comes to clients. “Even if they do not provide feedback, most clients like you to ask for it,” she said. Pandak recommends assessing how to best do this given the size of your office and time constraints:

Using a survey for clients that you represent on an ongoing basis with specific questions like timeliness of response, availability, understanding of client needs, and ability to explain complex issues can help you to enhance your performance or meaningfully communicate with your client if misunderstandings exist. Also, a note or follow-up call, asking whether they were satisfied with particular work, will yield helpful insight and client appreciation of your interest. If you are the head of an office, you should share this feedback with all staff, not just lawyers, as part of in-house training.

Improve Your Writing

Young attorneys, in particular, should take note of how their writing can be improved. Al Purdue, former deputy general counsel at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a retired Air Force JAG, speaks from experience, having managed young attorneys in both positions. “There always seems to be one person in the office who makes the same writing mistakes over and over again,” he said. “Those who take constructive criticism and actually make changes to their writing will go far.”

Purdue also notes that often the legal advice of any memo or brief is only one part of the document. “Take as much time with the rest of the document as you do on the legal advice so that the entire written document is a good work product.”

A legal writing class can help improve these skills.

Take Risks

Obtaining proficiency in an area of the law is beneficial; but after a while, if there are no surprises or challenges, complacency can set in. Next time your supervisor asks for someone to take on a matter that you are not quite comfortable with, raise your hand. Working on something outside of your comfort zone will force you to stretch your skill set, including your leadership and management skills.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Susan Burke can attest to this. As a young federal prosecutor, she was second chair in a Title III wiretap investigation. After 23 drug coconspirators were indicted, the senior attorney left the office to take a position on the bench, leaving Burke to try the case. “It was a very large case, and I did not have much experience,” said Burke. “There were 867 counts of money laundering in addition to the drug conspiracy. With 53 government witnesses and thousands of pages of exhibits, the experience stretched and strengthened my legal skills.”

The sheer size of this case also honed her organizational skills. Due to the large number of government witnesses, Burke created a strict schedule and carefully coordinated with interpreters for Spanish speakers and with the marshal’s office to arrange transportation for defendants in custody. “It was a test of my organizational skills because during the six months I prepared for that case, I had something important to do every single day, and I needed to keep it all straight.”

In addition to legal and organizational skills, the case tested her strategic thinking skills. Of the 23 defendants, 13 negotiated plea agreements. Burke had to make calculated, informed decisions about what pleas each defendant took and whether they were proportional to the other defendants based on their culpability and involvement in the case. “This was the first time I had to really think about the dynamics of a big case with many moving parts,” she said.

Burke is confident that the case strengthened her leadership abilities, too. “The case agents from the IRS, the DEA agents, the hundreds of law enforcement officers involved from St. Paul, Minneapolis, and the Minnesota state troopers — they were all looking to me,” she said. “It was intimidating, but I had to step up.” And the experience helped her to face challenges later in her career:

When I became a judge, court administration was looking for a volunteer to try a 10-defendant RICO case. I raised my hand again and ended up having a three-week trial. Two defendants went to trial, and I sentenced five (five corporate defendants were dismissed). The sentencing and case had the same basic considerations as the very first Title III wiretap I tried those many years ago. I relied heavily on my experience from the prior multiple-defendant cases from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Strengthen Your Interpersonal Skills

People are drawn to those who are genuinely friendly, helpful and outgoing. Although these attributes may appear superficial, they are not: almost everyone would rather work with a positive, supportive person. Look people in the eye when you talk, smile, and offer suggestions and input when you can. “It may sound corny, but the world would be a better place if everyone adhered to the core values many of us learned as a Boy or Girl Scout. Things like being trustworthy, loyal, helpful and friendly are really important — and particularly so in a busy law office,” said Purdue.

Think carefully about developing your “soft skills,” including personal, social and communication skills. Volunteer to facilitate a meeting, lead a team, or serve on a committee. Effective communication skills are a must. Take classes that will sharpen your public speaking if those skills are lacking. Purdue also cautions young lawyers against being seen as a naysayer when clients have questions or want to pursue certain actions. “Be agreeable. Even if something won’t work, you can respond in such a way that you aren’t perceived as being negative.”

Talk Candidly with Your Supervisor

Supervisors are not mind readers. They don’t know your goals and aspirations unless you communicate them.

J. Todd Hedgepeth, director of the Texas Labor Law Field Support Center at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, acknowledges that it’s sometimes intimidating for junior attorneys to tell their bosses what they would like to do next lest the attorneys give the impression that they aren’t happy in their current position. But Hedgepeth advises young lawyers not to think like that:

As a supervisor, I am impressed by my junior attorneys who talk candidly to me about their career goals when asked. And they benefit from it in two ways: One, they get my advice based on my own personal experience, growth and development as a government attorney. I can give them a road map of how to get where they want to go, a road map that they probably couldn’t have come up with themselves. Second, you can never deny the power of networking. If one of my attorneys desires to move on to a specific job, I might know the boss of that office; and if I’m impressed with my attorney, I certainly would call the boss of that office and give a “thumbs up” for my attorney.

Find and Use a Mentor

Having a mentor can greatly enhance your career. A good mentor is someone who shares knowledge and advice, who is supportive and caring, and who encourages and guides you to seek your full potential. The best mentors help build your leadership skills, increase networking opportunities, and enhance your exposure and visibility within an organization.

Establishing mentors is the single most important thing that you can do to further your career, according to Purdue. He recommends finding mentors both within and outside your organization — and not just one, but a series of them as time progresses.

In addition, he said, “don’t drop the mentor if one of you leaves the office. Instead, stay in touch with periodic check-ins by phone or email.” He credits staying in touch with former mentors for a series of jobs with increasing responsibility within the government as well as a recent appointment to a board at Stanford University. Purdue believes that former mentors can be a terrific resource even when they are no longer close to the organization and its legal issues. “A former mentor is a great person to call when you are working out a knotty legal problem — without revealing confidential information, of course,” he says.

He also sees many advantages in having mentors who are not necessarily lawyers. In a government office, that might be operational staff, directors of client organizations or IT people. “That person may not know the law, but he or she will know how the organization works. They know where to go, who to call and how to get things done. You can use and benefit from their broad institutional knowledge.”

For those who don’t know how to find a mentor, Purdue’s advice is simple. “When you meet someone who is well-positioned, sit next to him or her at the next meeting and introduce yourself. Later, ask for a follow-up meeting where you can discuss issues or recap decisions that were made. Use your interpersonal skills [see above]. Be friendly and, most importantly, helpful.”

Take All the Training You or Your Agency Can Afford

Some offices provide free training (in-house, local bar association, reciprocal training from other agencies), and some is surprisingly low-cost (GPSLD’s live programs and webinars, for example).

In terms of types of training, Regina Nassen, Pima County deputy attorney in Tucson, Arizona, advises government lawyers to take not only CLE courses in one’s specialty but also general courses:

As an “in-house” lawyer, a civil government attorney needs to be able to step back and see the bigger picture for the complex government entity they serve. It’s great to develop expertise in a couple of specific legal areas, but we also need to be general practitioners; we need to see how legal advice on one issue or project or initiative can impact other areas in ways that might not be immediately obvious.

And don’t forget about technology training. Many lawyers find technology intimidating, but keeping abreast of changes in technology is required to maintain competence under ABA Model Rule 1.1. Because government law offices are sometimes behind the technology curve when it comes to electronic case- and document-management systems and document-assembly programs, Nassen sees opportunities for public lawyers who want to take the initiative and fill the void: “Step up. Get some training and learn about the available technology tools. Initiate a process to get those tools implemented in your office.” Nassen suggests starting with the ABA’s law office technology resources found on the Law Practice Division’s website at For more expensive skills training, you might have to dip into your own pocket, but that may be worth every penny if you can gain unique expertise in this vital area of the law.

Promote Yourself

As a government lawyer, you might shy away from the spotlight. But sometimes a little BSP (blatant self-promotion) is in order.

Purdue advises that you make sure your superiors are aware of your wins and other notable accomplishments. “If your agency maintains an intranet or newsletter, share your success story. You can avoid any appearance that you are bragging by tailoring the message as a how-to or tips article and emphasizing the important work done by other members of your team.” Tout your achievements on LinkedIn and other social media sites, too.

“Just doing good work these days is not enough,” added Purdue.

Become Involved with Pro Bono and/or Bar Activities

Pima County’s Regina Nassen believes that most who choose public service do so because they want to contribute to something bigger than themselves, something that has a positive impact on their communities. “Taking on pro bono projects and bar activities allows you to further indulge that impulse to just make things better,” she said. “And in the course of doing so, you will forge relationships with other amazing and dedicated professionals who will inspire you to be and do more.”

Nassen sees networking with other public lawyers as a tremendous practical resource:

Many public law offices are small. There may only be one or two civil practitioners who are advising a city council or county board on a ridiculously broad array of topics. Who can be an expert on everything from municipal finance and securities laws to Section 1983 tort liability? Let’s face it: no one. But if you can at least spot the issues, and if you have a good network of other government lawyers, you can get help — and give it to others.

Working with your local, state and national bar associations to develop these networks ensures that resources are available to you.

Keep Your Tank Full

Many of us lawyers are wired to power through the tough times. After all, cramming and pulling all-nighters served us well in undergrad and law school. However, there is something to be said for maintaining equilibrium during the midst of an enormous project or several-week trial.

Judge Susan Burke learned this in the early stages of her career trying complicated, multicount cases with numerous defendants:

I realized pretty quickly that as busy as I was, I benefited from going home at a reasonable hour, getting some good food, exercising a little bit, and going to bed by 10:00 p.m. I had to be rested because every day was a full day and I couldn’t get behind.

When Burke became a judge, the same practices benefited her on the bench. “Most of my job as a judge is making decisions for unforeseen issues. It’s much less predictable and more reactive than practicing law, so it really helps me to keep my tank full,” she said.  

Solve Issues Before They Become Problems

Your clients have legal issues that they want you to fix. If you are doing your job well, you will be known as a problem solver. Purdue notes that managers love it when they find a “go-to” attorney in their office. “This is a person who can do quick research; perform sound analysis; and give good, practical recommendations,” he said. “That person is generally my first choice when a promotion is available or when I need someone to lead a special or high-visibility project.”

Nassen takes that one step further and notes that good public-sector attorneys become prognosticators. “We need to spot issues before they become problems,” she said. “A lawyer who can do that, and can explain it to client representatives, becomes a true counselor — and an extremely valuable one.”

Brand Yourself

Government and public-sector lawyers might think that because they don’t have to develop business, they need not focus on branding. Hedgepeth cautions against this mind-set. He finds it advantageous to be seen as the labor law expert within his agency. “While I don’t have to hit the streets and try to bring in new clients, which is what I would have to do in the private sector, I still need to make Air Force leadership/management want to come to me for assistance with their labor and employment issues,” said Hedgepeth. “I need to establish their trust in me; otherwise, they will bypass me and my office in an employee disciplinary situation and most likely will err in some way that will be detrimental to the Air Force as a whole.” Hedgepeth is a firm believer in developing personal and professional relationships with leadership and management. “Just as important is delivering on what my expertise is: providing them with quality legal advice to ensure maximum flexibility for commanders in employing the civilian workforce in support of Air Force operations.”

You can also make a name for yourself as an expert in a particular area of the law by writing articles and speaking at conferences. As an added benefit, publishing and speaking will raise your agency’s profile.

Final Words

Practicing in the public sector does not guarantee job satisfaction, but there are many reasons that lawyers find government work appealing. Following the advice of these experienced public lawyers will increase the chances that your job will allow you to grow professionally; maintain a healthy work-life balance; and become a happy, satisfied lawyer.

    Katherine Mikkelson

    Associate Director

    Katherine Mikkelson is the Division’s associate director.