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Law Practice Today

June 2024

Rainmaking Lessons for Moving from Government to Law Firms

Anna Rappaport and Nithya Nagarajan


  • Nithya Nagarajan’s experience working in federal government agencies provides a critical perspective as she advises clients on U.S. trade and trade remedies.
  • Nithya’s focus is trade-remedy strategy and antidumping and countervailing duty proceedings.
Rainmaking Lessons for Moving from Government to Law Firms

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Anna Rappaport (AR): I wanted to interview you specifically because you did something that a lot of lawyers really struggle with. You not only moved from government to the private sector, but you also became very successful at business development. You are now a Partner, group leader, and trade remedies and international trade lawyer at Husch Blackwell in the DC area. Can we start with you describing your career trajectory?

Nithya Nagarajan (NN): Sure. I started out as a trade analyst in the U.S. Department of Commerce. I went to law school at night at the American University of Washington College of Law while I was still working full-time. Once I graduated from law school, I was an honors attorney at the Department of Justice, followed by a clerkship at the Court of International Trade. Then I went back to the government in the Chief Counsel's office at the Department of Commerce. After three years there, I didn't find job satisfaction and I didn't see my path staying with the government. So, I decided to quit and start my own solo practice. After nine years, in February of 2018, I merged my international trade and trade remedies practice into Husch Blackwell.  This year I was made an equity partner at the firm. I never expected to leave the government, but I think it was ultimately a good decision.

AR: How did you get your first client after opening your solo practice?

NN: People knew me in the private sector from my time in the government, so my name was not completely unheard of in this area. I ended up partnering with a couple of other solo practitioners for the first couple of years. I observed how they pitched work and how they got clients, and then I started trying to do it myself. The first two to three years were a real struggle because I had to make up my income with small projects here and there. I was trying to get my name out there and bidding on every new project and every new case. When you're a solo, you have very little overhead, which means that you can undercut bigger law firms. With my background and expertise, I attracted price sensitive foreign companies.

AR: It takes real courage to forge your own path and take this huge leap. And yet, I’ve heard you describe yourself as a risk-averse person, which is surprising given your story. How did you approach making this huge career change?

NN: Fear of failure is what drove it. To be honest, I had a very, very difficult female boss when I was in the government who was saying, “You're not a good lawyer.” I knew that she was wrong, and I wanted to prove it. 

AR: Amazing. That kind of issue with a diffcult boss derails a lot of lawyers. It’s really impressive that you used it as an engine to motivate yourself.

As you became more experienced, what evolved in your approach to business development?

NN: If I turn my mind's eye back to those early days, I think I talked about my own depth of experience very differently. Early on, I was always soft selling or underselling my experience. And then I realized that, no, they're hiring an expert. They want to hear about my level of expertise and not just a broad kind of oversell or undersell of generic capabilities. Now I talk in a lot more depth about the details of my specialized practice.

And over the years I learned that it's okay to walk away. When I went from being solo to being part of a big law firm it helped me realize that it's okay to not take every case or every client that lowballs you. When you're solo, it’s very difficult to say no. But as you grow and get busier it is important to say no for your own self-preservation, because there are clients out there that will push and push and push you on fees alone because they feel you are hungry. They feel and sense that you need them more than they need you. I learned over the years that part of the marketing strategy is to not let the client know how much you actually need their money. You must learn how to tell yourself it’s okay, I can walk away and it's not going to hurt me. Now I have the confidence to say “No, I'm sorry, if you push my fees down, I just can't assist you. You will need to go to somebody else.” Fifteen years ago, I would reduce my fees however low they needed to be to get the client.


AR: Is there anything else that stands out as something you wish you had done differently early on?

NN: I wish I had gone to more conferences early on rather than staying home and trying to build the business. Starting out as a solo, you don't have the money to go to the conferences. You don't have the money to travel for the speaking opportunities. It’s a catch-22, but that's okay. If you're in a situation other than being a solo practitioner, say your part of a law firm, you have a business development budget. So, use that to attend conferences. Get speaking opportunities. For me, writing substantive updates and pieces on developing trade trends really helped me to get my name out there. And I think that's where I would have put my effort instead of scrolling to try to find the emails and the contacts, and then calling and all of that stuff that I spun my wheels on because I didn't know better. I thought if I sent an email that laid out all the nuances of what they're dealing with, that would make them want to work with me. But no company likes to get a cold call.

AR: You appear to be very skilled at networking and relationship building. Can you talk about how you approach this?

NN: I want to know about the other person. I'm curious. When I meet people for the first time, I'm more interested in what they're involved in, what they’re doing, than I am in talking about myself. And I think I've learned over the years not to hard sell the practice. I used to go into these networking events and talk about what I was doing and what my practice was and that turns people off. Another thing is, I'm still friends with the people that I worked with when I was an analyst at the Department of Commerce. For me, it's more that I want to keep the friendships going as opposed to just having a more clinical business relationship. I'm also willing to talk about kids or vacation, the audiobook I’m listening to, all of that stuff. Because when you connect and you build that trust, then you can then build the professional relationship. I think the work that I have gotten over the years is because I have tried to maintain those friendships and relationships over time.

I feel the same way with my clients. If they have a problem, it’s also my problem, and I want to be in the weeds with them trying to solve it. If a client emails me, I am going to respond to them and say, look, I got your email. I am jammed up right now. I will look at it and I'll get back to you in a day or so. That is basic common courtesy. A lot of people complain, “I sent my lawyer an email, but they never responded.” I try not to do that because I want to build that personal connection. That’s really important to me.

AR: Lawyers sometimes find it challenging to figure out the balance for creating friendships with clients. You have a lot of clients in other countries, so distance creates additional levels of complexity. How do you think about building relationships with clients? 

NN: You just practice the basic social norms. I mean, how are you? How are you doing? How's the weather? What have you been up to? Did you do anything fun recently? Just one to three minutes of personal stuff. Or you send the client something and the client says look, I'm sorry I couldn't get to it because I've been sick or somebody in my family's been sick. Next time you follow up, find out how those people are, how that client is, don't forget that they gave you a little tidbit of information that helps you, without crossing that professional boundary, humanize the relationship.

AR: Is there anything else that we haven't talked about that you want to mention, a final piece of advice?

NN: It's really hard to do this on your own. You’ve got to form your own “team.” Even if you're a solo, you're not really a solo. If you're part of a law firm, you really need your partners and associates and administrative staff. Everybody is part of the team. And the more they actually see your vulnerability the more likely they are to help you. The times when I have said, “I've got a sick kid” or “a pipe broke in my bathroom and I'm not reachable,” people try to help. If you isolate yourself and you don't share that little bit of anecdotal personal trauma that we all have from time to time, it makes it difficult to build a team. Show a little bit of that vulnerability and weakness, and I think it actually does help.

AR: That is so true. Thank you for modeling it so beautifully by authentically sharing your journey and what you have learned along the way. I’m sure a lot of people will find it very helpful and inspiring.