Surviving the Transition from Public Service to Private Practice

Stephanie Meighan
I needed to stop telling myself that I was not smart enough for this new endeavor.

I needed to stop telling myself that I was not smart enough for this new endeavor.

Thomas Barwick/Stone via GettyImages

I am a first-generation college and law-school graduate. In law school, I was in the minority and constantly surrounded by people who had it all figured out—or that’s what they led me to believe. Meanwhile, I was searching for mentors to guide me on the right path. The possibilities after law school were overwhelming. A professor told us that litigation jobs would always be there and to take time to experience other possibilities through fellowships and clerkships, so that’s what I did. 

After law school, I had two year-long positions—one as a fellow and one as a judicial law clerk. Through my clerkship, I realized how little I knew about the state government and the political arena. Then I began working in the Maryland governor’s appointments office. For two years, I worked as the governor’s placement director. I assisted the governor with hiring executive-level personnel and gubernatorial appointments for boards and commissions. While I was learning a lot, this position played well with my strength of interacting with people. After a year and a half, I excelled at my job and became very comfortable in my role. This is when two seasoned attorneys began to push me back toward my original path to litigation.

Four years after graduating from law school, switching to a career in litigation seemed intimidating. I didn’t know if I wanted to start over. Our governor was re-elected for his second term, and I had job security for the next four years. I decided to leverage my connections and interview for litigation positions anyway. Through those interviews, I realized that interviewers doubted my ability to commit to the demands of litigation after working a nontraditional, legal nine-to-five. Three months into my new associate attorney position—I too doubted my ability.

Everything I wrote for the partners came back severely redlined. At 9:00 p.m. on a Friday, I found myself trying to perfect an assignment that was due the next week, my eyes bloodshot from staring at my computer. I was continually striving for perfection and criticizing myself for not keeping pace with the partners. I was in a perpetual state of anxiety, whether I was sending a one-sentence email or drafting a settlement letter.

I could not have stumbled upon Dr. Brené Brown’s TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” at a more appropriate time. Her message resonated with me and encouraged me to lean into the discomfort that I had been feeling. Her talk made me realize I needed to stop telling myself that I was not smart enough for this new endeavor. She explained that being vulnerable meant allowing yourself to be seen and to be okay being uncomfortable—this is necessary for growth. She also recommended practicing gratitude in those moments of terror. She told me to be kinder and gentler to myself and to believe that I am enough.

I learned that it is necessary to be vulnerable when transitioning into a new career. It is necessary to share incomplete thoughts with the partner to make sure that you are on the right track. It is necessary to review your redline draft to learn and grow, without criticizing and belittling yourself. It is okay to hear that you must tighten up your writing after not writing for two years. It is okay to need a Lexis tutorial because you forgot how to locate certain materials. It is okay for your voice to quiver at an arbitration hearing when you ask an expert witness to redirect questions for the first time. Everything that you are experiencing is normal because you are learning. Be grateful that you have this opportunity to learn and remember that you only do something for the first time once.

For more in-depth information on this topic, watch the ABA Career Center Career Choice webinar on local government attorneys. The speakers discuss what it’s like to work in local government and how they broke into their respective positions, the pros and cons, and what a typical day in their practice entails. Note: This is not for CLE. The recorded program and materials are exclusively for ABA members.

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Stephanie Meighan is an associate attorney at Bowie & Jenson, LLC in their business litigation group.