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How Three Lawyers Made the Transition from Private Practice to Public Service

Jhay Spottswood, Charles Joseph Sarosy, and Brandi Pikes

How Three Lawyers Made the Transition from Private Practice to Public Service
Anna Bliokh via iStock

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Are you considering a transition from private practice to public service? If you are an associate at a law firm wishing to transfer to a public service role, the steps needed to make this transition a reality can seem overwhelming. Where do you start? Like all career transitions, transferring from private practice to public service requires careful planning, and there is no one path.

Here are the stories of three attorneys and how they made the transition. Their paths illustrate both the types of legal opportunities available in the public sector and the paths forward.

Finding My Way from Private Practice to Government

—Jhay Spottswood

My relationship with law and government is intergenerational. When I was growing up, my father dragged me around with him as he volunteered on political campaigns. He wanted to usher in an era of peaceful elections. When my father ran for political office, he brought me to the organizing office to meet the founder of his minor political party, who was a prominent lawyer and a Black woman. In my father’s words, he wanted me to see that “a woman can accomplish whatever she wants.”

By the time I immigrated to Chicago, my mind was set on becoming an attorney. In 2018, I received my law degree, and I went to work at a prestigious law firm in Columbus, Ohio, where I practiced as an environmental and energy associate. When the COVID-19 pandemic shocked the world, I re-evaluated my life and career. I wondered if I was developing the legal skills and receiving the litigation opportunities that would allow me to advance to the next level.

Get Involved with Bar Organizations

As a first-generation university student and an immigrant, I had no connections when I moved to Ohio. I joined bar organizations, including the John Mercer Langston Bar Association (JMLBA), which trains and supports local Black lawyers. I also joined the Women Lawyers of Franklin County (WLFC)—a bar association that promotes the development and well-being of women lawyers in Central Ohio.

My transition from private practice to government was somewhat fortuitous. A judge reached out to the JMLBA seeking applicants interested in serving as his staff attorney. I jumped at the opportunity. I knew I would be recognizable because of my involvement with the judicial candidates’ event through the WLFC. Importantly, I saw a chance to receive one-on-one legal training and become involved in our local judiciary. Involvement in these bar organizations was instrumental in helping the transition to my current position.

Evaluate the Best Opportunity for You

I spoke with several mentors during the application process, including former law clerks, staff attorneys, and seasoned lawyers I met through my bar activities. Three questions guided my decision-making process:

  1. Will I build the litigation and relational skills that would prepare me for my long-term goal as a litigator and trial attorney?
  2. Will this position make me attractive to future employers in the legal field, whether a large law firm, a small practice, or another governmental agency?
  3. Will my family and I be able to handle the financial impact of a reduced salary?

My mentors helped me answer the first two questions. Only my husband and I could answer the last question. For those considering a leap from private practice to government, evaluate your budget and be conservative in your estimates.

After deciding the staff attorney role was the right position for me professionally and financially, I transitioned from the firm to the judiciary. As a staff attorney, I manage almost 400 civil cases ranging from personal injury claims to contract disputes. I collaborate with the judge to research legal issues and draft thorough orders and decisions on complex state procedural and substantive law areas rather than the pleadings I drafted as an associate. Surprisingly, I am more involved in discovery disputes than when I was at the firm; my role includes participating in and priming the judge for status conferences when the parties need the court’s help to resolve discovery issues. Once trials resume, I will assist with pretrial conferences and the completion of jury instructions for civil trials and some criminal cases.

As the architects of our careers, we are responsible for seeking and seizing opportunities. Our relationships and a little risk-taking will help pave the way for our next role. If your current role isn’t providing the opportunities and experiences you want, don’t be afraid to transition. You’ll be glad you did.

From a Large Firm Associate to a State Prosecutor

—Charlie J. Sarosy

I began law school with two simple career goals: to practice in my home state of California and become a public servant. If someone told my 1L-self that I would work at a large corporate law firm after law school, I would have laughed in disbelief. Like many fresh law school graduates, that is what ultimately happened. While the firm experience was valuable, I decided to navigate my way to public service, hoping that the destination would be worth the journey.

After graduating from law school in 2014, I clerked with a judge for a year before becoming an associate in 2015 at a large law firm in Los Angeles. In law school, I constantly debated whether working at a large firm was right for me. When nearly every government attorney I met at career fairs previously worked in private practice—typically at a large firm—I failed to question this perception and assumed the experiences gained at a large firm were required to be a government attorney.

Large Firm Life

I began at the firm resolving to better myself as an attorney and hoping to find the work worthwhile. I was fortunate to receive quality assignments and to work with partners who invested in my professional development. In two-and-a-half years, I drafted federal court motions, appellate briefs, and a complaint. I wrote witness examination outlines and prepared expert witnesses for high-profile trials. In my pro bono practice, I represented a client in immigration court and drafted a state court complaint.

This work provided helpful lessons, but I grew weary of the lack of respect for my time. Deadlines labeled “urgent” often were not. My workflow was unpredictable. I was expected to continually check my work email on nights, weekends, and holidays, often leading to work during the same times. Most concerning, it was difficult to be present with my loved ones. These stressors would be easier to endure if I was working toward something I deeply cared about or knew more learning opportunities were coming. Oral advocacy opportunities were limited to pro bono cases that I often lacked time to handle, and I wanted to work at a place where the primary goal was finding the right answer, not winning.

Path to Public Service

I found what I was looking for at the California Attorney General’s Office in 2018. While I was aware of federal prosecutors and county district attorneys, I had not previously considered being a state prosecutor—but that is what I became. I work on appeals of felony convictions by reviewing trial transcripts and drafting briefs to address claims of constitutional, evidentiary, or prosecutorial errors. I have argued before the state appellate court 20 times. Trial work (e.g., prosecuting criminal firearm possession cases) is also part of my practice. I manage my own caseload and negotiate with opposing counsel. I am surrounded by dedicated and intelligent attorneys who ensure justice is done fairly and honorably. We are not expected to work nights and weekends, but many do so to ensure the excellence of their work.

Sure, there are downsides to working in government versus private practice. I took a significant pay cut. The office building leaves much to be desired, including carpet older than I am and windows last washed before I started law school. Water and coffee are available only through employee-organized clubs with a monthly fee. These are minor considering I found the holy grail for many attorneys: a balance of challenging work with sufficient time to pursue personal interests. For example, I taught an LL.M legal writing course, acquired DIY house renovation skills, and laughably failed at some Great British Bakeoff recipes. I lacked the time and energy to do any of this while at the large firm.

Transition Tips

  1. Be broad in your job research. Look beyond the federal level to state, county, and city governments. For example, my office is the largest law firm in the state, with more than 1,300 attorneys across sections working on antitrust, civil rights, criminal, environmental, and healthcare issues.
  2. Create a budget. Honestly evaluate whether you can handle the inevitable pay cut. If financially unworkable, consider firms that represent city attorney offices and public entities.
  3. Decipher the examination and experiential requirements and the job classification structure to see if you can apply and estimate your salary range.
  4. Be prepared for a long transition. Mine was six months from application to starting the job.
  5. Be selective in the colleagues you tell about your search until you receive an offer. I told an associate mentor, those with ongoing connections to where I was applying, and my references. Once I got the offer, my other colleagues were fortunately supportive.

The transition can be confusing, awkward, and long, but job satisfaction is worth it all.

Transitioning from Private Practice to a Clerkship

—Brandi D. Pikes

It’s not too late to consider a clerkship if you did not apply for one as a law student. I did not take the typical path to a clerkship. While many young attorneys start their clerkship immediately after law school, I started my clerkship after acquiring a few years of law firm experience. Clerking provides an opportunity to gain significant practical experience and invaluable mentorship. Consider whether a clerkship—what I consider to be the best job for a litigator—may be right for you, no matter where you are in your practice.

Planting the Seed

The summer before my third year of law school, in 2017, I worked as a summer associate at a BigLaw firm in Columbus, Ohio. My mentor that summer was an associate attorney who had completed two federal district court clerkships. He described clerkships as the “best job in the world.” I became curious as to why former clerks often deem clerking to be such a valuable experience. On the last day of my summer at the firm, my mentor and I met for our final one-on-one meeting. He shared that I would make a great law clerk based on my work ethic and writing abilities, and he encouraged me to apply for a federal clerkship. That final conversation planted the seed that would grow and come to fruition three years later.

After graduating from law school, I began working as an associate attorney at the same firm I summered at in 2017. I practiced in the education industry group focusing on employment law. As a junior attorney, I enhanced my legal skills by conducting research, analyzing case law, and drafting legal memorandums, motions, employment handbooks, and contracts. Significantly, I learned during my time at the firm that many partners heavily relied on associates who previously clerked. After noticing this trend and reflecting on my conversations regarding clerkships with my mentor, I met with several current and former federal law clerks to learn about their clerkship experience. I heard various stories, but they all shared a common theme: Clerkships provide junior attorneys with an invaluable opportunity to be mentored by a judge, gain substantial writing experience, and serve the public. I strive to challenge myself, and I have a passion for serving, so my interest in clerking continued to grow the more I learned about the role.

Pursuing the Clerkship

Ultimately, I decided to put what I learned through my conversations into action. I began pursuing a federal clerkship because of the encouragement from my mentor, my passion for becoming a better writer, and my desire to grow my litigation skills exponentially.

Through hard work, mentorship, and, most importantly, faith, I was able to secure a clerkship as a Black, female, and first-generation attorney. In August 2020, I relocated to Houston to begin a term federal clerkship in the Southern District of Texas. Now that I am clerking, I can attest that clerking is the “best job.” I am in charge daily of overseeing my judge’s docket of civil and criminal matters, conducting legal research, drafting opinions, and meeting with my judge to discuss legal questions. The best parts of my job are the research, writing, public service experience, and the privilege of being mentored by the Honorable Vanessa D. Gilmore. I am learning how to recognize a legal problem, think critically about legal issues, and, as a bonus from my judge, pursue a life worth living.

Although clerking comes with challenges, I am glad I took a break from private practice. It is not too late to make this transition, even if it is not something you considered during law school. I encourage law students and junior attorneys to consider applying for state and federal clerkships. For those who are already contemplating whether a clerkship would benefit your career, I encourage you to:

  • talk to former and current law clerks
  • observe court proceedings
  • research clerkship opportunities and law clerk’s responsibilities
  • watch ABA panels featuring judges and law clerks

Even if you were not at the top of your class or on law review, apply for clerkships. If you have work experience, you can emphasize your practical experience, often softening the impact of lackluster grades.

Yes, clerkships are indeed highly competitive, and the application process can be daunting. However, the benefits of clerking outweigh the time you will spend applying. There is no better place for a litigator to observe trial attorneys, receive consistent feedback, and learn directly from a judge. As a litigator, these experiences have been invaluable. I guarantee if you land a clerkship, you too will learn why clerking is the best legal job ever.

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