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How to Make the Move From Government to Private Sector Practice

Dec. 15, 2021, 9:00 AM

Government lawyers enjoy great perks—generous benefits, better job security, more predictable hours, and the intangible benefits that come with serving their country. But if and when the time comes to move to private practice, it is important to be strategic about your move.

We typically see a higher level of interest in leaving during administration changes. This is a natural time for job evolution, as new administrations tend to want their “own” people and government lawyers may find themselves less aligned with a change in political philosophy.

What Are Your Options After Government Service?

Lawyers departing government service have several options:

Law Firms: Government lawyers, especially those in prominent roles or those with deep substantive experience, can be very attractive to law firms, provided they can demonstrate that their skills can effectively translate to the private sector. Firms typically look for deep substantive expertise, strong networks, and marquee names.

In-House for a Private Company: For many, an in-house job is the holy grail. But this type of transition is a challenging one. Most companies are looking for lawyers with well-honed leadership skills, experience managing large teams, and high emotional intelligence. Successful candidates must also have deep substantive experience that fills a strategic need.

Non-Profit or Trade Association: While these jobs can be personally gratifying, the compensation is typically lower. Lawyers interested in these jobs need strong specific industry expertise and a well honed network of contacts.

Academia: These roles include positions as a tenure-track or non-tenure track professor, or as a lawyer in a university legal department.

Planning Your Departure

Making a smooth exit from government service is critical. Think of your timing and your departure process as part of your brand. You do not want to hurt your brand or impair valuable relationships as you walk out the door.

Be realistic about the length of the search process. In-house searches can take up to 12 months, while a law firm search can typically take anywhere from three to six months. When you start your search will affect its duration. The hiring process tends to be reflective of the school calendar—when school is out, things slow down.

Finally, consider sharing your intention to leave only with those who need to know. They include your ethics officer, key colleagues and supervisors, and your references.

You should touch base with your department’s ethics officer as early on in the process as possible. Make sure you understand the rules surrounding the departure process.

With respect to colleagues and supervisors, plan for the worst. We have seen candidates outed during their search process by former members of their department or agency who received their resume. While this scenario is the exception and not the rule, it’s good to be prepared and notify your key colleagues or supervisors in advance.

Line up your references long before you make your exit. Your references should include supervisors, peers, and subordinates. Even if you don’t plan to ask for a reference until you have an offer in hand, make sure you know exactly whom you will contact.

References should be people you trust who are able to speak knowingly about your work product and interpersonal skills. More is not necessarily better; focus instead on lining up just a few top-notch references.

References also should be fairly recent. Do not use a reference from a decade ago, as that person cannot provide meaningful insight about your current abilities or your current legal, substantive, interpersonal, or leadership skills.

Starting Your Job Search

There are two primary ways to leave government service.

The first way is to work with a recruiter while remaining in your position.

If you’re making the move to a law firm, it’s critical that you choose only one recruiter to represent you. If you have multiple recruiters reaching out to multiple firms on your behalf, you’re going to lose track of who has submitted your resume to where. And if you use more than one recruiter, you’ll lose a key benefit of working with an expert, which is their unbiased opinion.

Also, for ethics reasons, a recruiter can help facilitate blind introductions where you are unable to do so directly because of potential conflicts of interest.

If you are eyeing in-house roles, however, you should connect with multiple recruiting firms. Each firm will have different jobs available, so this is the best way to maximize your opportunities. Be open to various positions and geographies. The more open you are, the more opportunities you will have.

The second way to leave is to separate from your government position before looking for a new role. This method typically eliminates most potential conflicts-of-interest concerns.

Although these attorneys will likely have multiple opportunities, but working with one experienced recruiter will not only streamline the process, but also ensure they maximize their compensation.

Crafting a Compelling Resume

If you’re making the move to a law firm, focus on names, dates, and the types of projects you have handled. Don’t worry about length—firms will be eager to see a detailed list of the specific matters you have worked on.

You may also be asked to provide a business plan, especially if you’re seeking a senior-level role. Firms want to understand how you plan to convert your years of experience into a thriving practice. Your recruiter can help craft a business plan that showcases your value and increases your chances of a successful search.

If you’re making the move in-house, don’t just list tasks you’ve accomplished. Highlight your leadership skills, describe processes you’ve put in place, and explain how you can benefit an executive team. You want to show you’re a leader, versus a doer.

Leaving government service is an exciting proposition, but the departure process varies greatly depending on what you’re looking to do. Whichever path you choose, working with a recruiter can greatly enhance your chances of success.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Jeffrey Lowe is the global practice leader for the law firm practice group at Major, Lindsey & Africa. He is managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office.

Deborah Ben-Canaan is a partner and senior practice leader for the in-house recruiting group at Major, Lindsey & Africa.

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