Switching Sides

by | March 10, 2009

  • My Vault
Dear Sang,

I have been practicing in the public service arena for several years. I am burned out on long hours and poverty-level pay. I desperately want to switch practice areas to something like real estate or corporate law. What is the best way to get in since I have no experience in those areas?

Burned Out On Being Broke

Dear Burned Out,

I do feel your pain. It is hard to fight the good fight while watching your buddies bemoan the rising coast of Manolos and the prix fixe menu at Masa. The past two decades have seen an alarming wage gap grow to a chasm; the difference between starting salaries for non-profits and mega-law firms is more than $100,000. The state of affairs borders on obscene when the salary for a newly-minted law school grad, still wet behind the ears, exceeds that of a supervising U.S. Attorney, public defenders and law school professors.

According to the National Association for Law Placement Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report released on September 1st, the median entry-level salary for an attorney at a civil legal services organization is $36,000; an attorney with 11-15 years of experience can expect a salary of $55,000. The median entry-level salary for public defenders is about $43,000; with 11-15 years of experience, the median is $65,000. Without a doubt, those lawyers who dedicate their careers to the public service do so at great sacrifice to their financial well-being.

What many people don't realize is that the disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is every bit as notable when we leave the public sector. I bring up this fact not to torture you, but to focus on state of the market - and how that market might help or hamper your dreams of escaping the paltry pay of public service. The dirty little secret about the private sector is that the vast majority of lawyers in the U.S. practice in law firms of 12 or fewer lawyers, and most make far less than junior associates at large law firms. The median salary for a firm of 1-10 lawyers is under $50,000; for firms of 11-25 lawyers, the median is just a bit higher. The typical small firm salary won't solve your financial woes, so if you're going to get a monetary makeover, we need to look to large law firms for the big payday.

That brings us to another source of cosmic inequity - credentials. Mega-firm associate jobs tend to be the lovely parting gifts for law students graduating from top law schools, or earning top honors at less hallowed institutions. You don't mention where you've spent the past several years in the public service arena, or where you earned your legal sheepskin. Those public interest types who have snagged coveted fellowships, or spots in prestigious impact litigation organizations or top flight government gigs, such as the DOJ or the SEC, have more private market mojo. An Ivy Law grad with sterling credentials is more likely to be given the "benefit of the doubt" when jumping to the private sector. And some public sector jobs are more equal than others when it comes to transferring skills to the law firm arena.

You mention real estate or corporate practice rather than commercial litigation. Is your current public sector job in a transactional area, such as community development, non-profit governance or a similar field? Public sector litigators seem to be more plentiful, and if you are currently in a government position or non-profit job which has given you plenty of trial or investigation experience, you may have an easier time making a single jump - public litigation to commercial litigation, securities or white collar, than a double jump from private to public and litigation to transactional practice.

Without risking copyright violation by asking you about the color of your parachute, I would like to encourage you to do some serious self-assessment and soul-searching before you plunge into a private sector job search. After all, contributing to the public good presumably does provide you with an invaluable sense of professional satisfaction. You don't mention that you dislike your day-to-day responsibilities, just the long hours and low pay. It is not always easy to retain the positive aspects of one's job while eliminating the negative, and we certainly wouldn't want you to capitulate to the Almighty Dollar and sacrifice everything you like about your job.

Make a very detailed review (on paper) of your current duties, how your responsibility has increased since you started, and what specific aspects of your job you like and dislike. Putting compensation aside, what are the environmental factors of your position you'd like to retain - good training and supervision, meaningful mentoring, client contact, opportunity for professional growth? Examine the substance of your formal evaluations and informal feedback to create a snapshot of your skills and the qualities your current employer values in you. All of this will be crucial not only in choosing a future direction, but in creating a resume which will spell out your transferable skills clearly to prospective law firm employers. Realize that starting over will naturally require long hours to get up to speed and prove yourself in a new environment. Since long hours are one source of your unhappiness, recognize that a high-paying law firm job may not mean a change in the time you log at work - certainly not in the short term, and possibly not in the long term.

Spend some time speaking with your law school classmates and friends at large law firms. In spite of the common complaint that "all big law firms are the same," firms in fact differ significantly in work atmosphere, quality of training and mentoring, diversity and growth opportunities. If you are contemplating a move to an entirely new field, be sure to gauge your likes, dislikes and professional strengths and weaknesses against the realities of your chosen specialty. If you are going to be successful in making this jump, you will need to convince a firm to take a chance - to invest considerable effort and expense in retraining you in this new field. No firm will make this leap of faith without a sense that you have made a long-term commitment to the field, to law firm work, and to this firm in particular.

To that end, next you'll need to do your homework. Approaching a law firm with your resume and your tale of public sector woe won't cut it if you haven't taken significant steps to reinvent yourself first. Does your current resume and law school transcript scream public interest? Did you entertain private sector work in law school, with the coursework and summer jobs to match? A transcript with a good number of private sector-type courses (Corporations, Securities Regulation, etc.) goes a long way to supporting your candidacy - particularly if you did well in those courses. You will need to tell a compelling story about your move - not just why you want to leave the public sector (and certainly not just the monetary reasons), but also what is drawing you to private sector work.

Law firms will need to be convinced that you are knowledgeable about their work and have the skills to succeed in that environment. Firm recruiters already know what they can do for you; your resume, cover letter and list of cases or deals must fairly shout "What You Can Do for the Firm." After all, you need to help them get past their initial skepticism in receiving a public interest resume.

Your undergraduate and law school courses and work experience may well be 100% public interest; the public sector market is so much more demanding of prior commitment that this is often the case for successful public interest lawyers. This doesn't mean that your challenge to reinvent yourself for the law firm world is insurmountable, but you will have to demonstrate that your transition is already well underway.

Once you have zeroed in on a law firm practice that is a fit for your existing skills and background, identify every CLE program (on-line programs on services like law.com are convenient and relatively inexpensive), bar association program and other resource in your new field. Your efforts to begin learning the field will demonstrate your commitment - you can put them on your resume or note your efforts to "retool" yourself in your cover letter. The time you spend immersed in the substantive area will also ensure that you really enjoy this new area. Talking to current practitioners in the field - classmates and more senior alumni of your law school - for their advice on the key resources in the area will help you assemble a reading list. Encourage them to challenge you about your choice so that you are well-versed in your transition story and ready to make the case to prospective employers.

If you've come this far and you are ready to launch a job search, your law school career services counselor can be a great source in determining how to put your strategy into action. Depending upon your own particular circumstances, some recruiters may assist you in a private sector search, but you may be better served by conducting your own effort. Approaching law firms through a friend, law school classmate or other contact may be more effective, and law firms may be more receptive to your candidacy if it is not accompanied by the fee of a headhunter.

This process is admittedly not easy, but if your head and your heart (as well as your bank account) are pointing you toward a private sector career, all of the hard work could have outstanding returns. And career satisfaction - that's priceless. Good luck with all of it and please stay in touch.


Do you have a question about your legal career? Click here to email Sang directly.


Sang is the President and Managing Partner of SJL Attorney Search, LLC. Over the years, Sang has placed hundreds of attorneys in the New York metropolitan area with global, national and boutique law firms and has partnered with numerous Fortune 500 corporations, investment banks and technology companies in identifying top talent for in-house legal departments.

Sang has been invited to speak at Stanford Law School, New York University School of Law and New York University's School of Continuing Education and City College of New York. She was a panelist at the 2004 NALP End of Season Series for the session entitled "Dog Eat Dog: The Reality of the New York Legal Market" and has also been featured on panels for NYCRA and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Sang consults for the Office of Career Services at New York University School of Law where she counsels, coaches and prepares law students and alumni for interviews with prospective employers.


Founded in 2003, SJL Attorney Search, LLC is a legal recruitment firm that works closely with law firms and other sophisticated legal employers to identify, recruit and ultimately hire qualified attorneys. Our consultants have successfully placed associates, partners and corporate counsel of varying rank in all practice areas of law, including mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, global finance, real estate, bankruptcy, tax, labor and employment, ERISA, intellectual property and litigation. In an industry that has a reputation for sharp elbows and cutting corners, we hold fast to our core values of integrity, quality, team work and accountability.

We understand the immense value of relationships and so, we have assembled a team of proven relationship builders in the firm. In addition to a research staff that supports our firm's goal to cull and store the best market information, SJL Attorney Search is proud that our consultants include former practicing attorneys with tremendous academic credentials, a former senior law firm administrator, a former law school professor and a former senior marketing executive. Please visit www.sjlsearch.com to learn more about our consultants and our firm.

Filed Under: Job Search

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