Working at the SEC as a Corporate Attorney
As a staff attorney, most of your time is split between your phone and your computer. You draft and issue comment letters, which critique the offering materials companies supply to you. You write no-action letters to those companies and internal memos describing your decisions. Once a week, you attend commission meetings. Every time new rules are adopted, you print them out and study them so you will be prepared to answer questions that come in. "The connections you can make here are amazing," raves one SEC attorney. "I know senior partners and corporation executives all over the country. I think that when I move to the private sector, I'll have a better shot at being a partner, because I already have a reputation for competence with the decision-makers."
There is a potential drawback for those hoping to change direction after starting their careers at the agency. A corporate attorney working for the government might not get much training or experience in basic lawyerly skills such as negotiating and drafting. One SEC lawyer with several years of experience plans to move to a law firm to obtain this experience and training and open up her career options. "I've had offers to go in-house," she says, "but I don't think it would be a good idea to take them without law firm experience." Moreover, moving up in the SEC takes a long time, and many lawyers move back into law firms before transitioning to the private sector. "Even if you want to move higher up in the government or work for a broker-dealer," she says, "law firm training is important."
How can you know if a job at the SEC is right for you?
"Before taking a job at the SEC, you should think about how well you do in terms of telephone interaction versus face-to-face interaction," suggests an SEC veteran. "My work involves phone consultations and documentation of those phone consultations," she says. "In four years, I've had two in-person meetings." A job at the SEC is also extremely accounting-intensive. "You have to read and evaluate financial statements from the very beginning," says the SEC staff attorney. "It's really smart to have a working knowledge of accounting before you get here. Our formal training program is weak: we hear lectures once a week for four months. These lectures are so broad, it's difficult to apply the information to anything you're working on." Not that private-sector lawyers necessarily know their accounting principles any better. "Law firm associates don't know how to spot accounting issues," she reports. "They miss them all the time."
On a day-to-day basis, your colleagues in a government agency can be very friendly and are probably less cut-throat than those at a large law firm. But, as with any job situation, there are politics to assess and certain codes of behavior to follow. At a law firm you might be able to avoid a partner you don't get along with. At the SEC, the staff attorney notes, "here there's a clear hierarchy. Your superior is your superior, and your colleagues are your colleagues. There's a high premium placed on getting along with other people. You have to make sure everyone likes you if you want to advance. In a law firm, people will tolerate a talented, hard-working jerk. At the SEC," says the staff lawyer, "such a person won't get fired, but he won't advance either. If you're coming in as a lateral, be careful not to insult the lawyers who started their careers in government. Those lawyers haven't done the transactions they are regulating. Many of them have an inferiority complex about it."