As a recruiter who focuses on helping government attorneys make the move from government to law firms, I regularly receive questions about the ideal time for government attorneys to make a lateral transition. The cloud of economic uncertainty in 2023 has fed rumors that some firms are now less likely to hire government attorneys than in years past. Potential candidates for a transition to private practice may be hearing that this is the wrong time for a government attorney to start a lateral search. But that is not at all in keeping with my experience—either in 2023, or in the third year of previous administrations.
Year three of an administration is actually a great time to launch a lateral move to private practice. Here’s why:
You have real—and scarce—value to offer
Historically, the third year of a presidential term is a particularly strategic time to make the jump to private practice. Why? Year three is a sweet spot between depth of insight gained and opportunity to apply that insight for immediate client impact. Plus, leaving before most of your colleagues do will place you in the strongest competitive position.
Attorneys who have worked with the current administration—both political appointees and career officials—have helped shape recent policy changes. Their government service has given them a nuanced understanding of agency priorities and the application of evolving regulations. Clients are eager for guidance from attorneys with this profile because they face a moment of exceptional uncertainty and, perhaps, jeopardy. New rules have been adopted, but there remains a paucity of cases applying them.
As a recent government attorney with insight into what to expect, you have a unique opportunity to help companies chart the right course. This is especially true in the most innovative sectors of the economy, where there is little regulatory track record from which to draw inferences. You are exceptionally well positioned to help companies develop effective compliance programs, evaluate the need for internal investigations, and successfully navigate a new regulatory landscape.
Note that if you wait until closer to the potential end of an administration, this value may decline. By then, companies will have more of a track record to consider, and although they will still wish to consult recent insiders, the sense of urgency may have diminished. Moreover, a large number of attorneys start lateral searches in year four of an administration, creating more competition. Given those dynamics, it should come as no surprise that candidates who have moved in year three have attained better outcomes (more prestigious firms, higher guaranteed compensation), relative to their peers who waited longer.
Don’t preemptively count yourself out
Candidates who entered government early in a presidential term might fear that they won’t be marketable this soon. Such concerns may be particularly acute in this administration, where a sizable number of Senate-confirmed appointees faced delays in the process. Many appointees have not yet been in their roles for a full two years.
Even if you find yourself in that situation, don’t let it dissuade you from starting a search. The dynamics described above still apply. Sure, it would be ideal if you had been confirmed on day one and brought two full years to the table. But in a market with limited supply, firms are not going to exclude candidates with shorter tenures. What matters most is the insight you bring, not the number of years you’ve logged.
Some government attorneys also have concerns that their lack of experience in private practice may prevent them from moving to a firm. It’s true that the transition from government attorney to law firm partner is often easier for those who already have experience as a law firm partner. But it should be noted that not every successful candidate has that background. Firms frequently interview government officials who, despite their lack of law firm experience, can present a credible business plan. As you might imagine, candidates in this category tend to benefit greatly from working with an experienced recruiter who has the judgment to help sharpen their business case.
Know what to expect
Even though the market dynamics are currently favorable, preparation remains essential. A strong recruiter will help you develop answers to the most common questions that firms ask candidates seeking to transition from government. For example, firms may probe the sincerity of your interest in private practice, your comfort with “switching sides,” your aptitude for business development, and the substance of the practice you expect to build.
If you are a government attorney with questions about making a lateral move to private practice, let’s connect. We can work together to find the best platform for you.
Amy Savage is the Chair of the Government Transitions Group at Lateral Link, where she focuses on helping current and former government attorneys make lateral moves to law firms.