A stint in public service is attractive to many lawyers. Government practice enables attorneys to improve public policy and promote justice, contributing directly to our collective well-being. But for many attorneys, government practice will be just one phase of a longer, multifaceted career.
After their time in government, lawyers frequently transition to private practice. For some, this represents a homecoming—many attorneys simply return to the firm for which they worked prior to entering government. Others are new entrants to private practice, drawn by the challenge of applying their government knowledge in a new context and by the lure of a substantial increase in compensation.
For a government attorney seeking to make this transition, the range and quality of available private practice roles will depend on several factors. Realistically, not everyone is competitive for law firm partnership, especially at the most prestigious firms. A former equity partner who left her law firm for a stint in a high-profile government post is in a different situation from a career government attorney whose expertise is not aligned with a hot law firm practice area.
Firms value seniority, expertise, and a business development track record
Whether partnership is a realistic aspiration for a departing government lawyer typically depends on three factors: seniority, nature of expertise, and history in private practice.
High-level government leaders tend to be strong partnership candidates, even if they have no prior law firm experience. The lawyers in this category are often political appointees. Examples include:
Some government lawyers who are not in top leadership posts are nevertheless competitive for partnership on the basis of specialized and valuable expertise. A Senior Counsel with deep knowledge of a hot regulatory area such as privacy, cybersecurity, or international trade has a shot at becoming a partner. On the litigation side, partnership is realistic for attorneys with a proven track record of high-profile trial advocacy. An association with an elite group such as the Mueller Special Counsel team is ideal, but even other AUSAs who have accumulated substantial first-chair trial experience can have a solid shot at partnership.
When law firms assess the suitability of a government lawyer for partnership, one critical question is how successful the candidate will be in generating revenue for the firm. Service in a high-profile government role and/or expertise in a high-demand regulatory area will assist in marketing to potential clients. But the most reliable predictor of business development ability is having done it before. A government lawyer with prior experience as a law firm partner will therefore have a considerable advantage. Candidates with partnership experience are especially desirable if they have taken care to maintain relationships with their former private practice clients, as this is a strong signal of capacity to ramp up a book of business quickly.
Although the majority of lawyers who make the transition from government to AmLaw partner fit into one of the above categories, there are occasional exceptions. For example, a former agency attorney (GS-15) became a partner at a firm thanks in part to her former supervisor, who had sufficient business and clout at the new firm to push for the title. In this instance, it was particularly critical for the attorney to work with a recruiter to craft an effective business plan and to prepare for interviews. That preparation enabled her to make the business case to each interviewer she met, regardless of their practice area and location.
Equity or non-equity?
Experience as a law firm partner will be weighed heavily in the decision to offer equity partnership versus non-equity partnership. It is rare (but not unheard of) for all but the highest-ranking government lawyers who lack a business development track record to get offers for equity at the outset. Conversely, a former equity partner can reliably expect equity partnership offers, particularly where the partner is not seeking to ascend the AmLaw ranks significantly. (A candidate who was an equity partner at a small law firm may not be competitive for equity offers at top AmLaw firms.)
For former non-equity partners, a stint in government can be the perfect springboard to equity partnership. Candidates exiting government roles sometimes mention their non-equity status at their former law firm as the main factor motivating them to seek partnership opportunities at other firms.
What about more typical government lawyers?
For government lawyers who do not fit into the rarified categories described above, but are nevertheless committing to becoming a partner, there is still hope. It may be advisable to pursue opportunities at smaller or less prestigious firms, remembering that the first destination post-government need not be the last. Sometimes, an interim move to a lower-ranked firm can enable a candidate to lay the foundation for a second move in three or so years to join a stronger firm. Flexibility and strategic planning are especially important for lawyers in this situation.