The job seeker had done (almost) everything right: Graduated with honors from a top law school, clerked for an appellate court, practiced at an “A-List” firm, and then went to a government agency to top off his experience and make him partnership material. Imagine his shock when I advised him that landing a general litigation position in Biglaw now that he was 12 years out of law school would be tough without a book of business. After all, he had seen the “revolving door” in Washington; how could it be shut now, he wondered? I conceded that many attorneys in D.C. do move with ease between government and private practice, but that the ones he read about in the Washington Post were high-level officials who firms know will bring in business. “And I’m just a worker bee,” he acknowledged….
Moving to the government after a few years in Biglaw can “round out” a lawyer’s skill set by providing opportunities – like appearing in court – that are harder to come by as a junior associate working in Biglaw. But, although that additional experience can make an attorney more valuable to Biglaw upon return, there are many considerations to be aware of, including the timing of the government stint, the transferability of the skills, and the relative prestige of the position in government. As Laura Hosid, a former Associate Director of the Office of Career Services at Georgetown University Law Center, sagely advised, a government attorney who ultimately wants to return to a firm “should always be mindful of this goal when making professional choices.”
TIMING: A LATERAL ASSOCIATE’S “BEST BY” DATE
A 10th-year Harvard Law grad once advised me that he planned to remain at DOJ as a general litigator “a while longer” to get more experience. His misconception – that the longer a government attorney remains with the government, the more valuable he or she becomes to a firm – is common. In fact, once an attorney goes into the government, the question of how long to stay and still be attractive to firms is complicated and can vary dramatically depending on the area of law. The decision requires a delicate balance between gaining the desired experience and an associate’s “expiration date.” Someone more than seven years out of law school could find returning difficult, because firms usually require a three-year “look” before considering an attorney for partnership. As Lateral Link senior director Tricia McGrath explained previously on Above the Law, “You want to ensure that you have enough time to become well-known and well-regarded both within your practice group and the firm. You’ll need to demonstrate that you’ll be a positive addition to the business of the law firm, and that you’ll be able to contribute in significantly beneficial ways.”
But coming out of the government as a sixth- or seventh-year is no longer necessarily career ending, Lateral Link principal Larry Latourette noted, because the partnership track is now closer to nine years.
So, what is the model timeline for a Biglaw associate hoping to do a stint with the federal government? In the past, that meant that two or three years at Biglaw, then three or four years in the government, before heading back to Biglaw. But Hosid (who’s now a career coach at Vinik EPS) cautioned, “you can’t wait until you are ready to leave Biglaw to start” applying to the government. The hiring process is even slower than most people expect, and “[b]etween hiring freezes, background checks, and the bureaucratic nature of the government interview process,” she noted, “it could take up to a year or more.”
TRANSFERABILITY OF THE SKILLS
What’s more, as one DOJ trial attorney who handled immigration litigation and Guantanamo Bay habeas corpus cases learned, not all government experience is valuable to the private sector; the transferability of the skills, experience, and expertise must be considered. Hosid said that trial experience positions have the most universal appeal to firms but that “even some trial attorney positions will be limited to specific non-Article III courts or narrow subject matter, or will focus on criminal matters with little direct Biglaw applicability beyond white collar defense.” That was the case for one Assistant U.S. Attorney, who needed to recast himself as a white-collar litigator after prosecuting hundreds of major felonies and taking dozens of criminal cases to trial. But some niche practices that require specialized knowledge – such as government contracts and certain regulatory work – can be very marketable to Biglaw. For example, one trend among the “aspiring appellate elite,” Above the Law previously reported, is to leave DC for positions elsewhere as state solicitor generals with plans to ultimately return to private practice after accruing experience in front of appellate panels.
RELATIVE PRESTIGE OF THE POSITION
An attorney who spends more than eight years in the government “better be really good” to expect to return to Biglaw, Latourette cautioned. But even if a government attorney becomes an expert in a niche area, Hosid warned, they often join a firm as counsel rather than as partner.
A government attorney can take steps to best position himself to return to Biglaw, however, by establishing and maintaining the relationships (within the confines of conflict limitations) that will make developing business possible after rejoining a firm. What can a government attorney do?
Of course there have been exceptions… a government attorney who stayed too long but still managed to snag a plum position in private practice. Because, as the saying goes, “Whoever said nothing’s impossible never tried to slam a revolving door.” Still, it’s easier if you know how the door works.