For those AUSAs taking the plunge into Biglaw because they orgasm over having a “former federal prosecutor” handling their “white collar” work, my advice is call me when you realize you’re merely reading compliance documents and walking corporate executives over to your old office to give proffers. For now, you can stop reading here.
Leaving government work to “open your own shop” is a unique proposition. If you’re leaving Biglaw, your main concern is not making what you’re making now. If you’re “going solo” right out of law school, you’re worried about making any money at all.
Leaving government service is leaving a guaranteed salary, the precious “benefits,” and if you’ve been there for a good amount of years, a level of comfort not found in small law firms (with the exception of the federal public defenders who have fallen victim to the sequester and deserve better). The main reason people leave government is the perception that there is more money in the private sector. That was mostly true before the economy tanked. Now it’s not so certain, and it’s something you need to consider before cashing out on your accrued vacation and sick time…
The informal rule used to be that you should leave government work in 3-5 years, and I think that’s still correct. Contrary to what you read on the internet, you actually need a few years to learn how to practice law, and then a little more time to become proficient and figure out where you’re going next. If you stay longer than five years, it’s harder to leave, and if you’re looking for a boss, they may not appreciate that you’ve spent nine years not worrying about bringing in any business or billing hours.
The majority of government lawyers I speak to about leaving who have been there more than five years are more concerned about benefits than salary. Small law firms often don’t have the same benefits that the government provided you, nor do small law firms appreciate your laser focus on “the benefits.” If being “comfortable” is the most important thing to you, which normally includes the all-important health insurance, don’t leave.
It makes it easier to leave if you know a few people. If you’re just starting out or are early in your government career, make sure you network. Prosecutor, county attorney, I don’t care — go to Bar events, join a committee, do something with other lawyers or community leaders. Obviously, you have to make sure there are no conflicts and that your office allows this, but too many good government lawyers go into the private sector and then try to develop relationships. It doesn’t work as well.
Speaking of good government lawyers, some of the best tacticians, strategists, and legal minds couldn’t make a buck with some ink and a counterfeit bill maker. There are just lawyers out there that are great at lawyering, and terrible at business, and vice versa. Make sure that leaving government service is not a suicide mission. Being a great lawyer is meaningless if asking for money scares the crap out of you or your personality is one that scares the children.
The most important things to remember for a government lawyer heading to solo or small law practice are that it’s not a 9-5 proposition and that there are no guarantees. And I know, government lawyers get defensive and say, “I work 8-7.” My point is that in a solo practice or small law firm, there are not as many people doing your work for you (preparing documents, scheduling hearings and depositions, making sure there is paper in the copy machine, making sure rent is paid, making sure your computer works, and about 400 other things). You can’t just leave the office and not worry about the practice.
So it’s simple, government lawyer. You love your job? The only pressure to leave is your own? Don’t be so quick to leave. These days, there are experienced and reputable solo and small law firm practitioners out there making less than young government lawyers. Make sure you understand what it’s going to cost you to maintain your life as it is now, or at least at an acceptable level. That insurance policy you pay $100 a month for is now $1,500. We can start there.
People always ask me if I miss the public defender’s office. Every day. I tell them if I were a trust fund baby, I would go back there. I love my practice, but the days of just going to court every day and not working on the business aspect of the practice were my favorite. It was the best job I ever had.
Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.