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4 Ways To Break Into White-Collar Criminal Defense Work

Ed. note: Matt Kaiser founded The Kaiser Law Firm PLLC, a white-collar boutique in Washington, D.C., and will now be writing a weekly column for us about white-collar practice and his adventures in building a law firm. Matt previously covered the Supreme Court for us. This is the second installment of his new column.

Suppose you’re a fourth-year associate in a litigation department in a large firm on one of the coasts. You’ve worked on a lot of different matters — you’ve done document review for commercial litigation. You put together a privilege log for some patent litigation (who says patent litigation is specialized?). You waded through documents in an FCPA case. You even got to do some deposition digesting for a reinsurance lawsuit!

You really liked your work on the FCPA document review. You noticed that the documents related to a foreign country, which sounded exotic. You could sit in your office, staring at the brick wall on the other side of the alley, and imagine that you were an extra in Casablanca, with a view toward how the world really works overseas.

Perhaps most importantly, you loved how your friends from law school reacted when you told them you were working on an FCPA matter. Cocktail parties became more interesting when people thought of you as a white-collar criminal defense lawyer, rather than the reinsurance guy. You resolved that you’d do more white-collar work and perhaps make this noble practice area the focus of your career.

But how?

I spend more time than I should having coffee with relatively new lawyers who are trying to break into the white-collar world. Here, in one handy column, is what I tell people. There are, of course, a number of ways to make a career. Below is a survey of the four most common ways to do it as a white-collar defense attorney:

1. Be an AUSA or other kind of federal prosecutor. By far the most popular route to the white-collar defense world is through a United States Attorney’s office or the Department of Justice. Reid Weingarten is a rock star in the white-collar world; it’s no surprise he started at DOJ’s Public Integrity section. Getting one of these jobs is like getting a federal clerkship; it’s a way to laminate an already great résumé; it adds value and preserves what you’ve already done.

More than that, you forge strong bonds with all the other folks in your office while you’re doing your government service. Odds are they’ll be out in the private sector before too long as well. It’s a good way to get a quick network of folks to send you work.

A cousin of this idea is to do some other kind of government service. Spending time at the SEC or another agency with white-collar cred can be a good way to start down the white-collar road.

But government service on the prosecution side is the standard way to break in. At my firm, we’re bringing a partner in next month who is a former AUSA.

2. Be an Assistant Federal Public Defender. Especially if you’d like to be the kind of lawyer who actually represents actual people in an actual court proceeding, being an AFPD is a great way to learn federal court criminal defense — and federal court is where most of the white-collar action is. I cut my teeth in a Federal Public Defender’s office. There’s no other job where you get (a) the client skills an AUSA doesn’t have cause to develop and (b) a similar amount of court time. Plus, unless you’re a really bad lawyer, you aren’t contributing to our massive prison overpopulation problem (unlike federal prosecutors).

AFPD work is often really hard, and these jobs aren’t easy to get. Many of the federal defender offices demand credentials as elite as a U.S. Attorney’s office, plus you have to demonstrate that you’re committed to the work. And there isn’t a lot of turnover in these jobs, making them really hard to get. I’ve heard rumors of folks who were encouraged to apply for a Supreme Court clerkship (by someone with enough juice to make that meaningful) pass up a chance at clerking on the high court because an AFPD slot opened up.

Still, these are great jobs.

3. Work your way up through Biglaw. There are some large law firms that do a lot of white-collar work. Breaking in this way is no different than working your way up with a partner in any other practice group. Be nice. Do good work. Turn it around quickly and reliably. Bill a lot. Etc. And, even if you don’t become the favored associate of Hank Asbill, working in a Biglaw shop that is known to do good work is a great way to meet folks in this community and learn what you’re doing. A lot of this work isn’t obvious. Having some training is really useful in making sure you don’t mess up.

I started at a large firm and learned a ton. My partner started at the same large firm. It’s a really good way to make sure you know how to practice law.

4. Start representing people accused of general crimes, get a great reputation, then get more focused. It feels like this may have been more common a generation ago, but it used to be that the way you became a really good white-collar criminal defense lawyer was to become a really good criminal defense lawyer, then the white-collar folks came to find you. There are still some lawyers following this model.

It’s not likely to wow your first-tier law school classmates right off the jump, but it would probably be a lot more fun than continuing to do the reinsurance deposition digesting.

My sense, from a long series of coffees, is that this is probably not terribly encouraging for a lot of folks. This column may read a little like Marie Antoinette giving advice on the best way to eat cake.  If you, for example, have taken to Craigslist to see if you can just get an f**king job already, you probably aren’t also going to be super-competitive for a starter job in the white-collar world. Most U.S. Attorney’s offices or white-collar shops don’t advertise on Craigslist. (But there is this ad!)

But you’ve got to start somewhere. There’s always hanging out a shingle, working really freaking hard, and learning how to be a lawyer. It sucks that law school didn’t teach you how to do that. It sucks that you won’t have any guaranteed cash. And it sucks that the life you expected when you started law school isn’t coming to you.

But, dude, there are a ton of people in the world who need a lawyer who can pay something. Yeah, paying your student loans off will be hard for a while, but it’s hard right now. Your law license gives you the ability to take someone else’s problems, make them your own, and build something. If, like Craigslist Man, you’re “willing to work 180 hours a week on the stupidest, most pointless s**t,” you’re already part way toward having what it takes to build a career.

At least hanging a shingle has a higher likelihood of success than posting profanity-laden rants on Craigslist.

Earlier: What Is ‘White-Collar Criminal Defense’?
This Craigslist Post Expresses The Rage Of A Lost Generation Of Lawyers Through Genius and F-Bombs


Matt Kaiser is a partner at The Kaiser Law Firm PLLC, a boutique litigation firm in Washington DC, which handles government investigations, white-collar criminal cases, federal criminal appeals, and complex civil litigation. You can reach him by email at mattkaiser@thekaiserlawfirm, and you can follow him on Twitter: @mattkaiser.

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