For many law students, there is a point during the final year of their studies that they find themselves presented with a monumental decision: whether to pursue a career in the governmental or public service sector, or attempt to break into private practice law firms. Student Lawyer magazine has gone in depth on how to break into public interest law. Again, this choice isn’t necessarily a part of every student’s journey, as many have either had the choice made on their behalf (in the form of an enticing offer that couldn’t be refused), or have maintained the same career goal since starting their legal education. But, for others, it is a very real (and very difficult) choice.
There are a lot of factors that go into a choice between working in the public sector or in private firms. The chief among them is, most obviously, the difference in pay. It is no secret that governmental attorneys earn less than most private attorneys.
An attorney working for the government (Assistant Attorneys General, Assistant District or State Attorneys, Assistant Public Defenders, and municipal lawyers, for example) probably isn’t spending a large portion of their morning deciding whether to drive their Porsche or their BMW on a given day. Yet, they do generally make a comfortable salary that is even more reasonable when you take into account the fact that this person probably values certain things more than their income, which is a fine quality.
The difference in pay is the focus of any article that discusses life as a public lawyer versus life as a private lawyer. There are factors of equal and greater import, however, that deserve some discussion. They include the desire for competency, the particularity of practice, and the quality of life.
Desire for competency
Many law students graduate law school feeling unprepared for practice. Honestly, this is because most law schools don’t really prepare you for practice, absent taking it upon yourself to work and intern during school. It is natural, then, for a third-year student to decide that they need some serious experience to gain true competency in practice, for the benefit of their future clients, their personal reputation, and potentially for the health of their bar license.
Working in the government sector can be the single best place to achieve competency. An assistant district/state attorney or assistant public defender, for example, will experience so many jury and bench trials that it will become second nature – all within their first year of practice. The resources at their disposal are immense, and the guidance they receive for supervising lawyers is often more than enough to speed along their competency in practice.
Private firms may also offer great resources and competency-based learning objectives within their firm policies, depending on size. Private firms may not have the amount of work in certain areas that would allow for first or second year associates to dive right into the “fun stuff.” The bills will need to be paid, and the billable hours are going to pay them. Unfortunately, many fresh associates will be required to spend a bulk of their time under the restraints of these billable hours.
Particularity of practice
Another consideration is realizing how particular your desired practice area is, and where you will best receive that type of experience.
For example, if a student has the choice of working for the city attorney’s office and working in a mid-sized firm handling construction law, the choice could present few hidden benefits and dangers. If their desired practice is general in nature, both options would expose a new lawyer to similar experiences, with one option offering more experience in perhaps a broader range of issues that include a lot of construction law, while the other option offers a more niche-practice exposure but adds the benefit of private client intake and counseling exposure.
Another graduate may decide that their intended area of specialty is appellate work, and might be faced with choosing between the Attorney General’s office of their state, and a large, private firm that handles appeals in-house when they arise. For this person, the difference in pay may be greatly outweighed by the fact that their governmental option allows them to practice exclusively appellate law, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week (figuratively), while their private firm option may only deal with a small percentage of appeals and require the associate to assist with other matters most of the time. This could greatly slow down the rate at which that person becomes skilled, or even specializes in, appellate work (with that being the goal, for example).
Quality of life
Last and certainly not least, is the importance of quality of life. There are plenty of firms in the private sector that increasingly emphasize the importance of “work-life balance” in their firm culture, but it can be very tough for a private firm, small or large, to compete with a public-sector agency that provides a great deal of government-mandated paid time off, holidays, and sick leave. Not to mention the regularity of nine-to-five work hours and regular Saturday-Sunday weekends (for the most part) make it pretty possible to keep up with non-lawyer friends and family members’ schedules.
Many law students might fail to realize that a private firm might mean you can afford a European getaway, it may come at the cost of availability to actually take one. A public sector job may not arm you with enough in your travel budget to spend a few weeks in Europe as often you’d like, but when your budget goals are met, you might actually be able to take that time off without anyone batting an eyelash.
The most detrimental thing to a law career can very often be burnout itself, and many associates that strive for the partner-track offer at a large firm realize they will begin to burn out far too prematurely. While the work of an attorney in the public sector is certainly just as demanding, and often more hectic, the added benefit is the serenity of not falling victim to the billable hour schematic.
Spending more time to hone your craft and develop your lawyering skills early in your career is more possible when you’re not under the pressure of the billable hour schematic. This, alone, could be reason enough for many graduating law students to opt for a public sector gig and take time to “enjoy the journey” before they make a transition into private practice (as a majority ultimately do), when they are no longer green-horns but, rather, seasoned veterans of the legal profession armed with an accurate understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and a valuation of where their skills stand at that moment in time.