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"How to Successfully Transition to Private Practice from an In-House or Government Position"

June 30, 2021

Article by Phil Karter and Mark Lubin on "How to Successfully Transition to Private Practice from an In-House or Government Position"

Legal Intelligencer

Phil Karter, a former Department of Justice tax litigator, and Mark Lubin, a former in-house tax planning and business transactions lawyer, provide their perspectives on how to transition to a law firm and succeed once you get there, and also how the firm can most effectively utilize and market the experience, insights and contacts government and in-house lawyers can bring with them.

What those of us who didn’t pay much attention to Latin class in grade school quickly learned upon entering law school is how indigenous Latin phraseology is to the legal profession. As it turns out, we couldn’t avoid learning some Latin even though we didn't go to medical school. Tossing around a few choice Latin phrases – quantum meruit, amicus curiae, habeas corpus, and of course the unforgettable res ipsa loquitur – were likely enough to persuade our relatives by Thanksgiving break of our 1-L years that we were actually learning something. But one Latin phrase less often utilized in “legalese,” though no less important in the legal profession, is “experientia docet” – experience is the best teacher.

For law firms, experience comes in many forms and can largely be a product of the environment in which a firm trains and mentors its younger lawyers (that and a few grey hairs here and there). But experience that can also prove to be invaluable is experience born of practicing in environments other than a traditional law firm, the two most common being a career as a former government or in-house lawyer. In the modern legal environment, the movement of attorneys into and out of government or in-house positions is substantially more bidirectional than it was historically, when lawyers mostly entered practice after a government stint, or, in the case of in-house positions, moved in the opposite direction. In present day, it is much more common than in the past for a law firm to have its fair share of lawyers with in-house and government experience.

The benefits to a firm that brings on attorneys with those sorts of backgrounds can be significant, not only by adding expertise in specialized practice areas, but also by adding the perspective as to what it’s like to be “the client” or how current government representatives are likely to think and act in a given set of circumstances.

For those contemplating a transition to, or back to, a private sector law firm from the government or a company, particularly a more seasoned lawyer, the most obvious questions are (1) how can I secure a position with a law firm in the first place, and (2) how can I achieve success in the firm once I get there? The questions for the law firm, in turn, often are (1) how can we best utilize this person’s experience and expertise, and (2) how can we market it effectively to the outside world?

The bonds that lawyers coming from in-house positions may still have with former employers and colleagues can enhance or even create new opportunities. It can also set clients and prospective clients at ease to know that “we truly get you and understand the things that matter most to you because we’ve been in your shoes.” For example, lawyers with in-house experience often have great awareness of how particular initiatives may affect various functions throughout a business enterprise, such as risk, finance and regulatory groups. That awareness can be valuable, because it can help resource-constrained clients avoid time and expense of developing “solutions” that, while legally are workable, may not be practical for a particular client or in their industry. That selling point should not be lost on firms considering hiring you, particularly if you come from an industry in which a firm is deeply invested.

A government lawyer who transitions to private practice is likely to have gained substantial hands-on experience early in their career. For example, litigation attorneys who might have waited five to 10 years to chair their first major trial may already have a dozen or more under the belt by the time they leave government service. Planning and transactional lawyers may have written or worked on legislation or regulations that are at the heart of transactions a firm is trying to plan – or they may have insight into governmental policy initiatives still being formulated “behind-the-scenes” that may later affect such transactions. As in the case of an in-house lawyer transitioning to private practice, a government lawyer seeking to do so should be looking for a position that matches the experience gained and the expertise acquired.

Lastly, it is no small thing to bring with you that Rolodex (okay, let’s not show our age too much and call it a contact list instead). Credibility gained in government and in-house practice can be valuable in private practice. In-house lawyers may have close ties to industry groups and collaborative relationships with government officials. Government lawyers may have contacts still in government that can help streamline the process of getting needed guidance or treatment, and their industry contacts can often be developed into valuable clients.

For the lawyer transitioning to (or back to) private practice, one of the best lessons learned is that you can have all the experience in the world, but just as you are trying to figure out how to fit in, your firm also is hopefully trying to figure out how to utilize you most effectively. A collaborative and entrepreneurial mindset can go a long way in this regard. Consider that your new colleagues are really your first “clients” in the sense that you need to educate them about what you bring to the table, both in terms of providing valuable insights to a practice area and helping expand business from new and existing clients.

When all is said and done, what experience teaches is that a well-rounded law firm with a wide array of backgrounds, training and perspectives, including those gained from working as an in-house or government lawyer, is a firm well positioned to attract, retain and skillfully render first-rate services to its clients.

Phil Karter is managing shareholder of the Philadelphia Office of Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Aughtry specializing in tax controversy and litigation. He is a former trial attorney with the Department of Justice Tax Division. He may be reached at pkarter@chamberlainlaw.com.

Mark Lubin is special counsel to the firm specializing in tax planning and complex business transactions. He is a former in-house attorney with several large public companies, including GE, Merrill Lynch and BNY Mellon and may be reached at mlubin@chamberlainlaw.com.

Reprinted with permission from the June 30, 2021, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or reprints@alm.com.  Subscribers can login to see the original article here.