Making a Career Change: Choosing Public Service
wo years ago, I made a career change. I left the AmLaw 250 firm (my second) where I had practiced for two-and-a-half years to begin working in the Appellate Division for Colorado’s State Public Defender. Six years into my legal career, I transitioned into an entirely new practice area, working for clients who were the polar opposite of those I represented in private practice, and for an organization with a limited budget and no profit motive. To do this, I took a pay cut of more than 60 percent. Why would I do such a thing?
There were one or two elements of big firm civil practice I did not mind leaving behind, but my stronger motivations for a career change were the positives of my new public service station. Many of the attractions of my current job are common to any public service position. Anyone contemplating public service, whether for a limited time or lifelong career, right out of law school or contemplating a midstream career change, may wish to consider these reasons to take the public service plunge.
Mission. Public service organizations are missionary. They seek to do right in the world and their members believe they are pursuing righteous and moral goals. At the public defender’s office, for instance, we pride ourselves in representing those without financial resources or anyone else to speak up for their rights.
Public servants put doing social good ahead of doing well financially. This in turn invests the members of public service organizations with individual purpose and collective camaraderie that is rare in private practice—or most any workplace.
Experience and Autonomy. Although not true in every case, more often than not public service jobs provide more opportunities to gain advanced experience and greater autonomy in handling projects. Public service attorneys get more hands-on experience—more client contact, more court time, more access to decision makers, and more opportunities to make key decisions.
With this, of course, comes great responsibility. At the public defender’s office, limited human and financial resources combined with large caseloads (factors that intensified with the recession) require that attorneys take on a great deal of responsibility from day one.
People and Work Environment. Public service jobs tend to unite like-minded people with a common goal. There’s nothing like working among common minded co-workers, individuals who have chosen their field for reasons central to who they are as people, not for external reward. The camaraderie is organic, not a false product of marketing or peer pressure.
It takes little convincing to bring together a group of people with similar, yet personal motivations. By contrast, private industry jobs tend to unite by the single factor of financial incentive. Although compelling, it does not create bonds among people.
Conscience. Strange as it may seem, soothing one’s conscience may be the most selfish reason to go into public service. Be the person you want to be and self-respect follows. To be sure, letting your conscience be your guide is generally good social policy, but it’s also a distinctly personal pleasure to engage your social conscience and consciousness every day through your vocation.
The Hours. As a general rule of thumb, people in public service took their jobs for reasons other than money or ambition. These folks tend to have more balanced and holistic outlooks on the role of career in one’s life and the proper allocation of time to work, community, family, friends, and leisure.
That said, there may not be a strictly 40-hour-per-week attorney job anywhere. While many public service jobs are governmental (and many nonprofits mirror government practices and hours), the bureaucratic nine-to-fiver model usually doesn’t apply to attorney jobs.
For one thing, many public service jobs involve regular trial practice, which, due to its intense nature, will always involve long hours. Other public service positions sometimes require extra hours to compensate for limited resources or short staffing. The fluid and interpretive nature of law means that legal jobs combining responsibility and intellectual challenge are never truly finished. Inevitably, there will be a few nights and weekends. When you are passionate about your work, these rarely seem like a sacrifice.
All of that said, public service professions tend to focus on productivity and efficiency—getting the job done—not facetime or long hours. There is no advantage in putting in more time than necessary to do the job well. Peers and supervisors respect you for your acumen, not your willingness to work nights and weekends.
I made my own move for all of these reasons, as well as some unique to joining the public defender. Some of you reading this may be contemplating a career change of your own but may not know where you want to work. I cannot speak to the specifics of land conservation or counseling charitable organizations, but I can tell you from an insider’s perspective why the State Public Defender is a great place to work and what kind of motivations would lead one there.
Regardless of specific inclinations, all attorneys should consider public service. The rewards are deep and lasting, and the challenges only make the job more worthwhile. D
James Hardy welcomes your questions and comments about transitioning to public service work. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.