Freelance, corporate or public sector? Choosing a legal career can be a daunting turning point in your life. Below Ken Cutshaw, President and CEO of GCG, talks to Lawyer Monthly about how law students and young practitioners can break into the government sector and beyond.
The traditional legal career path, whereby a law student graduates, joins a law firm and litigates his way from associate to senior partner, is not for everyone. Thankfully, today’s global and connected economy presents many avenues for young lawyers to leverage their law degrees outside the traditional law firm environment.
One such avenue is the government sector, which has law students clambering to break through, courtesy of the international political climate.
The American Bar Association asserts that government and public lawyers make up one-eighth of the legal profession. If that career path rings slightly too conventional, consider the countless government sector alternatives to which individuals with law degrees are given priority: politician, legislative director, compliance advisor, lobbyist, and FBI analyst, to name a few.
Breaking into the government sector can be challenging and is seldom achieved without a unique combination of grit, foresight and perseverance. Law students and young practitioners who think a career within the government could be a fit should consider the following, which will help them break through the barriers that exist at nearly all points of entry.
Know who you are. First, one must understand the nature of government and its bureaucratic operating structure and recognize whether he or she is capable of functioning within its boundaries. There are certain personality traits that enable individuals to thrive within the confines of a strict, formal hierarchy. By and large, successful legal professionals working in government are comfortable taking direction, able to accept authority (sometimes without question), deferential when warranted and possess a fair amount of professional confidence. These qualities provide the foundation on which a successful career in the government sector may be built.
Find a mentor. A mentor’s guidance is among the most tangible resources for young lawyers, both those breaking into the government sector and those weighing whether it is a good fit. Trusted mentors will share their unfiltered assessments of the field and its players, provide guidance through arduous professional situations, and may open the doors to future career opportunities. If you are unsure where to start, check with your university; most have programs that connect students and recent graduates with alumni mentors in specific fields. Search for 2-3 mentors working in the government sector, introduce yourself, and invite them for coffee. Approach these conversations as you would a job interview – professionally and with the objective of creating a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship. Once you find someone with whom you share a good rapport, cultivate that relationship by keeping in touch and looking for ways to demonstrate your appreciation for their time.
Join a campaign. Whether you plan to pursue a political career or not, hands-on experience within a political campaign will prove invaluable from both educational and networking perspectives. The government sector and the politicians who comprise it are linked inextricably; an intimate knowledge of politicians and their campaigns will beget a more holistic understanding of the government and how it functions. Start by volunteering for a local campaign – a city council or state senate race will welcome additional boots on the ground. Then, leverage your time in the campaign environment by asking questions, building your network of driven professionals, and weighing whether this could be a viable career path. This type of grassroots approach will strengthen your knowledge base and, ultimately, enhance your marketability.
Serve the community. The civic nature of government service requires a different type of resume than a more traditional legal career. While law firm and judicial internships will always be impressive, spending time in community service can provide measurable benefits, both for those hoping to break into the government sector and for the communities they serve. It is important for those in elected positions – and the people in their employ – to demonstrate to their constituents a commitment to public service, to furthering and improving the lives of those less fortunate, not just in word but in practice. Activism can take many forms, such as volunteering for a local cause or penning an op-ed about a policy proposal with local impact. In short, always be on the lookout for ways to get involved, to give back, and to make a positive difference.
Legal professionals situated at all levels of government are invited to play a central role in decision-making of the highest civic importance. They influence policy, interact with and advise world leaders, and make recommendations to preserve the constitution and the citizens’ rights it protects. A career in government is, without question, an exhilarating professional pursuit, and taking these steps will help ensure the doors are open to you when the time comes to step through them.