A Stranger in a Strange Land: Taking the Leap from Small Firm to Government Attorney

A Stranger in a Strange Land: Taking the Leap from Small Firm to Government AttorneyThis week we welcome back guest writer Mark Livingston to talk about making the move from practicing law at a small firm to becoming a government attorney.

I was a later-in-life entrant to law school. At 40 years old, I had already built a strong resume and worked in many good jobs, mostly in the public sector, when I started law school. I never set out to work for the government, per se, it just turned out that way. Fast forward many years and many satisfying government jobs at both the state and local levels, and I, unlike most of my law school colleagues, anticipated working for the government after passing the bar exam. I sought out and secured clerkships at the state and local levels while in law school, and even did two semesters at a county prosecutor’s office. Unfortunately, you may not have as many options, post bar exam, as you would have hoped for, and you may land in a totally different place than you expected. This is the story of making the transition from a small family law firm to a job as a government attorney.

What Are Billable Hours?

My first job after taking the bar exam (even before my results) was with a family law sole practitioner interested in expanding the firm. I had spent one semester working at a family law firm in law school, but the firm wasn’t a great fit, so I never really thought of that as an option after law school. One of the biggest shifts in my perspective that I experienced was billable hours. The idea of billing in six-minute increments was so far out of my scope of experience that it took weeks, maybe longer, to adjust to the concept. Truth be told, I probably under billed my clients right up to my last day in the private sector. Once I made the transition to government employment, the emphasis was less on billing for every activity, and more towards being good stewards of the taxpayer dollar. Working for the government is a lot like doing laundry: You work and toil for 37.5 hours per week, because there is always more to do. In some ways this is refreshing because you can just walk away at the end of the day or week, whereas in private practice, you were always working to get billable hours. In other ways, there is something so satisfying about getting paid for every activity.

Benefits, Benefits, Benefits

The owner/partner of my firm was incredibly generous in terms of my compensation, especially considering that I hadn’t even gotten my bar exam results when she hired me. Despite the size of our small firm, she gave me insurance, great pay, and the option to share in the profits. Unfortunately, in the end, this compensation could not compete with those beautiful government benefits. Potential loan forgiveness, great medical and life insurance, retirement, lots of time off, and great hours. The earning potential with the firm was greater, long-term; however, the benefits would also have lasting effect on the quality of my life and assist me with my work/life balance.

Who is the Client?

When you work for a firm, it is (usually) easy to figure out who the client is. Generally, it’s the person paying the bill (although sometimes that isn’t the case). When one works for the government, and depending on which agency you work for, the client may be “the State,” an agency, or some other interested party from within the government. I have become a prosecutor, which means my client is the people, and I am responsible for finding justice. This sometimes makes my job difficult when trying to balance justice, with the rights of the defendant, the rights of the victim, and the needs of the people. I certainly feel that I am pulled in more directions in my government employment; however, I have far fewer clients to manage.

One Thing vs. Fifty Things

When I worked for the firm, my days were filled by the practice of law in several areas. For instance, I might be in court on a dissolution in the morning, and work on an appeal in the afternoon. There is something satisfying in becoming versed in myriad areas of law. In my role as a deputy prosecuting attorney, I do the same types of things each day. Of course, each case has its own unique aspects, and between the bench trials, jury trials, and endless permutations involved in the plea negotiation process, things are far from boring. Neither is better or worse, but the two worlds are vastly different.

Both Worlds Are Great

I love the work I did at my small family law firm. I love the work I am doing at the prosecutor’s office. Both positions have positives and negatives. It really comes down to personal preference and what you are looking for personally and professionally. You got this.


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About Mark Livingston

Mark earned a B.Sc. in Criminology and Sociology from Ball State University, a M.Sc. in Criminology from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and a Master of Philosophy in Russia, Central, and Eastern European Studies from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Mark earned his JD at Valparaiso University School of Law in May 2019 and passed the Indiana Bar Exam in July 2019. Mark worked for more than ten years in state and local government in the areas of emergency management, law enforcement, and probation. Mark is a veteran of the United States Army Reserve. Mark is a family law attorney at a firm in Zionsville, Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis.

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