Ending A Life Of Criminal Law

Q: As a criminal prosecutor for 15 years, I have handled thousands of cases in my state's criminal trial court, prepared and filed hundreds of appellate briefs, and orally argued over 100 appeals, including 13 capital cases. I am ready to leave the practice of criminal law and would like to find a position with a civil law firm. How do I market myself? Will a civil law firm be interested?

A: With 15 years of rock-solid trial and appellate experience, you'll be more seasoned than many partners in the law firms you approach, but unable to hit the ground running because of your lack of exposure to civil procedure. As a result, most firms won't know how to categorize you; should you be treated as an entry-level associate, a lateral hire or some unknown hybrid? On the other hand, experienced, competent litigators are in short supply these days. Your strategy, therefore, is to give potential employers a good reason to make an exception for you.

At this point, your resume will shout criminal prosecution and nothing else. Before you start applying for positions take some time to develop your understanding of civil litigation and seek opportunities to highlight relevant skills on your resume. Enroll in (but don't just attend) civil-side, litigation-oriented CLE courses. Participate fully! Talk to other lawyers during breaks. Ask them lots of questions about their practices. Talk to the seminar speakers as well. This will help you better understand the area of practice and the opportunities that may be available. It will also help you develop a network of contacts that can help you find a position. This will help you target firms whose practice or style are the best match for your skills and goals for yourself.

At the same time, get some civil litigation experience. Investigate the possibility of transferring to the civil side of the prosecutor's office, or to a department, like fraud, that has a civil-side component in private practice. You might also help with briefing or discovery on a pro bono legal project, whether through a local bar association or a law-related advocacy group like the ACLU. Learning more about civil practice will also help you learn to connect-the-dots between the skills you developed as a criminal litigator and the skills needed to succeed as in civil practice.

Once you've invested in some re-education, make sure your new experience appears prominently on your resume. Then send out inquiries to mid-size to small law firms with insurance defense practices, especially product liability. These firms tend to pay middle-of-the-market rates and are losing their associates to higher paying law firms. Since they're looking for top-flight litigators and your criminal background is impressive, you'll make an attractive candidate once you show through action your commitment to and enthusiasm for the civil side.