From Public Defender To Private Practice

Q #1: I joined the Public Defender's Office to obtain trial experience. Seven years and some 50 felony jury trials later, I am ready to make more money. What are my chances of getting hired as a civil litigator in a major law firm?

Q #2: I am a recent law grad preparing to begin at the local public defender's office. Although I do not plan a career in criminal defense, many top-notch attorneys recommended government work to facilitate my litigation goals. My question is this: After a few years at the PDs office, how difficult is a transfer to a large private firm in commercial litigation? Will my litigation experience help, or will the criminal aspects diminish my chances?

A: Criminal defense is one of the least transferable areas of practice.

Granted, the same rules of evidence apply in civil and criminal trials, and a seasoned PD has tried many, many more cases than an experienced civil litigator. Day-to-day practice, however, differs greatly. PDs spend most of their time in court arguing the facts. They often rely on investigators to gather those facts and they seldom research and write briefs interpreting the complexities of the law. Lawyers in commercial litigation spend years gathering facts through the discovery process, and wrestle with the laws intricacies through myriad discovery and dispositive motions.

Public defenders have limited resources and small teams. In most matters a public defender is the only attorney involved and they make all the decisions on the management of the case. Civil litigators may operate with large budgets and huge teams of attorneys, paralegals, and other staff that all contribute at different points in the case. A former PD entering a civil litigation environment will be almost as lost as someone right out of law school.

On top of those problems, PDs work for clients who can't afford to choose a lawyer. Law firms will wonder if a former PD has the people and technical skills to nurture long-lasting relationships with demanding, button-down clients. More importantly, PDs believe in protecting the rights of the underdog. Will a PD be as passionate when advocating positions for faceless, moneyed corporations?

Neither of these lawyers will be able to use their resumes alone to move into corporate litigation practice. The only way they'll make the change is through contacts: by meeting the right people and showing, through their actions, that they fit into a corporate environment. They could join a team working on a brief for a piece of public interest litigation in an area of practice handled by large law firms; for example, environmental, employment or contract law. They could handle civil cases through a bar association pro bono program, and get to know volunteers who work in large law firms.

They could, perhaps, accept a document review assignment at a large law firm from a temporary agency, and then do everything possible to stand out in a positive way. Best of all, they could get active in their local bar associations -- working on anything but criminal bar issues -- to get the respect of colleagues working in civil litigation.