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Transitioning from the Public Sector to Private Practice

November 11, 2018 · 4 minute read

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Transitioning from the Public Sector to Private Practice

If you’re an attorney and considering or planning on moving from the public to private sector, you’ve surely got a head full of questions about what the transition means for your career, your personal life, and your financial life.

There are plenty of good reasons for moving from nonprofit to private sector. One of the most common is to earn more money and progress a career in a way that is not possible at a public sector job. Even with better salary prospects and upward mobility, such a move can feel incredibly daunting. Any lawyer who used to work in the public sector may face challenges during this transition.

If you’re making the switch, it can be helpful to understand some key differences between the two work environments to make a successful transition. This can include such factors as the nature of the work and workplaces and what’s expected of employees. Here, we’ll discuss a few new ways to view the roles so that you’re able to maximize your success both before and after your transition, along with tips on how to find success in your new role.

Differences in Working Public Sector vs. Private Practice

Understanding how private practices operate in comparison to a job in the public sector will help you know how to be successful within each system. Navigating a job in both sectors requires understanding the underlying organization and motivation.

A lawyer in the public sector, for example, working as a public defender or for a public interest organization, is generally tasked with their own cases very early on in their career. Working in the public sector can give lawyers some incredible experience when they’re in the beginning stages of their career.

That said, you’d likely only want to move to a private practice with a role as counsel or even partner (at a boutique firm, for example); otherwise, you may be given work that can feel more administrative.

The difference between for-profit and nonprofit work lies greatly in the motivation of the two. At a private practice, the primary goal is to generate profits via clients, who are at the nexus of any private business. For a person working at a private practice, that could mean spending significantly more time doing such tasks as networking and the acquisition of new business.

Bringing in new money is often a core responsibility for younger lawyers without established clientele at a private practice. This is generally not the case in the public sector, where there is no shortage of work—and, as it often goes, a lack of resources to match.

In moving from nonprofit to private sector, it would behoove you to brush up on your networking skills and beef up your LinkedIn profile. You may be asked to wine and dine potential new clients, and your long-term success will at least somewhat depend on your ability to leverage the networks you’ve created over the course of your life and career.

Networking isn’t just important externally, though, it’s also important internally. Whether you’ll be given desirable work, be passed along clients from other (retiring) lawyers or be considered for promotions will be dependent not only on the quality of your work, but also your involvement in the firm on both a professional and personal level.

Be sure to join your local bar association and an internal group or two, such as leadership panel, a women’s group, or take a side (read: non-billable) role as an unofficial event planner. At a private practice, the extra effort will be noted and rewarded.

Benefits of Private Practice Over Public Sector

It’s not exactly a secret that many people will move from the public sector to the private sector to pursue an opportunity to earn more money. Oftentimes, career growth can feel stagnated in a public sector job as there aren’t always defined ladders to climb like there are within a private practice. Career progression means gaining tenure, as opposed to making big jumps up through job titles and pay scales.

Within the profession of law, there is a significant difference between the salaries of those working in the public and private sectors. According to the National Association of Legal Professionals, the starting salary for public defenders is $58,300 and is $48,000 for those working in civil legal services.

Comparatively, some private law firms in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles are paying their entry-level attorneys $180,000, which as the NAPL observes “is beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public interest organization.”

Handling Student Loans in the Public Sector vs. Private Practice

There are other financial considerations when switching from the public to the private sector, especially for those in the process of paying back federal student loans.

Many people take jobs in the public sector because they’ll qualify for student loan forgiveness after 120 qualifying on-time payments (usually about 10 years) through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. A switch to the private sector before making 120 qualifying payments could mean a delay in progress on payments you’ve made towards the program.

Conversely, because moving to a private sector job usually means a higher salary, especially in the legal field, having a higher consistent salary provides its own unique benefits aside from the obvious—more money to spend and enjoy. For one, making student loan payments and paying out of pocket for benefits like health care take a smaller representative proportion of take-home pay, making the bills feel less burdensome overall.

Additionally, a higher salary means that you may qualify to refinance your student loans to a lower rate of interest, saving you money over the life of your student loans. (Of course, a higher salary is just one qualifying factor of refinancing—it will also help if you have a good credit score and credit history.)

Refinancing student loans is the process of swapping out any old loans—private or federal—for a new loan, ideally with a better rate of interest. You can refinance through a bank or other financial services provider.

It could be the perfect time to refinance if you’re making a switch to a position with a higher salary in the private sector, as salary is one important factor when being considered for student loan refinancing.

Ready to see if refinancing your student loans could save you money on your monthly payments? Learn more today!


Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.
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