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I was recently approached by a young associate from a prominent law firm for advice on how she could make the transition to a career in public service. Her timing was ironic given that her firm had just announced a $40,000 bonus for first-year associates. After advising her not to do anything until after bonus season, I realized how often I am asked that same question by young lawyers. They are usually second- and third-year associates who have logged long hours at a firm and are beginning to focus on issues such as job satisfaction and lifestyle. A recent surveyby the National Law Journalfound that the overall attrition rate at the 250 firms surveyed rose from 18.5 percent in 1999 to more than 23 percent in 2000. At some New York firms that rate approached an astonishing 40 percent. While the majority of those lawyers are exchanging one firm for another, some of them will move on to careers in government, the judiciary, and not-for-profit organizations. Almost all who make the transition to public service will have to struggle with a host of issues, ranging from financial sacrifice to finding the position that best suits their experience and interests. I was in that exact position seven years ago. After spending more than three years at a law firm I realized that I was much more interested in community service work than in corporate law. Armed with solid experience, a degree from a respected law school, and a willingness to take a substantial pay cut, I was confident I could easily secure my dream job in the public sector. What I learned is that even with my experience and willingness to sacrifice, it would not be an easy road. The biggest problem was that there were a limited number of positions that matched both my interests and basic salary needs, and those that did were extremely competitive. I also overlooked one other critical issue — relevant experience. I had spent the prior three years helping banks to finance corporations and restructure debt. There was not exactly a huge market in the public sector for this kind of experience. This is probably the most frustrating hurdle for a young associate who wants to transition to the public sector. Some of the most lucrative work handled by law firms such as mergers and acquisitions and corporate law may not be in extremely high demand in the public sector. Although the skills and experience acquired at a law firm will certainly be an asset, lawyers who are highly specialized may find it difficult to compete with applicants who have more relevant experience. Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to avoid making the same mistakes. But the key is to plan ahead. The most important thing you can do to improve your chances of making the transition is to broaden your legal experience. There is no better way to do this than by getting involved in pro bono. New Yorkers have more than 70 pro bono programs throughout New York City that can provide them with training and experience in dozens of areas of the law including criminal, housing, public benefits, civil rights, employment and education. In addition to expanding your legal knowledge, the experience will enable you to explore issues and areas of the law that you may want to pursue in the future. If you are fortunate enough to be at a firm that has an established pro bono policy or program then your task is made even easier. Just as important, pro bono work is a terrific way to develop contacts in the public sector. It can bring you into contact with judges, government officials, and representatives of not-for-profit organizations. Those contacts can be outstanding sources of advice and job referrals. I know a number of lawyers from large law firms who eventually took a job with an organization they worked with on a pro bono basis. Another way to develop contacts in the public sector is the get involved with your local or state bar association. They have various committees that bring together some of the most important leaders from the public sector. Finally, you may want to consider service on the board of a not-for-profit organization. It is another very good way to meet leaders in the field and develop a better understanding of the type of work you may want to pursue. STICKER SHOCK Another thing to prepare for when considering a career in public service is sticker shock. The discrepancy in salaries between lawyers in private practice and those in public service has never been greater. For example, the bonuses paid to first-year associates at New York’s largest law firms is roughly equivalent to the salaries earned by a young district attorney or legal aid lawyer. The transition can entail significant financial sacrifice so if you do not plan ahead you may find that the difference is too much to bear. My final suggestion is that even if you are not interested in pursuing a full-time career in public service, you can still enhance your professional satisfaction by volunteering. It is an opportunity to engage the other interests or issues in your life that may not be represented in your daily practice. A few years ago I volunteered to provide legal assistance to individuals afflicted with HIV/AIDS. I found that the experience not only enhanced my experience as a lawyer, but it provided me with a greater appreciation for the profession and the work I was doing at the office. Despite the hurdles and sacrifice, I can honestly say that I have no regrets about my decision to go into public service. In each position, I have had the opportunity to work with dedicated individuals on issues of great concern to me. I know I am fortunate when I say that there have been very few days in the past seven years when I did not wake up and look forward to going to work. For those of you considering a career in public service, if you plan ahead I am optimistic that you will find similar rewards. Anthony Perez Cassino is assistant director of public service at Milbank, Tweed Hadley & McCloy. He can be reached at [email protected].

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