Following the Unexpected Call: How I made the move from private practice to government in my early years of practice.

By Hillary A. Taylor

0420-Change-DirectionI’m no different from any of my “friends in law.” I started law school in 2013 hoping to be a good lawyer doing good things. Until a little while ago, I planned on being at my firm for the foreseeable future. I loved the people I worked with. I enjoyed being exposed to the variety of litigation and pro bono matters. 

I didn’t expect my plan to change. And I definitely didn’t imagine I’d be transitioning in my career as soon as 2019, when I made the move from private practice to public service. 

Like many people in law school, I had a plan for my career after graduation. My plan always involved working in a law firm and traveling down a path where I shared in the development of the firm and advocated for my own clients. And I found exactly what I was looking for. I clerked for a regional mid-sized firm that was the best fit for me, which provided more responsibility and valuable experiences for junior associates. I returned to that firm after graduation and began practicing with good mentors who cared about my development. 

Last year, I was reminded of the familiar quote, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans” (often errantly attributed to John Lennon, but actually made by writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders). Despite my career plan, after the 2018 election I felt compelled to apply to work for Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison at the Attorney General’s Office, and in 2019 I was hired as an assistant attorney general in the Solicitor General’s Division. As I hemmed and hawed with close friends over whether this was a good time for me to take the first step of applying, whether I even possessed what the office needed at my career stage, a friend bluntly asked, “If not now, then when?”

There were a number of things that drew me to this office and position. I enjoy representing my home state, taking on issues that matter to Minnesotans. I was excited to take on appeals, constitutional challenges, and otherwise defend the state in ways that make it more efficient and effective. Also, I was ready to take on the challenge of more responsibility and autonomy. There’s an expectation in government practice that I’ll own my cases, meaning my job is to move my cases along, strategize, draft briefs, examine witnesses, and advocate orally in a variety of settings. While the work in private practice was challenging and fulfilling in its own way, I’m proud to say I’m doing impactful work and serving in a way that’s true to my core values.

I discovered over the past year that our legal careers, even at junior stages, don’t need to be perfect, linear paths. They can be fluid. They can reflect our values and needs at that time. 

I’ve learned a lot through my job transition from private practice to government work, some of which may be of interest to those considering a step aside from their initial plans, whether it’s a jump similar to mine or just a midstream job change. Here are some takeaways I had, which is a fluid list that is constantly updating:

  • Know the “why.” The questions I was asked the most during my transition were the why questions. Why you want to make the change from private to government? Why now? Why this specific position or office? These questions uncover your path, motivation, and purpose. As attorneys, we can be reactive in what we do without taking the time to think of why we’re acting in a certain way. Asking why isn’t only tied to transitions, however. Asking why we stay lockstep with a life plan can be just as important as asking why we might decide to step in a different direction. 
  • Starting a transition has its pros and cons. A natural follow to the “why” is thinking about what would be fulfilling to you in your career. What are the costs and benefits of transitioning from one sector to another? Candidly, there were clear pros and cons for me when I considered leaving a place in private practice I cared about to move to an exciting state government position that had an element of the unknown. In addition to thinking this through on my own, it really helped to talk to trusted advisors who shared their experiences and knowledge about this process.
  • Research to find your fit. Government offices have their own culture in addition to the type of work they do. Much like figuring out if a law firm is right for you, take time to ask questions of people internal and external to the office to see if that’s a place you can really grow as an attorney and feel comfortable with your colleagues. I found mentors, friends, and my broader legal network helpful in this area. I was able to figure out the type of work I’d be doing, the diverse team I’d be working with, and the values of my coworkers before I even stepped foot in the door. 
  • Be humble and patient at the new gig (and with yourself). With any transition, you find yourself learning a lot about the position and the workplace right off the bat. Add to that the switch from private practice to government, and you’ve got a scenario where there’s a lot of new or uncharted territory. And that’s okay. Be kind to yourself as you learn and stretch yourself. Humility and grace will allow you to soak up the opportunities (big or small) thrown at you in government, even if it involves a lot of questions and research every step of the way. Saying “yes, I’ll take that on” has led to a lot of invaluable experience that may not have happened elsewhere.
  • Cherish your network. It’s hard to maintain it all during a transition, especially if you have a change in your location or resources. But your friends and network are still there during and after a transition. Continue your connections and share your excitement about what your new path brings.

HILLARY TAYLOR is an assistant attorney general at the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office (AGO), and works in the Solicitor General’s Division on constitutional challenges, appellate litigation, employment counseling and litigation, and tort claims. She is also a member of the AGO’s hiring, recruitment, and diversity committee. Hillary was named a 2019 Attorney of the Year by Minnesota Lawyer.