Job mobility opens up job opportunities

Job mobility opens up job opportunities

21 January, 2013

When people think about lawyers, they generally envision them working in law firms.
But there is a wide range jobs for lawyers in government, and many law students have a government career path in mind, says Leeann Beggs, director of career services in the faculty of law at Queen’s University.
“Government work is all under the umbrella of public interest work,” says Beggs. “You can work for any level of government — federal, provincial, municipal or territorial. But you could also work for other agencies, such as a regional legal aid clinic, directly with an organization such as Legal Aid Ontario or for government commissions.”
Most lawyers start their careers in private practice with a law firm, in great part because the majority of articling positions are with private practice employers, says Beggs.
“There are some articling positions with the federal government’s Department of Justice, or with the Attorney General of Ontario, as examples, and some public interest agencies,” she says. But “the proportion of these types of positions, compared to the number of articling positions at law firms, is rather small.”
One benefit most often cited for working as a lawyer in the public sector is shorter hours compared to those in a law firm, says Christopher Sweeney, president of ZSA Legal Recruitment in Toronto.
He notes that often “lawyers will have a lower salary when working for government as opposed to a law firm, particularly in comparison to a large law firm. But compensating factors include the government pension and the predictability of hours.”
Government lawyers can earn impressive salaries, depending on how far up the ladder they go, says Beggs. “This could be more than someone in a small firm in a small community, but compared to a senior partner in a large firm on Bay Street in Toronto, it could be substantially less.” And lifestyle is definitely an important consideration for many lawyers, she adds.
Government lawyers generally labour traditional work hours. However, Sweeney cautions that “sometimes a particular file can demand more hours or hours extending into evenings.”
Much of the legal work in government is project-based work, rather than the entrepreneurial business model of law firms where the lawyer bills the client directly, says Beggs. “The pace and control of legal work that you can get in the government environment is different than you might get with a private practice employer.”
Still, she notes that “there’s a myth that is not necessarily true — it’s that you always work fewer hours than your counterparts in private practice.” Working with the government, there are still deadlines, as there are in private practice, she says. “Often you work on projects as part of a team. There can be time-sensitive aspects to your work.”
The main difference is there might be fewer times that unexpected work pops up than in private practice, particularly in a large firm with corporate clients who have immediate needs, says Beggs.
“You may be better able to anticipate your schedule and have control over your workload and your time,” she says.
There is mobility between government and law firms, Sweeney notes. “Lawyers tend to move from law firms to government positions typically when they reach their fourth to seventh year of practice. This often coincides with when these lawyers are having families and looking for more predictability in their hours,” he says.
The movement from government to private practice, on the other hand, tends to occur when lawyers have been in government practice a minimum of 10 years, he says. “These lawyers bring with them a strong network within their government departments and sometimes unparalleled expertise in a particular area — for example, expertise in competition law.”
For students coming out of law school, “you can expect the first few years as a junior lawyer with the government to be contract positions,” says Beggs.
Positions are based on funding, and there is always a chance of a hiring freeze and contracts not being renewed. Many young lawyers experience several contracts while working toward a permanent position with the government. Once they are permanent, there is potential to move between legal departments in various departments, according to your interests and also, for building up expertise, says Beggs.
Finally, and by no means the least important, for government lawyers “job security is much stronger than in law firms,” says Sweeney, “and much less prone to the ups and downs of economic cycles.”

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