It’s the center of the legal world with a plethora of opportunities and the greatest concentration of lawyers in the US. It’s Washington DC.
If there was a city designed for lawyers, it would be Washington D.C. Home to the federal government and all the things that come with it (think regulatory agencies, the courts, lobbyists, etc.), the nation’s capital is a legal and commercial beacon. Law firms want and need to be close to the halls of power, and for companies the reasoning is much the same.
It’s so much so that we heard DC’s workforce was once rumored to be comprised of 40% lawyers. Like most rumors, there is a kernel of truth. The actual figure is closer to 5% according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. But, what is true, is the number of lawyers per thousand in DC (48.7) is more than five times higher than New York (9.47) in second. It’s certainly the most concentrated spot for lawyers in the US.
Another undisputed fact is that “federal government is the world’s largest law firm,” Lateral Link’s Amy Savage tells us. Her colleague Lauren Smith adds, “DC is the second largest legal market after New York. Basically every major law firm has an office here, and the ones that didn’t have opened one.” Add to the mix mid-sizers and boutique firms and you’re talking about a lot of law firms. However, unlike New York, says another member of the team, Vered Krasna, “it’s less intense; there’s less churn and burn. So, a selling point for elite firms in the area is the combination of sophisticated matters with a better lifestyle.” Her colleague Steven Rushing warns it’s “not a West Coast vibe, but it’s definitely a different, more relaxed, vibe to New York.” And, if you’re wondering, yes, the top AmLaw firms do match the Cravath scale salary wise.
“DC is as close to recession proof as you can get.”
Of course, BigLaw might not be what you’re interested in and there are plenty of other options if that’s the case. As Krasna and Rushing tell us, “There are a ton of trade associations here. You can’t really find that elsewhere.” Moreover, Krasna notes that “we have a lot of in-house opportunities in this market. It is a hub for the technology sector as well as home to major aerospace and defense companies.”Another “thing that sets DC apart,” says Smith, “is the DC Bar requirements; you usually do not have to sit another Bar exam depending on how long you’ve been practicing for. That’s one thing to consider.” And, finally, Rushing tells us, “DC is as close to recession proof as you can get.” If you’re a lawyer, the team tells us, there are always opportunities in DC, no matter what the market.
So, let’s get this right. DC is a legal cornucopia with chances to work at top AmLaw firms, midsized and boutique firms? Correct. You could also transition to working in government or government agencies and vice versa? Correct. Or, you could move in-house to one of the plethora of big-name companies in the city and surrounds? Correct. And, if you meet the requirements you don’t have to sit another Bar exam to practice there...is that right? The team nods. What’s the catch?
They laugh. Well, it depends on where you are in your career, we hear. Savage says lawyers looking to return to private practice from government face entirely different challenges to associates and partners looking to move to DC, and, Smith adds, partners face different challenges than associates.
Lateralling as an associate
So, let’s start with associates. “Right now,” Krasna tells us, “Litigation is big.” And while it’s always big in DC, it’s particularly big at the moment. “Under that umbrella is regulatory work, commercial, antitrust, patent litigation, and IP.” On the transactional side, “corporate has cooled off, but we’ve still had capital markets and M&A demand.” With DC being the political nexus it is, “trade and government contracts have seen way more demand in the past year,” while “white collar and investigation was something people thought would be big, but we haven’t seen that.” Another area that’s flourishing, says Rushing, “is project finance. There’s a lot of work there.”
“You have to have specialized in something like employment or antitrust. In general litigation, the competition is going to be extremely competitive.”
On the corporate side, Rushing warns, “The more junior the candidate, the harder it is to get placed in corporate.” In a tough market, firms “want people who can plug and play,” he adds. Even litigation isn’t easy, Krasna and Rushing warn, you need to “niche-down.” Which means “you have to have specialized in something like employment or antitrust. In general litigation, the competition is going to be extremely competitive.”
In fact, the entire market is competitive. Rushing notes that firms “have a bias toward graduates from top-25 law schools, with good grades, and, for litigation, clerkship is almost mandatory.” Rushing adds, that on top of having “the largest concentration of AmLaw firms in the country, there’s also the highest concentration of graduate degrees.” As the nation’s capital, DC both attracts and expects the best the US has to offer.
Lateralling as a partner
For partners, the picture is different and has less to do with which practice areas are hot and more to do with “the economy. And that has nothing to do with DC in particular,” Smith says. She echoes Krasna and Rushing’s point about excellence being in demand, noting that “it’s a hotter market for partners who are really, really strong candidates with strong practices and who are bringing more people with them,” Smith notes, “but,” she adds, “that’s not limited to DC.”
However, Smith says “niche areas like those that are more regulatory focused tend to be specific to DC.” In those cases, when “firms need a specialist in one of those areas, there are not a lot of places outside of DC that are looking for them. So, when I think of DC, those are the areas that are in demand.”
Smith tells us that “when it comes to partners, the busiest and most sought-after area is litigation and that’s because the courts are here.” Within litigation “are regulatory related fields, white-collar, and commercial.” Smith echoes the rest of the team when she notes that “litigation comes first in DC, with corporate a close second, primarily M&A and capital markets.” That’s then followed by “real estate and IP, and next are all the regulatory niche areas like energy, environmental, healthcare, trade, FDA, government contracts… These are the main practice areas law firms love to see when they recruit laterals.”
Lateralling back into private practice
For many people, the lure of DC is government. Associates join firms in the area specifically to lateral into a government department or agency. And, for some, later they want to lateral back into private practice. And this is where Savage comes in. So, we asked, what are the biggest challenges for these laterals? As with relationships, music and investing, Savage notes that timing is everything. “You see a surge after every election cycle,” she explains. “Those who are directly part of the administration are looking to leave and so that’s a competitive time. When firms are reassessing their needs,” she adds, “the candidates who get the best offers are the ones who were looking before and are planning ahead.” It is different for partners, she mentions, as firms “look at the business case for the hire.”
So… Plan ahead? She laughs, “Yes! Plan ahead! I’ve got it written here in caps.” Planning ahead doesn’t just mean looking for a new role before everyone else does, Savage explains. It means really thinking about your career in the long term. If you’re joining a government agency, for example, “join an agency where you gain experience that advances your long-term goals. If you’ve been litigating for 10 years at the DoJ and now want to join transactional…” Savage throws her hands up despairingly. Two, “build relationships. Many government attorneys move to firms or in-house and those are the potential colleagues of the future.” So, you need to have “the market intelligence to plan ahead and these relationships provide intel on the market; they are the most important,” she tells us. Three, “seize the training opportunities.” Savage tells us there are “more training opportunities at government. There’s management training, a trial litigation training camp run by the DOJ (the National Advocacy Center), learning how to do aspects of trial work…” Unlike at law firms where juniors are unlikely to have those opportunities, it’s “expected at government. Lean into the opportunities that government affords you,” Savage encourages. “Some of the best managers at law firms were from government.”
“You don’t want to be the first government attorney at a law firm.”
Talking about law firms, Savage tells us that those interested in lateralling out of government “need to go to firms where previous government attorneys have launched successful careers in those practice areas. You don’t want to be the first government attorney at a law firm,” she says. “There are exceptions, but generally it’s better if there’s a platform.” Firms that have a history of taking on government lawyers “understand your challenges. They understand your value.” Savage adds that because “these candidates do not have immediately portable business,” firms with a history of taking on former government laterals “know how to launch you and understand what support you need.”
Which leads us neatly to our next question: what strengths do government lawyers have? “They have unique insight and training,” Savage explains, “and firms appreciate that, and value that.” For example, “you might have insight into a recent policy change, which would, from a firm’s perspective, provide information to your clients about what to expect from this administration.”
Okay, so firms are looking for the skills and insight from government laterals. What else? “DC is very elite when it comes to academics,” Savage warns, echoing her colleagues above. “It’s the most selective market when it comes to academic credentials. They still look at academic credentials even when candidates have been practicing for some time.” For partner-level candidates, says Savage, “Firms focus on the business case: ‘Do they bring something to develop the business?’” Savage adds that other considerations are “the visibility of the candidate, their insight into policy, any specialized experience, and, for many, it includes a consideration of earlier success in private practice; previous partners have an edge.”
Living in DC
Living in DC is a bit of a choose your own adventure. “Geographically there are three distinct areas,” explains Rushing. “Northern Virginia, Maryland, and DC. They’re all different lifestyles. You can live in DC in the City, or out in the ‘burbs in Virginia, or in northern-feeling Maryland.” The latter two options allow people to “come into the city and escape it every day if they want to,” says Smith. “Within 20 minutes to half an hour you could be in a lovely suburban area. You just don’t have that in New York.” Other family friendly features: “We have the best private and prep schools,” boasts Krasna, “and ten-out-of-ten public schools.”
“You can eat at an incredible Ethiopian restaurant one night, and at an equally good Afghani restaurant the next.”
But, for those worried DC might just not be exciting enough, Krasna reassures us that “people in DC are interested in similar things” to the US’s other metropolises. “As with New York, DC has Michelin Star restaurants, the Smithsonian and other amazing museums, concerts…” Rushing adds, “DC is a very young city. There are a ton of 20-somethings, new families, young kids. That youth drives a lot of businesses and things to do.” Perhaps it’s the demographic, but Krasna notes “It’s an active city.” As the political center of the US, “the city attracts a hugely eclectic and diverse set of people,” Rushing explains. The result is that there are “all these cuisines here. You can eat at an incredible Ethiopian restaurant one night, and at an equally good Afghani restaurant the next. We have the World Bank here as well,” Krasna adds as an aside. “It brings in a lot of work and international people. Plus, all the embassy people are here.”
Talking of diplomats, we’ve heard DC is a transient city… “That’s not always the case,” says Smith and this is echoed by everyone in the team. “I deal with candidates who are from here all the time,” Smith adds, “and it’s rare that I relocate someone. Most of the time they’ve been here the whole time.” But, she notes, for those thinking of moving to the capital: “They come because of the professional opportunities here. It’s a great place to have a professional life and raise a family.”
“There is something unique about DC,” Smith reflects. “When you see whatever the new political hot topic is, you’re thinking ‘What is everyone fired up about today?’ It’s what gives the city electricity,” she observes. “And you can’t help but feel like you’re at the center of the legal world. All the courts and the law firms are here in one place. It’s where Government is. In other words, it’s where the action is. All the decisions are made here. DC is full of energy.”