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This book (published in 2000) was written for law firm lawyers who, after three months or 30 years, yearned to infuse their professional lives with more meaning. Both practical and inspirational, it focuses on helping attorneys leave private practice to pursue challenging, personally rewarding careers in government and public interest law.

Interwoven throughout the book are candid first-hand accounts from attorneys who have successfully transitioned from private practice to public interest work. The book also provides nuts-and-bolts advice, helping to find employment opportunities in the hidden job market and easing the financial transition. Other chapters provide an in-depth look at the public service market; making resumes visually powerful, and networking within the public interest community.

The following is a sample narrative excerpt from The Great Firm Escape:

I went to law school because everyone else was doing it and it seemed to be the best way to keep my options open until I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Influenced early on by the lunatic fringe of the faculty, I became convinced that neutrality was for the Swiss and determined that, when I grew up, I would not follow the sheep to a big law firm but would instead work to advance truth and justice.

The summer after first year, I interned in a U.S. Attorney’s office and loved it. I was certain when I returned to school that fall that I would join the good guys when I graduated, but nonetheless donned a suit and partook of interview season because everyone else was doing it and it seemed to be the best way to keep my options open until I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. For the same maturely considered reasons, I took a summer job at a big New York firm and thereafter a permanent job with one in San Francisco.

I was fortunate in my first couple of months at the firm to impress a number of lawyers who announced shortly after my arrival that they were leaving to form a litigation boutique. They asked me to join them, and I did. I became very fond of the people I worked with and liked many aspects of being at a small firm. As the time approached for me to be considered for partnership, however, I discovered that, against all odds, some germ of a desire to work in the public interest had survived within me and metastasized. I told the firm I was not interested in partnership and undertook to find a cure in Washington, D.C.

I applied for a job in the Enforcement Division at the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) because it was well regarded and because I thought the work would be interesting, although I realized after I was invited in for an interview that I didn’t have a clue what the SEC did. To avoid sounding like a complete idiot, I read on the flight to Washington. The Enforcement Division, it turned out, was more interested in litigation experience and lawyering skills than knowledge of the securities laws and promptly offered me a job, which I promptly accepted.

The timing was serendipitous. I arrived in the fall of 1985, when junk bonds were the rage and “parking” was coming into vogue as a term to be applied to securities as well as cars. Before I knew an LBO from an SRO, I was taking testimony from stockbrokers, investment bankers, and high-ranking officials in public companies. I brought an insider trading case arising out of a failed tender offer and participated in litigation against Canada’s reigning takeover kings. I was promoted and supervised investigations involving notorious companies like Crazy Eddie and prominent ones like Caterpillar. I went to trial against Victor and Steven Posner in what remained of the SEC’s case against Drexel after all the other defendants settled–a trial that played much like a post-script to the era with Ivan Boesky testifying as the first witness, Michael Milken testifying as the last, and defendant Victor Posner, muzzled by his own invocation of the fifth amendment, playing for the last time the familiar role of dissolute corporate raider.

All of which has left me feeling pretty content as I continue to wonder from time to time what I should be when I grow up. Our finances are more of an issue now than when I left private practice in that my wife and I have since become parents and mortgagors, and I keep thinking that someday I should go make serious money.

In the meantime, I remind myself that, while I am grossly underpaid compared to lawyers in private practice, I am grossly overpaid compared to 99 percent of the rest of humanity. I remind myself as well of the incalculable value of feeling that what I do with most of my waking hours contributes to the greater good of others, and of having some waking hours left to spend with my wife and kids. And I remind myself that, in a society that values money above all else, learning what really matters to you is perhaps the best way to maximize your wealth.

Leo Orenstein
Assistant Chief Litigation Counsel
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
Washington, D.C.