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Trading in the Expense Account: Transitioning from Big Law to Public Interest: Building Your Community

Have you ever seen the show Community?  It’s hilarious, and, for bonus points, the lead character is a lawyer (well, used to be one). If you haven’t seen the show, here’s a two-sentence summary of the relevant points:

Jeff Winger, esquire extraordinaire, is forced to university when it is discovered that he lied about completing his degree. Once he gets there, he forms a ragtag study group and learns the importance of working with others.

Hilarity ensues.

The show provides some key lessons for anyone who is thinking about leaving the cushy world of Big Law for other pastures. Starting over is hard and is only made harder if you think that it’s you against the world. Building a community (or network) of people who have been in your shoes or who you admire is vital to transitioning successfully.

There are tons of clichés that illustrate the point: no man (or person) is an island; there is no “I” in team; two heads are better than one; what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Or something like that. 

There are a lot of ways to start building a community before you make the switch to a new job. Connecting with your local bar association or the American Bar Association is a great way to start. It takes more than just paying the dues, though, to start building your community. You have to get involved – write an article; go to social events; help organize an event. Basically, you want to make sure people know your name. You don’t have to immediately announce that you’re planning on switching jobs or looking for new opportunities (and you probably shouldn’t), but starting early and demonstrating interest in an area will be important when you are seriously looking for a way out.

For instance, when I was at my old firm, I kept doing pro bono work in the area I was interested in so that, when the time came for me to part ways I would be able to honestly say that it was something I was always passionate about.

As a young associate it can be difficult to take non-billable work on when your regular work tends to consume so much of your life. However, building your team and support network before you decide to leave can be the difference between moving on to your dream job and just moving on. 

Always remember: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. 

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