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How to Launch Your Legal Career in Washington DC

Washington DC is the political heart of the United States, for better and for worse.

It is the center of the federal government. It is the operational center for many government agencies, and that is why many nonprofits are located there. It is the location of federal and regional courts, too.

This is why Washington DC is a popular launch pad for legal professionals.

Here are a few tips on how to launch your legal career in Washington DC:

Find a Job 

Ideally, you’ll move to Washington, DC to start a new job. A good way to move to DC is to start with a local branch of a nonprofit or government agency and then move to DC; you’ll get points for being willing to relocate.

This also makes the moving expenses tax deductible. If you’re moving here in hope of finding a legal job, start networking before you arrive in the city.

Make a list of prospective employers. Connect with people who already work there on social media and in real life. Join professional associations and cultivate connections.

Try to get someone who already works there to refer you to open positions. Employers give internal referrals more weight than a resume submitted to them from the outside.

Make sure that any job offer pays you a salary comparable to what others with the same experience and expertise make in the DC area, because you can’t afford to live here on a Midwestern salary. 

Choose a Place to Live 

Washington DC is one of the more expensive real estate markets in the United States, though it is cheaper than New York City and Boston. 

The challenge is finding affordable housing that’s safe. Learn the DC area before you start searching for an apartment to rent.

Educate Yourself 

You’ll have to research the local job market and housing market before you move to DC to work.

However, you may need to research the credentials and certifications that DC employers value, especially if you want to advance your legal career.

For some, attorneys may benefit from earning a Master of Laws or LLM degree.

This is a specialized degree that is available to those who’ve passed their bar exam. Or you may need to master the case management software that’s popular in the area. 

Cultivate Expertise 

Find a mentor in your area of professional practice. Connect with experienced professionals and learn from them.

Attend local seminars aimed at legal professionals. If possible, shadow a senior attorney.

Assess your skills and knowledge compared to what successful attorneys in your area have. Then learn how you can fill in the gaps.

For example, you may need to learn about federal contracting law to move into a job where you’re working on or overseeing government contracting. 

You may need to learn about campaign finance law or regulations about lobbying to move into a more prominent role. 

Improve Your Soft Skills

Attorneys are often experts in the law, but this doesn’t mean they’re qualified to deal with difficult cases or difficult clients.

Work on improving your communication skills, your time management skills and your writing skills. Join a group like Toastmasters to improve your public speaking skills.

Become a mentor, so that you can practice leadership experience before you move into a former leadership position.

Volunteer to read papers submitted to legal journals, so you can learn about the cutting edge of the profession and the proper way to format formal whitepapers. 

Do Quality Work 

This is an often overlooked aspect of legal work. Deliver client-ready and error-free products.

This means proof-read your work, then ask someone else to proof-read it. Talk to colleagues to validate your reasoning.

Show up on time and pay attention in meetings. Contribute, even if you’re not the one setting priorities. 

Be Flexible 

“Flexibility” does not just mean being willing to work eighty hours a week.

While long hours may be necessary at certain points, you shouldn’t be working somewhere that demands this every week. Instead, you should be flexible in the cases you take.

Too many young attorneys short circuit their careers by refusing to be strategically flexible. They reject cases or projects that stretch their skills and work in new areas.

Yet this allows you to learn about issues related to your current field of practice. You will gain useful connections and experience by taking on challenges, as long as they aren’t impossible. 

After all, if your manager decides to take the case or initiate the project, they consider it related to their mission. And if there’s no one else who can do it, you may be able to rise up in the organization because you’ve become the only one who can.

They may see you as the right choice for such a project, because you were already willing to move cross-country to advance your career. 

On the flipside, don’t make going “in-house” too early. This may be the promised land for many associates, but it will lock you into your current niche and with your current employer.

Consider going “in-house” after four to five years with your current employer. You’ll have been there long enough to be a top contender for the internal positions, but you’ll also be a preferred candidate for any other company if you decide to go elsewhere.

If you are not being considered for an “in-house” position within six years, you probably aren’t going to make that track.

In this case, you should go somewhere else. They won’t get rid of you as long as you’re making them a lot of money, but your ability to move to another firm or another industry drops as time goes by.

Eventually, you’ll have to start your own firm because no one else will hire you and they certainly won’t bring you in as a partner. 

Stay Up to Date 

The law is always changing. In fact, living in DC, you’re ideally positioned to learn about potential changes to the law.

Learn about pending legislation and consult with your colleagues about how you can adapt to it. This will help you better serve your clients.

However, you need to learn the business side, too. Learn about digital marketing for attorneys, especially if you want to open your own practice one day. 

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