I have been meaning to address this topic for some time because I can’t even count anymore how many young lawyers ask me how to break into the white collar field. And the answer is both simple and complicated. I remember once I had a young woman fresh off law school graduation ask for guidance on the topic. She was having a hard time finding an opportunity in the white-collar field. She sat in my office and said, “I want to be a white-collar lawyer.” I told her that realistically nobody graduates from law school and specializes in white-collar defense. I advised her to focus initially on a career in criminal defense. She landed a job shortly after in a respected criminal defense firm.
So what roads really lead to a white-collar practice? Some of the best advice I have seen written on this topic is by a fellow blogger and highly respected white-collar defense attorney, Matt Kaiser of Kaiser, LeGrand, & Dillon, PLLC in Washington D.C. His longtime partner Rebecca LeGrand is one of our own which gives him, as they say, street credibility on the WCDA blog. He addressed this topic three times in posts at Above the Law, here, here, and here. I highly recommend reading each of those posts if you’re trying to figure out how to break into white-collar practice.
From my standpoint, never forget that the heart and soul of any white-collar case is basic criminal defense. Regardless of how complicated or sophisticated a white-collar matter is, you still need to understand the basics of examining a charging document and the elements of the offense. You still need to determine if there are any legal challenges to the use of evidence and gain a command of the facts of the case. So the first answer is to master the fundamentals of defending a person accused of a crime. After you have mastered that there are unique facets to defending a white-collar matter, but without the basics of criminal defense you are missing the forest for the trees.
The best place to gain this experience is and always will be in the public sector. As either a prosecutor or public defender you get the opportunity to gain experience and critical trial skills necessary to defend a criminal matter. These are skills that simply aren’t easily obtainable in the private sector. Now, in this respect, not all roads are equal. Without question a job as an AUSA, Federal Public Defender, or an Assistant Director at the SEC are all well suited as a springboard into a white-collar practice. For the simple reason that you have more opportunities to touch white-collar matters. But even a state attorney or state public defenders’ job can be a strong stepping-stone to a federal public sector job or to develop federal experience in the private sector.
There is a belief amongst some that the golden path to a white-collar practice is an AUSA pedigree, but that mold has long been broken. Take for example Cris Arguedas from Arguedas, Cassman & Headley, LLP who is currently defending FedEx, charged in a criminal Indictment. Or Theodore Wells from Paul Weiss, and Hank Asbill from Jones Day to name just a few more well-known and successful white-collar lawyers who were either public defenders or grew up in BigLaw through the help of mentors. There are many more. And in fact there are equally successful and exceptionally qualified white-collar lawyers that were AUSA’s, many who I respect and hold in high regard.
Just don’t buy into the belief there is only one path to developing a white-collar practice. The bottom line is that focusing on white-collar defense is not something you can fall into out of law school. You have to be mindful of the paths you choose that can open doors to focusing on white-collar defense. But from where I stand it is well worth the effort.