The Transition: Public to Private

Post authored by Brandi Burton

The call came just as I was finishing trial. The voice on the other end asked when I would be able to make a payment on my student loan—it was now 15 days past due. While I should have been celebrating, since my partner and I obtained a guilty verdict, I instead found a restroom to retreat to and sob. This was not the life I envisioned. After graduating from law school, I was determined to be a “lifer.” I wanted to dedicate my career to prosecuting crime and protecting my community. However, during my second year as a prosecutor, I realized my “lifer” goal was financially untenable. I had to make a change.

When I planned my exit strategy from the State’s Attorney’s Office, I knew I wanted to stay away from criminal law. However, I wanted to stay in litigation.  These twin goals were the beacons guiding my search in the private sector.  Before, I only heard horror stories about law firms. My colleagues in private practice were unyielding and brutally honest with their opinions about the private sector. Terrible law firm cultures, an absent social life, and the ever-looming monster known as billing were only a few of the warnings I received from them. I was also told that it would be “difficult” to break into private practice with no previous law firm experience. But I did not let their opinions get to me. Per usual, I was confident. I leaned on my networks and before I knew it, I packed up my trial experience and moved to a midsize law firm.

Admittedly, I was intimidated when I started at the firm. What if I didn’t fit in? What if no one wanted to work with me? These questions haunted my conscience and caused me to experience imposter syndrome. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I met my team. They welcomed and encouraged me, made certain I adjusted, and of course, taught me how to bill. The team clearly had confidence in me, since I was given a lot of responsibility right away. Within three months, I had already taken several depositions, including expert depositions. I was also given several opportunities to write—one which I yearned for when I was a high-volume prosecutor. The only rumor that turned out to be true was billing—I hated it!

My transition from government to private practice showed me the expanse and depth of the legal field. Thankfully, in terms of career and personal growth, it also showed me how limited my exposure to the legal profession was before. I was challenged in new ways but also eager to accept these challenges.  Now, in direct contrast to my life as a prosecutor, I am required to sit at a desk throughout the day and track my work. I also replaced my daily trials with drafting motions and discovery responses. But I prepared for my depositions like I did for trials; in particular, I treated my expert depositions like jury trials. Plea agreements were replaced with settlement assessments. All the skills I developed as a prosecutor served me well in the private sector. I had the ability to handle a high volume of cases, knew how to think quickly and manage difficult clients with ease.

I would be remiss if I did not mention how much I miss being a prosecutor. I miss the action-packed career, the intensity of trials, and interacting with new people. More than anything, I miss being a public servant. Nevertheless, I have found new ways to serve my community. I have also learned to embrace that while my legal career is not what I imagined it to be, it actually turned out better!

About the Author:

Burton_Brandi_PRBrandi Z. Burton is an Associate in the Chicago office of Gordon & Rees where she is a member of the Commercial Litigation, Environmental/Toxic Tort, and Professional Liability practice groups.

Prior to joining Gordon & Rees, Ms. Burton worked at a Chicago-based law firm where she defended global clients in toxic tort and product liability matters. Ms. Burton began her legal career as an Assistant State’s Attorney at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. As an Assistant State’s Attorney, Ms. Burton served as first chair in over 60 bench trials and 7 jury trials.

Ms. Burton earned her J.D. from Chicago-Kent College of Law. During law school, Ms. Burton served as a Judicial Extern for The Honorable John Robert Blakey in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois.  She also competed on Chicago-Kent’s nationally ranked trial team at the National Thurgood Marshall Mock Trial Competition and won the competition’s first-place Best Oral Advocate Award.

Ms. Burton dedicates her time outside of the office to uplifting her community. She currently serves as Board President for Friends in The City Foundation (FITCF), an organization that provides scholarships and educational resources for underprivileged youth. Additionally, she serves as a part-time College Counselor with Chicago Scholars where she sends dozens of high school seniors to college each year. Ms. Burton also commits her time to the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago (BWLA) as Co-Chair of the Judicial Evaluation Committee.


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