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How do I move from corporate law to the international public sector?

Career change updates

I am a senior corporate lawyer and have worked in the private sector for 15 years, but I would like to move into the international public sector, as a lawyer or in another suitable role. I recently completed a masters in public international law, so what is the best way to approach a job search and building my network? Anonymous, 40s

Jonathan’s answer

At about the midpoint of your career (assuming you work until your sixties), you have come to a pivotal moment. Not only do you want to move from the private to the public sector, but you are also open to changing industry. In preparation for this move, or maybe the cause that has generated this ambition, you recently completed a specialist masters degree.

At the start of the job search, clarify your underlying motivation for wanting to make these moves. The discussions you have in your networking will feed into the planning, but rather than be driven by others, it would be advisable to spend time identifying what you specifically seek in the new role.

In a recent survey of Oxford students, they reported the top three features of a job they seek are intellectual challenge, good work/life balance and positive social action, followed by high pay and job security. If you also prioritise what you are seeking at this midpoint transition, it may help you frame the right questions to which, indeed, international public sector law may be the answer. It may also of course point towards some other roles and industries that may be challenging to consider.

For a job search at your level of seniority, you should probably consider networking, executive search and answering job ads (in that order). Networking is a way to learn about the various sectors, what is realistic and available, and to build contacts. Start to build your network from the masters course, the fellow students, tutors and guest speakers could all offer one or two contacts to seed your networking process. Consider relevant professional law societies, discreet current colleagues or those in other firms, for other contacts.

Distilling your motivation will also help you focus your message as you build your network. Your introduction could be that you have 15 years’ senior corporate law experience in X and Y areas and now seek to use your recent higher degree to continue to expand your intellectual challenge to the international arena, and into working on areas of public benefit. You have identified some specific areas of particular interest (for example, the environment, social housing, education) where you could really add value.

Successful networking is about building relationships, so look on a networking meeting as a two-way conversation. With your experience, network and skills, there will be opportunities for you to help others, which may open up interesting new avenues.

Readers’ advice

Seek consultancy work on the side, do pro bono work or set up an NGO type thing in your spare time, or even set up your own firm with a public international law business line. I would strongly advise against giving up access to frequent and lucrative corporate work. SoberDebate

Look for jobs as a “protection officer” or in “rule of law” in the main international development job sites. These include Devex, UNJobs, Reliefweb, DevelopmentAid. Also search the UN jobs portal itself. Commander Chico

Jonathan Black is director of the Careers Service at the University of Oxford. Every fortnight he answers your questions on personal and career development and working life. Do you have a question for him? Email: dear.jonathan@ft.com

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