John N. Richardson Jr., the chief of staff to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, is leaving the Justice Department next month to go home to Richmond to practice law.

Richardson, 30, started working for Meese, then counselor to the president, as a volunteer at the White House after graduating from law school at the University of Virginia and clerking for the late federal judge Dortch Warriner. He followed Meese to the Justice Department to serve as a special assistant to the attorney general and became chief of staff early last year.

Richardson, whose replacement has not been named, plans to join Hunton & Williams, the prestigious Richmond firm whose alumni include retired Supreme Court justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. and whose current partners include former Virginia governor Charles S. Robb.

Richardson said yesterday that "there is some reluctance to leave before the end of the administration" but that the firm, where he clerked for a summer during law school, offered him the opportunity to work for the head of its litigation department.

He conceded that the transition from the inner circles of the Justice Department to being one among many law firm associates could entail a certain degree of culture shock.

"It's going to be a big change," he said.