It wasn’t that long ago, in May 2007 to be precise, that I was the area defense counsel at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, as an active-duty officer serving in the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps. I was defending Airmen at courts-martial and other adversarial proceedings at the very busy B-52 and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) air base in the very northern plains of the United States. Now, today, here I am: a civilian and back in my home state of Indiana as the general counsel for the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, the state agency that oversees the budget process for the state’s more than 2,400 taxing units (i.e., schools, cities, libraries), and the highly contentious property tax assessment system. This former JAG officer now finds himself primarily as a municipal law and property tax attorney. Many days I sit and wonder, “How’d this happen?”
I had some interest in being a tax attorney during law school, but the terrorist attacks of 9/11 during my final year diverted my career to military service. After four and a half years as a JAG, I made the decision to separate from active duty and return with my wife and three kids to Indiana. I had a brief stint at a general practice law firm in my hometown of Elkhart, but the opportunity to serve as the top attorney for the Department of Local Government Finance was too tempting for me to pass up. Currently in Indiana, property taxes and local government spending are hot-button issues. I’ve always enjoyed a good challenge, so I jumped at the job. That’s why I’m where I am.
My advice to a young lawyer who is thinking about working at a government agency is “Go for it!” but don’t sell yourself short. Take on a challenge. Get out of your comfort zone. Pick the agency that is going to challenge you intellectually, professionally, and personally. It may benefit you in the long run. Here’s a recent example. As general counsel, I have two staff attorneys and two legal interns working for me. A few months ago, we had a young staff attorney leave for an opportunity in the private sector after only 15 months on the job—a job she had since right after law school. She was smart, friendly, and very capable. And, fortunately for her, the hard work at the agency paid off. She is now in a higher-paying job as a staff attorney in the legal department of an international corporation in Indianapolis. Not bad at all.
A government job is certainly on the lower end of the pay scale when compared to our private sector counterparts. But it’s not bad. In my experience, salaries for a staff attorney with an Indiana agency vary from approximately $35,000 to $60,000 depending upon the agency. Research salaries before you make a decision about what agency you want to work for. State salaries are public information and can be found by doing an Internet search. As a general counsel for an Indiana agency, the salary situation is similar to that of staff attorneys—it varies depending on the agency. I’ve seen salaries for general counsels range anywhere from $79,000 to $100,000.
A young attorney also should consider health insurance costs and retirement plans. Frankly, in addition to the challenge, these favorable benefits are another reason why I left private practice for state government. In fact, I’m paying only about one-third of the cost per month in health insurance premiums compared to what I paid at the law firm.
Consider being an attorney with a state agency. And if you do, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. If you do a good job, you can take that government experience and springboard into a job in the private sector with a firm or corporation. Finally, when thinking about whether to take that government job, don’t look at just the salary, but also consider the lower health insurance costs and favorable retirement benefits.
Timothy J. Rushenberg is an attorney licensed to practice law in Indiana. He is a former Air Force judge advocate and currently serves as the general counsel for the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance in Indianapolis, Indiana. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.