Some argue that it would be hard to find a job with better benefits, job security, steadier hours, or a deeper sense of public service than that of an attorney working for the government. But do these arguments hold up to the realities of the job? If you know you want to go into public service, what is the job market like at the federal, state, and local level? And, finally, how do you find out about these jobs?
Why Work for the Government?
I had immediate responsibility for my cases, right out of law school. I had the support and resources of my office, but those cases were my own to prosecute as I saw fit. Such responsibility provided me with immediate opportunities to develop my judgment, independence, and accountability as a lawyer and a prosecutor. I feel like I packed six years’ worth, of experience into my first six months.—State Court District Attorney
New grads may look to government positions to gain the experience needed to later compete in the private sector. Others cite a sense of mission and service when they talk about government jobs. For those who make a career of government service, the work is truly a calling. Like all attorneys, they take great satisfaction in solving a problem or fashioning a solution for their clients. However, government attorneys frequently cite the greater impact that their work can have as it affects an entire branch of government or millions of taxpayers. For these attorneys, a job well done provides them with a sense of patriotic pride as well as personal and professional satisfaction.
Benefits of government work. Government positions may not provide a paycheck equivalent to BigLaw, but pay is only part of the compensation earned when working for the government. Government benefits are often a big draw for many lawyers. The federal government offers a broad array of benefits programs and family-friendly flexibilities that can greatly appeal to potential employees. Along with the usual offerings of health insurance, dental and vision insurance, and flexible spending accounts, the federal government provides some very enticing benefits that are not often as readily available in the private sector. Federal employees are entitled to at least 13 days of vacation leave as well as 13 days of sick leave each year. Depending on years of service, employees can earn up to 26 days of vacation leave each year. In addition, federal employees get 10 paid holidays each year.
The federal government also provides many programs for workers to support their needs for individual flexibility in their work schedules. Employees can “compress” their work hours to take one day off each pay period, creating the possibility of 26 three-day weekends throughout the year. Other enticing perks include student loan repayment programs, part-time and job sharing positions, resources for child and elder care, and adoption incentives programs.
The realities of government work. While all this sounds great, make no mistake: Government attorneys work hard and work hours that can be comparable to their private sector counterparts. While the flexibility exists for these lawyers, the realities of their jobs and their responsibilities to their clients are no different than for those in private practice. One disadvantage of government work can be that while the hours and responsibilities are the same, the pay is generally lower and capped by salary schedules and pay grades.
Pay caps can be a serious concern for those carrying the significant education debt that so frequently accompanies a law degree. In addition, while information on federal wages and benefits is fairly easy to find and the perks are established, many positions with state and local government are not as clearly defined and information is very hard to find. Government attorneys sometimes point to negative public perception of their positions and/or inadequate resources as other challenges of public service. As one public defender put it:
I never felt more like an attorney and less like an attorney than when I was a public defender. In one day, I went from a morning motion to suppress hearing in which I successfully suppressed evidence in a felony assault case and forced the prosecutor to drop all charges to an afternoon hearing where my client called me a ‘public pretender’ and informed the court that I was completely incompetent.
Where are the Jobs and How do I Get Them?
My first position out of law school was as an associate in a union side labor law firm. I had completed an internship with the firm while still in school. After almost a year at the firm, a law school classmate who worked at Equal Employment Commission (EEOC) told me about a position in another EEOC office. I applied and have been there since. For me, finding government work involved a lot of networking and making my own opportunity through that internship.—Trial Attorney, EEOC
Know where jobs are posted. Websites like USA.gov, USAJOBS.gov, and Makingthedifference.org are a good place to start. Research the various federal agencies and find out about the type of work their lawyers do for them. If you are interested in state or local government positions, your research will likely include more informational interviews and job shadow requests because data may not be as readily available.
Become a known commodity and show your dedication. Once you know where you want to work, make yourself and your abilities known to them. Almost every legal office in the federal government hosts summer and/or academic year interns. Two of the most popular summer programs are the Department of Justice’s Summer Law Intern Program and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of General Counsel’s Summer Law Intern Program. The definitive resource on internship opportunities is the Government Honors & Internship Handbook produced annually by the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. This publication includes summer and entry-level opportunities at a number of agencies. Of course, many federal offices hire paid interns as well as those volunteering or working for academic credit. While compensation varies by agency, 1Ls are generally paid on the GS-7 scale ($7,500 for 10 weeks of work) and 2Ls are paid based on the GS-9 scale (approximately $9,250 for 10 weeks of work).
3Ls need to be aware of the three main avenues through which recent law school graduates seek federal government employment: direct hiring, honors programs, and the Presidential Management Fellows Program (PMF). For direct hiring, the main conduit for finding positions is the USAJobs website (USAJOBS.gov). Many agencies require applicants to have passed a bar exam, but some agencies will post opportunities for which graduating students are eligible. For honors programs, the aforementioned Government Honors & Internship Handbook provides program descriptions, requirements, and application procedures. PMF is a competitive program that recruits master’s, law, and doctoral-level students to policy and management jobs (not attorney positions) in the federal government. Students must apply in the fall of their final year of school and should contact their career service offices for information on the nomination and application process.
Get to know people who work at your target agency. Talk to these insiders and ask them what skills you can develop or classes you should take in law school to make yourself attractive to the hiring committee. Many agencies value coursework such Negotiations, Trial Practice, Moot Court, and Administrative Law. Talk to your professors about your goals and a course of study that can further your pursuits. Finally, ask insiders to keep you apprised of new opportunities.
Is The Government Hiring?
According to the Partnership for Public Service’s Where the Jobs Are: Mission-Critical Opportunities for America research report, the federal government will need to fill 23,596 positions in the legal field between FY 2010 and 2012. Of these openings, 5,784 are specifically for attorneys. However, these numbers do not account for the many positions that are filled by lawyers but not classified as attorney positions. One of the biggest challenges for a graduating law student or attorney is to discover where the jobs are and how to apply. Take the following steps to find the right job for you.
Stop by your career services office for assistance with a federal résumé. Federal résumés, which are created on USAJOBS.gov, require more detail than a private sector résumé, including detailed information about past employment, such as dates and number of hours worked per week, as well as supervisor contact information. Bring along a copy of the duties section found in each job vacancy announcement so that your career services advisor can help you identify the keywords in the description and include them in your résumé. Talk with your advisor about KSAs—essays designed to assess an applicant’s knowledge, skills, and abilities to determine what makes that applicant stand out in a particular area. While the use of KSAs has recently been changed (after November 1, 2010, agencies cannot require applicants to answer these essays during the first step of the application process), it is likely that agencies will implement another type of assessment in addition to or in place of these essays. Your career services office will have the latest information for you on changes to the application process.
A career as a government attorney can be an incredibly fulfilling experience. Like any attorney position, the work to obtain the position and to do it well will be challenging. The rewards, however, are great—as are the opportunities to serve your community and the country.
How Much Do Government Jobs Pay?
Government positions typically pay below large law firm starting salaries, although federal pay can be comparable to mid-sized firms. The General Schedule (GS) is the predominant pay scale within the federal government, including the majority of white collar personnel. Salaries under the GS have two components: A base salary and a “locality pay adjustment.” The GS base salary table, compiled by the Office of Personnel Management, is separated into 15 grades, with each grade separated into 10 steps. The GS-1 through GS-7 range generally marks entry-level positions, while mid-level positions are in the GS-8 to GS-12 range, and top-level positions are in the GS-13 to GS-15 range. The locality pay adjustment is provided for those employees who work in major metropolitan areas and reflects the higher cost of living. By looking at the GS base salary table and checking if the locality qualifies for the locality pay adjustment, job applicants can quickly figure out the available pay range for the position for which they are applying.
For example, in 2011, base salaries for most GS-13 to GS-15 legal attorney positions range from $71,674 to $129,517.
Top Agencies for Legal Professions
Department/Agency # of Positions
Social Security Administration 25,774
Department of Treasury 20,389
Department of Veterans Affairs 17,189
Department of Justice 16,842
Department of Defense 3,235
Department of Homeland Security 2,236
Department of Labor 1,824
Department of State 1,713
Securities and Exchange Commission 1,540
Department of Commerce 1,286
Department of Health and Human Services 1,258
Department of the Interior 1,177
Source: Fedscope, 3/10
Image: Copyright Getty Images/Photo Illustration by Elmarie C. Jara.