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What Law Students Should Know about Government Honors Programs

Brian Plaut


  • Government honors programs are the primary entry point for recent law graduates into federal agencies.
  • Some honors programs offer rotations through the different divisions or offices of the agency or department.
  • The pay scale is not on par with Big Law, though it’s competitive with other public-interest careers.
What Law Students Should Know about Government Honors Programs

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In the bustling arena of legal careers, the spotlight often shines brightest on the gleaming towers of corporate law firms. Yet amidst this glittering landscape, there exists a hidden gem often overlooked by aspiring lawyers: government honors programs.

These programs offer a unique pathway for new lawyers to dive into impactful work, shape public policy, and champion justice on a grand scale. And it just so happens to be the path I’m taking after law school ends.

So, if you’re pondering your next move, it’s time to uncover the untapped potential of government service. Join me in exploring why these programs can be the ultimate destination for those with a passion for law and a heart for public service.

The Gateway to Public Service

Government honors programs are the primary entry point for recent law graduates into federal agencies. These highly competitive programs offer unparalleled opportunities for professional development and public service.

Each agency typically has its own honors program tailored to its specific legal needs and mission. Examples include the Department of Justice’s Attorney General’s Honors Program, the Securities and Exchange Commission Chair’s Attorney Honors Program, and the Internal Revenue Service’s Chief Counsel Honors Program.

Why Choose Government Service?

Before diving into the nuts and bolts of these programs, it’s essential to understand why you should consider working for the federal government and why an honors program may be the best path for you.

Perhaps the most significant draw of government work is the opportunity to impact society directly. From drafting rules to prosecuting criminals or representing the government in civil cases, your primary tasks serve the public interest. Whether your interests lie in environmental law, national security, civil rights, or taxation, there’s a niche within the government where you can pursue those passions.

Another important perk is the vast training and experience you can gain right out of law school, which will be an invaluable asset throughout your legal career. In addition to the structured training that most programs have in place, early-career government attorneys often have the chance to work on high-profile cases and collaborate with experts in their fields. Whether you’re looking to work for the government for the long haul or transition out at the end of your term, you’ll have gained the experience necessary to help you excel.

One last reason to consider working for the government is that, while the demands of government service can be rigorous, many positions offer more predictable hours and better work/life balance than in the private sector. That often allows a fulfilling personal life alongside a rewarding career.

The Advantages of Honors Programs

In addition to aiding the public service mission, you can gain benefits by going the honors attorney route. Here are just a few:

  • Some honors programs offer rotations through the different divisions or offices of the agency or department. This allows new lawyers to gain exposure to the various practice areas and develop a well-rounded skill set.
  • Participants in honors programs often receive mentorship from experienced attorneys. This support system can foster your professional growth and prepare you for long-term success.
  • Government agencies frequently collaborate with other governmental entities, private sector organizations, and nonprofits. Engaging in these partnerships can provide you with invaluable networking opportunities.
  • While participation in an honors program doesn’t guarantee permanent employment, many agencies use these programs as a pipeline for hiring permanent attorneys. Completing an honors program can significantly enhance your prospects for long-term employment within the federal government.

The Drawbacks of Honors Programs

Also, consider some of the drawbacks to working for one of these programs:

  • The pay scale is not on par with Big Law, though it’s competitive with other public-interest careers. The pay differential can be significant, particularly if you have substantial student loan debt or other financial obligations.
  • You may need to undergo criminal or other background checks that other employers may not require. This can take quite a bit of time and effort, even more, if you need a security clearance.
  • The application process, including using the USAJobs portal, may be more burdensome and antiquated than hiring processes in the private sector. This, coupled with longer application periods and general bureaucracy, can make the process substantially longer than you may anticipate.
  • Government agencies often operate within bureaucratic frameworks, leading to slower decision-making processes, rigid policies, and bureaucratic red tape. It can be frustrating to see this hindering legal work efficiency and innovation.
  • Advancement opportunities within government agencies may be more limited than in the private sector. Promotion timelines and criteria may be more structured, and upward mobility could be slower.

Navigating the Application Process

Entering a government honors program is a competitive endeavor. It requires careful preparation and strategic planning. Here are tips as you work on your application:

  • Thoroughly research the various government agencies and their respective programs. Some programs have strict timelines that may occur earlier in your law school career than you think, so be sure to keep an eye on those dates.
  • Attend career fairs, informational sessions, and networking events hosted by the agencies. Building relationships with current government attorneys can provide valuable insights and mentorship opportunities—and put you on their map.
  • Tailor your application materials—including your resume, cover letter, and writing samples—to each application. Highlight your relevant experience, skills, and accomplishments, demonstrating your qualifications and commitment to public service.
  • If you’re offered an interview, thoroughly prepare by researching the agency and practicing common interview questions and those that might be particular to that agency. Be sure to come up with relevant questions about the agency of your own.
  • Talk to the professionals in your career development office to get tips and tricks specific to interviews with these agencies (as well as interview practice).
  • Because these programs are highly competitive, rejection is common. So, if at first you don’t succeed, stay persistent and consider reapplying in future application cycles.