Since moving to Iowa, I have met many attorneys who had no idea that there was a tribe in the middle of the state. Despite the tribal casino’s name, it’s not until I mention the casino and the tribe at the same time that something snaps into place and people realize it is a tribal enterprise. This lack of familiarity is not unique to Iowa. Most attorneys are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the law or legal profession in Indian country. However, working as an attorney in Indian country allows you to serve a historically underserved community, and the work is rarely dull.
In-House Counsel Work
Generally, you can classify positions in Indian country as in-house or contract work. In-house positions are great if you’re tired of billable hours and desire a better work-life balance. These positions include advising tribal enterprises such as a tribal casino or advising the tribal government. Most tribes also employ judges and prosecutors on a full-time basis. Duties for in-house positions can vary depending on how each tribe has chosen to structure their legal department. Some may put all attorneys in a general legal department, while others have lawyers who exclusively advise specific departments or enterprises. Unless the tribe has enough attorneys to have everyone specialize, you can expect many interesting and varied assignments each week. Tribal governments are also qualified employers for public service loan forgiveness if that is a consideration.
If you already work at a firm or have started your own, then contract work might be a better fit. Tribes will often contract out for particular projects or services. Two of the most common contracted positions I see are public defender positions and guardian ad litem services. I have also seen attorneys contracted to rewrite portions of a tribe’s laws. Firms are usually welcome to apply for the contracts. For more extensive litigation, many tribes will search for outside counsel. A little outreach may serve your firm in the future. Most tribes also allow for attorneys to sign up for court appointments.
Finding a Position
If you decide to pursue a career in Indian country or dip your toes in the water with contract work, the hard part comes next. It can be challenging to know where to start looking for a job if you have no experience with Indian country. Consider first investigating whether the tribe requires attorneys to become licensed in their state or pass a separate bar for admission to tribal court. Many tribal governments and courts have different licensing requirements, and whether those requirements apply may depend on the specific job duties of the position.
Finding open positions can also be tricky. Some jobs get posted on sites like Indeed, but more often than not, you will miss the bulk of postings if you stick to the usual job sources. Just as Indian country can be a mysterious place to the uninitiated, the best sources for job listings will likely be in unfamiliar places. Specialized sites like the Turtle Talk blog will be your best friend in any hunt for a legal position with a tribe or related entity. Additionally, the Bureau of Indian Affairs offers a map that shows every federally recognized tribe in the United States. I suggest using the maps to find tribes within your search area and checking the tribe’s website for positions that may not be posted to Turtle Talk. Some preliminary research into the best source for tribal position postings in your area will make the search much easier.
Tribal communities in this country are vibrant and growing, with a need for quality legal assistance. As a new attorney, you could help these communities while also engaging in unique legal work to begin a fulfilling career.