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Interview questions: Opening at Governmental Agency

published May 16, 2013

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The following important questions (principally for the Third Year student) are designed for you to get a better feel for the governmental agency in question:

1. What is the organization of the law department? Where do junior lawyers fit in?

As always, it is important to determine how you are going to fit into the scheme of practice within a given corporation. The answers to this question are relevant in the same way answers to similar questions about the context of private firms and corporations are relevant. The organization of governmental agencies tends to be more fixed than that of corporate law departments and law firms. Nonetheless, you should look for as many of the positive characteristics attributed to firms and corporations as possible.

2. How does the law department relate to the head of the agency?

This question corresponds to similar questions asked in the context of corporate legal departments and private law firms. As in the case of those two institutions, the answers will provide an insight as to the real importance of the legal department within the agency. For example, the General Counsel of the Treasury or the State Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission appears to have access to and be vitally involved with the respective Secretaries and Commissioners. Presumably staff lawyers share in that. However, the same may not be true in all cases or at any given time. Political appointments sometimes put people together who find they have personality conflicts.

3. After reviewing of the United States Government manual on the enabling legislation that establishes the jurisdiction of the agency, you should develop specific questions concerning the agency in the exercise of its legislative mandate. For example, if you are applying to the Federal Trade Commission, you might inquire about the coordination of activities concerning the consumer fraud and abuse area between that agency and the Department of Justice.

4. What opportunity is there for promotion within the agency? Are there any possibilities of intra- or inter-agency as-segment transfers?

The answers to these questions will provide some indication of a given agency's flexibility with respect to practice. Again the answers should be compared with those given to similar questions by private firms and corporations.

5. How often will I be reviewed for increases or promo tins? What promotions may I expect in the first two or three years? How will my career compensation package compare with those in private law firms or corporate law departments?

As a rule of thumb, you can expect compensation packages at federal agencies during the first few years to be enticing, if not exactly competitive, when compared with similar opportunities offered at private law firms and corporate law departments. The difference in compensation generally comes in later years. There are points in some attorneys' careers when it becomes obvious, at least in terms of compensation, that they should consider the private sector. Planning for the future is important to everyone, lawyers included. Consequently, it is important to know that, for example, in the fourth year or fifth year your salary will begin to level off and may never increase materially when compared with salaries offered in the private sector. Having that time frame in mind at the outset will allow you an opportunity to plan for your future.

6. Will my academic record qualify as a substitute for an experience requirement? What GS grade will I have? What does that mean?

The relevance of the answers to these questions is obvious.

7 Are you aware of any openings in other agencies for which I might qualify?

Again, the answer is obviously helpful.

8. How will an offer he made? When?

The answer to this question is quite important. Governmental agencies are constrained by budgetary processes that do not affect corporate law departments or private law firms, at least not to the same degree. The process of making an offer is more cumbersome within an agency and the rules or accepted practices with respect to acceptance or rejection of that offer are important. You should also try to establish a contact within the legal department to determine the progress of your application. Even if you are forced to use the general personnel department, try to establish a relationship that will provide you with a more accurate and less bureaucratic sense of the chance you will be offered a position.

H. Special Questions for the Prospective Clerk

In addition to the questions noted above, if you are applying for a permanent position commencing after a clerkship or internship, you should consider the following questions:

1. If I receive an offer of permanent employment, will it remain open through the period of my clerkship? What about a two-year clerkship?

Many law firms especially the larger ones will accommodate a clerkship, at least for a period of a year if given enough reasonable notice by a prospective clerk. There are, however, a few instances in which firms have refused to extend the traditional December 15 cutoff date. The two-year clerkship presents obvious special problems, although larger firms handle one- and two-year clerkships in the same manner. For smaller firms it just depends on a given firm's particular circumstances at the time. In each firm there are various rules and conventions which you should understand. Ask questions in the interviewing process, not at the end of your clerkship.

2. How much credit will I receive for my clerkship?

Indeed the single most important question or series of questions for a prospective clerk relates to issues of compensation credit and credit in terms of consideration for partnership with your graduating class.

Practice among private law firms varies considerably. In almost every instance, clerks can expect to receive one year's salary credit for clerkships with state supreme courts or federal judges. In addition, most firms give full compensation credit to clerks who have spent one year with a federal judge or a state Supreme Court judge and a second year at the United States Supreme Court. Beyond that, the practice is not uniform. Many firms refuse to give two years of credit for two-year district court clerkships or any two-step or two-year clerkship other than one which results in a position as a judicial clerk with the United States Supreme Court. Practice also varies with respect to credit for lower state court clerkships. In such instances, credit is not usually given. Just as an aside, be very wary of the law school faculty's push to have you clerk, regardless of for whom, where, or for what period. Even though it can be a very rewarding experience, clerking is not necessarily an essential part of your education.

Although many firms treat the compensation issue in the same fashion, there is a wide disparity with respect to credit for partnership admission purposes. Many firms offer complete compensation and partnership credit to Supreme Court clerks while others offer complete compensation credit, but insist that the partnership issue be treated separately, noting that if the experience has proved as valuable as it should have proved, there is every reason to believe Supreme Court clerks will be considered with their law school classes. Others are more candid and acknowledge that receipt of United States Supreme Court clerkship is, to some degree, a matter of chance and luck. Those firms are likely to point out that equally qualified law students who have not been clerking but who have been working for the same two-year period will have a significant head start on a clerk. For these firms such work experience may be impossible to ignore. Generally, making up two years of practice is quite difficult. Of course there are exceptions to that rule. Notwithstanding that observation, most firms recognize that unless significant attention is paid, other than by lip service, to the compensation and the partnership credit issues, a firm will not be able to compete successfully for the two-year or Supreme Court clerk, and such clerks are and will remain very attractive potential associates.

See the following articles for more information:

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