An attorney considering a public-sector practice can find work associated with any of the three branches of government. For example, both the U.S. Congress and the federal court system employ lawyers as researchers and as clerks. Some attorneys are hired to draft and review legislation. The armed services employ thousands of lawyers, both military and civilian, to perform the myriad legal tasks that those large organizations and their personnel require. The Department of Justice hires many attorneys to handle routine litigation and courtroom business or to serve in special units that oversee the most complex and specialized litigation and legal business facing the United States. Additionally, every federal agency has a legal staff to address problems faced in the course of day-to-day regulatory activities, and some have a corps of administrative law judges to hear and propose decisions in contested cases.
Except military positions and those legal jobs that involve such specialized functions as the conduct of foreign relations and other peculiarly federal areas of interest, this hierarchy of lawyers, somewhat reduced in size and numbers, is duplicated in state governments. Most states have administrative agencies that have legal staffs and administrative law judges. Offices of state attorneys general represent the state government and are often charged with enforcing certain consumer and civil rights. In many states, the public defender system is an arm of the government.
Local governments, especially in large cities, also require lawyers' services. County attorneys or district attorneys prosecute criminals. City attorneys and attorneys on their staffs may draft ordinances, oversee regulatory functions such as enforcement of building codes and zoning restrictions, oversee the provision of utility services, and represent the city in litigation.
Government law practice is varied in its substantive scope as well. The variety of areas of law open to government attorneys is as broad as that available in private practice. Government attorneys who prosecute criminal offenses may do so under antitrust legislation, drug enforcement laws, internal revenue code provisions, or innumerable other statutes. Many government lawyers are happy to practice as business lawyers rather than litigators. Their duties may include licensing health facilities or radio broadcasting companies, drafting environmental regulations, or administering welfare laws. Virtually every aspect of law practice open to the private practitioner-contract litigation, securities, tort defense, real property law, taxation, administrative law, environmental law, criminal law-has an analogue in government practice.
Who's the Client?
Perhaps the most interesting distinction between private and public practice has to do with the matter of clients. Many government legal positions do not involve a significant amount of client contact. It may be difficult, for example, as a lawyer for an administrative agency, to even identify a particular client. In other cases, such as that of a prosecutor or city attorney, the client is a more nebulous conglomeration of persons natural and artificial: "the United States," "the People of the State of Montana," or "the City of St. Louis." On the one hand, a most rewarding aspect of the practice of law is the special relationship that can bind attorneys and their clients, and some government lawyers miss out on this. On the other hand, the lack of individual client responsibility can be a blessing.
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In a nutshell, service to individual clients can be the heart and soul of law practice, or it can be a pain in the neck. In the private sector, stories are easy to come by about clients calling lawyers at home at the most inopportune times and with the most bizarre questions. A private practitioner may feel forced, for obvious reasons, to be pleasant to some paying clients who are very unpleasant people. Although any prosecutor, city attorney, or administrative agency lawyer can tell you that crime victims and taxpayers often do not seem as grateful as one might hope, nonetheless these government lawyers find great personal satisfaction in sending a dangerous criminal to jail, defending a city from a frivolous lawsuit, or exercising the right of the government to prohibit the discharge of toxic wastes into the environment, all in the service of their public "client."
Good News, Bad News
As with most career choices, there are advantages and disadvantages to consider in choosing employment as a government attorney. For some, work as a government attorney is a chance to fulfill a strongly felt desire to serve the public. Some law schools ask prospective students to write short essays describing why they have applied for admission. Many applicants write about the opportunity to make society better through their hoped-for legal career. Unfortunately for these noble souls, positions as lawyers for "white knight" public interest organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund or the American Civil Liberties Union are very difficult to get, and those positions that are available often go to lawyers with several years' experience. For this reason, law school graduates who want to "do good" in their work can often meet this goal through working in the public sector.
While there are limits on this "revolving door," to prevent government attorneys from conducting their practice with an eye toward pleasing those in the private sector for whom they plan to work, the flow of lawyers in and out of the government attracts good lawyers to the practice, helps cross- pollinate the legal profession and fosters better understanding of government.