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Working as a government attorney has both pros and cons, just like any other attorney. Some of the pros include more freedom over what cases they work on and often having a more stable job than some other types of attorneys. Some of the cons include a lower average salary compared to private practice attorneys and less support staff to help you than you would have in private practice.
Government attorneys enjoy various benefits that private practice attorneys don't have. That being said, there are some downsides to becoming a government attorney. While they often have additional freedom over the cases they take on, and more job security, they also usually have less support staff and a lower average salary as compared to private practice attorneys. All in all, you should definitely consider becoming a government attorney if it looks like the right fit for you.
1. Why did you decide to work as a government attorney?
I didn't go into law school knowing that I wanted to be a government attorney. As an undergraduate I worked for two-and-a-half years with a private criminal defense firm in Dayton, Ohio, and could have easily seen myself in private practice in a few years' time. What introduced me to public sector legal work was a summer internship with the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office in Columbus, Ohio. I had originally accepted an offer to be a law clerk for a private firm during the summer after my all-important 1L year. However, about two weeks before I was to begin work, the firm underwent a "restructuring" and I was abruptly informed that I no longer had a job. I ended up with the Prosecutor's Office by the mere grace of their being the first to offer me a position after I was left high-and-dry by the private firm. I ended up enjoying the position immensely, and left with the sense that a career in the public sector could be right for me.
2. What is the best part of working as a government attorney?
For me, the best part of working as a government attorney is being able to serve members of the public. I've been lucky enough to work in positions where I have been able to help people a great deal - from my time with two public defender's offices, to my current position as a contract attorney with the State Bar of California's Client Security Fund. Especially today, when there seems to be more skepticism and distrust of the government and its ability to solve problems than any other time in my life, it is nice to be able to show people that public sector employees are still out there working hard to help them.
3. What is the worst part of working as a government attorney?
You certainly won't get rich working as a government attorney - at least not without decades of service, an incredible amount of thrift, and a lot of luck along the way. But, in a lot of ways, that fact is offset by the greater work-life balance you enjoy as a government employee. Another downside to working as a government attorney, at least recently, is a relatively high level of job insecurity. Furloughs, budget cuts, hiring freezes, and the fear of layoffs are simply a part of life in the current economic climate. It certainly makes you pay more attention to political drama to know your job could potentially be affected by it.
4. What advice would you give to others looking to become a government attorney?
Get experience early. Public sector jobs are becoming more and more attractive to law school graduates as big firms are scaling back hiring, and the result is a larger and more talented pool of applicants. The more experience you can get in your area of interest, and the more you can demonstrate your commitment to public service in general, the more you will stand out.
5. What is a typical day like for you as a government attorney?
Although I'm sure the experience differs depending on where you work, the typical day for a government attorney is probably slightly more structured and orderly than a typical day as an attorney in private practice. My own position is very much a stereotypical "nine to five" work routine - although 8:30 to 5:15 is far more accurate. I work a high case load, with nearly a hundred cases assigned to me and currently open. Part of the trick of working in an environment like that is being able to give each case the attention it deserves, without giving it so much attention that you neglect other cases.
6. How does your experience as a government attorney compare with your peers who chose other sorts of jobs?
I truly believe that I enjoy a higher level of job satisfaction than my peers who ended up in private sector positions. The pay may be lower, but I make plenty to support myself, have more time to pursue other interests, and spend my days assisting members of the public who are (for the most part) grateful for what I do. Both of my parents worked for a large private law firm when I was growing up, and one still does at age 66. While their careers allowed them to give me and my sister a very comfortable upbringing, I also know that all of the stress, demand, and extremely long hours affected them negatively as well. I am perfectly happy forgoing some of those burdens in exchange for a slightly lower pay rate.