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.
1. Why did you decide to work as a government attorney?
I decided to work as a government attorney because I was attracted to the security and stability it offered. In addition, it also promised attorneys the flexibility to change practice areas with greater ease than in the private sector. Most importantly, I believed it would be a place for civic-minded lawyers who were interested in working for the public interest.
2. What is the best part of working as a government attorney?
In addition to greater security and stability, the salary and benefits are similar to working in a small or mid-sized firm. Work schedules and hours can be more flexible, particularly in certain departments. Generally, government lawyers are not overworked. In fact, there are many days when there simply isn’t much work to do at all. Government jobs usually offer better benefits in lieu of a higher salary, but these benefits are most valuable for lawyers with spouses and families.
3. What is the worst part of working as a government attorney?
Lawyers who opt to work for the government generally have to take a salary cut when starting. Many government lawyer positions, even for experienced lawyers, start with a pay of about $60,000 a year. But there is generally a lock-step salary increase after one year that brings you closer to $75,000 a year. After that, lawyer salaries increase only in incremental steps within your position title until you are maxed out after four years or so. By this point, government lawyers are earning about $120,000 a year. To increase your salary thereafter, you have to be promoted, which is a highly political process.
Hiring and promotions of government lawyers are heavily based on nepotism. (I only got my job at Los Angeles County because my mother has worked there as a clerk for almost 40 years and knew one of the office managers.) Moreover, promotions are generally only awarded every four to five years, and are based on filling vacant spots of lawyers who have resigned or retired. As such, there are not many avenues to advance once you become a government lawyer.
Work quality and productivity in general are not valued. By its nature, government institutions are rather wasteful, and few advantages are given to competent and hardworking lawyers. In fact, the worst part of government work is that it tends to attract lower quality attorneys who cannot find work in the private sector. This is particularly true at the local government level. Many of these lower quality lawyers resent working with higher quality lawyers and have a sense of entitlement to their government jobs. I describe this phenomenon as “the tyranny of the mediocre.”
Government work can often be unchallenging and even boring. Most government law offices contract out their most complex cases to outside private law firms. As such, government legal work tends to focus on more mundane and routine legal questions and tasks.
While there are opportunities to change practice areas by changing departments, these opportunities are few and far between. Because it is difficult to fire government workers, most lawyer transfers are made due to underlying “personality conflicts” in the office rather than a genuine desire to change practice areas. That being said, some lawyers are able to change practice areas, but it may take years of waiting.
Finally, I must add the following for truthfulness’ sake: Large law offices in America, like hospitals, often have an historic religious identity: Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. Most government law offices, particularly in Los Angeles, appear to be Catholic in identity. This means that while there may appear to be racial diversity, there is little religious diversity. This lack of religious diversity manifests unfortunately as a subtle hostility to attorneys that do not fit the generally accepted mold.
4. What advice would you give to others looking to become government attorneys?
The best way to find a job as a government lawyer is to network with people—lawyers and non-lawyers—who already work for a government agency. These individuals will not only be able to tell you if and when positions become available, but can assist you tremendously by putting in a good word for you. Most government lawyers already know someone in the organization prior to being hired. Because it is so difficult to fire government workers, nepotism functions as a way of ensuring the lawyer will be a “good fit.”
5. What is a typical day like for you as a government attorney?
A typical day depends on what department you work in. As a litigator, my typical day would be coming to work around 9 a.m. and working on one of the five to ten litigation matters I was assigned. This generally involved responding to interrogatories, contacting County personnel to gather documents and facts, filing court documents, making court appearances and taking depositions. Government lawyers gain lots of practical experience early on working on low-exposure cases, such as auto accidents and slip and fall lawsuits. Again, most lawyers are not overworked and getting the required tasks completed is generally not stressful. Most lawyers leave by 5 p.m. Lawyers who have afternoon appearances or depositions usually go home early right after.
As an appellate lawyer, my day was much the same, except I stayed primarily in my office reviewing records and drafting briefs. Less socializing went on in the appellate division, but lawyers generally had more flexibility in their schedules because much of the work could be done at home or on the weekends.
Trial lawyers who worked in the Children's Court generally came to work earlier, but left earlier. These lawyers had faster-paced and more stressful courtroom assignments where dozens of child detentions occurred each day. As such, they would often work from 8 to 8:30 a.m. and leave by 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. when the afternoon calendar was completed.
6. How does your experience as a government attorney compare with your peers who chose other sorts of jobs?
As a government lawyer, you will work less, but you will make less. It is both a career and lifestyle decision. These jobs often attract young mothers or lawyers seeking to escape the law firm grind.
However, working for the government can be professionally isolating and insular. It’s harder to make professional contacts with people outside of government who could potentially broaden your career horizons or make it easier to find new opportunities. Working as a government lawyer may also make it more difficult for you to transition back to a private firm because government jobs are perceived to be lax or cushy. As such, government work is best suited for those who wish to make a long-term commitment to it. This is especially true because the pension does not vest until you’ve worked there for five years.
While I believe I was better off working as a government lawyer than remaining in private practice (particularly during the 2008-2010 recession), I think I would have been better off exploring other related careers, even if that meant I would not practice law. I have several peers from law school who have gone into finance careers and report it to be demanding, yet enjoyable and lucrative. Other peers have gone into campaign organizing and, though they started making much less money than a lawyer, have now started their own consulting businesses and done well for themselves.
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