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Why Law Grads Should Consider Government Work

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Summary: Law school graduates should take a second look at government work. It offers many advantages and a few disadvantages, and sometimes requires harder work in finding. This article lists the advantages, disadvantages, and gives advice on how to explore government jobs further.
Why Law Grads Should Consider Government Work

  • Working for the US government as a lawyer can be as competitive as working within a private law firm.
  • But there are some differences – many for the better that private practice law simply can’t touch.
  • Find out what those differences are in this article.

Not all lawyers work for big firms. Certainly a lot of JDs, saddled with upwards of $300,000 in student loans, might set their sights toward the biggest firms, which, as a rule, offer $180,000 for fresh hires. There are alternatives, however. Working for the government is a solid alternative, offering, as all career options do, its advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s start with the advantages. The government offers a wide array of legal jobs, at the federal, state, county, and city level, many with a specific focus that will fit the niche of your interest. Those who work for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) may work either civil or criminal work, with focuses ranging from taxes and white collar crime to prosecuting terrorists and drug smuggling.

Many attorneys who take this track look towards nonmaterial gains, taking pride that they are helping an entire branch of the government, as well as their fellow citizens. Many regard their government work as a personal calling.

Government work offers the sorts of perks you might expect: great benefits, job security, and predictable hours. They are more family-friendly than big firms. Whereas at a big firm you might be expected to work 80-100 hours a week, federal government jobs are more modest in what they expect of you. For one, though government attorneys can bear heavy workloads, their client is their agency, so they are not expected to bill their time. Further, attorneys can “compress” their work hours so they work four days a week and gain a three-day weekend.

Federal employees are also entitled to 13 days of vacation and 13 days of sick leave. The vacation days increase the longer you’ve worked there, so you can gain up to 26 days of vacation each year (after 15 years of service), with ten paid holidays to boot. Basically, federal attorneys earn the same benefits all government employees do, which includes generous health insurance plans.

Not only do government jobs offer reasonable hours and the patriotic pride that you are working for the public good, but they also are good resume builders. A lawyer might build his credentials doing government work and then later seek employment in the private sector. Further, government jobs offer more responsibility early, and that’s a sweet balance, more responsibility with less stress.

Of course, work is work, and the amount of hard work the government will require of you may add up to as much as some private practice counterparts, with this key disadvantage: lower salary. The government pays less than the big law firms. With such a great debt coming out of law school, this might sound like a deal-breaker for many JDs. As of 2011, Attorneys working for the government earned a mean of $129,440 a year, the highest pay among federal legal occupations, which overall averaged $102,940. Other positions vary considerably in pay and the type of experience they expect of new hires.

There is some hope in this. Federal Government jobs can offer salaries comparable to midsized firms.

Another drawback is the difficulty of finding government jobs to begin with. While the federal level jobs are generally visible, state and local levels require a more involved search (the job postings are not centralized).

For the federal level, be sure to familiarize yourself with websites like

If the government track interests you, get started early requesting informational interviews and talking both with employers and professors about which classes and experiences will best prepare you for government work. As there is a wide range of government jobs, some generalized, some quite specific in what they expect, it helps to decide earlier what track you hope to take.

Most legal offices in the federal government host summer and academic year internships. These programs include the Department of Justice’s Summer Law Intern Program, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of General Counsel’s Summer Law Intern Program.

As a 3L, consider the three main avenues by which JDs get hired into the federal government: direct hiring, honors programs, and the Presidential Management Fellows Program (PMF).

The Top Agencies for Legal Professions include:
  • Social Security Administration
  • Department of Treasury
  • Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Department of Justice
  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Department of Labor
  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Department of Labor
  • Department of State
  • Securities and Exchange Commission
  • Department of Commerce
  • Department of Health and Human Services
  • Department of the Interior

Forty-five percent of federal government attorneys practice in Washington D.C. The largest employers of attorneys include the Department of Justice and the Armed Forces. For the Department of Justice, study their employment information at At the state level, contact individual state’s employment departments to learn their hiring procedures.

Working in Washington D.C., which is also called “Main Justice” has the advantage of paying more than those in U.S. Attorney’s Offices.

At the local level, with the lack of centralized posting, you must do more legwork to discover what is available. Be sure to look at:
  • District Attorney
  • Public Defender
  • County Counsel
  • City Attorneys’ offices.

Working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the Securities and Exchange Commission is not some sort of second best. These are highly coveted positions, and landing them is extremely competitive. You have to try, try again, and keep trying. Persistence is success. You are not only competing with JDs, but hundreds of applicants for each job, some with judicial clerkships and big law on their resumes.

Working for the government has its perks. There is more than a patriotic lift in being able to say, “My name is ____, and I represent the United States.” The job, like all, has its drawbacks, but it also has many advantages that make it a worthy consideration for any aspiring JD.

For more information, look into these articles:

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