For a significant number of attorneys, working for the government is an appealing alternative to the private practice of law. Government lawyers handle many of the same tasks that lawyers in law firms handle but within a different framework. These lawyers find that working for the government provides them with work that is meaningful because of its impact on citizens and its role in shaping public policy.
Government lawyers work in all three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — at the federal, state, county, and local levels. Attorneys in the executive branch work for government agencies and offices, while the legislative branch employs attorneys as legislative counsel and staff, and the judicial branch has attorneys who work as judges, clerks, and court administrators. There are also many non-lawyer jobs in government that are well-suited to candidates with a JD; however, this Pathway will focus primarily on government positions that require a law degree.
There are opportunities for government attorneys in virtually every area of substantive law. Attorneys who are interested in tax law, for instance, may work for the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the California Franchise Tax Board, and those who are interested in environmental law may work for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the California State Lands Commission. Some government attorneys work with multiple areas of law, while others have very specialized duties. The substance of a particular government lawyer's assignments will depend on the roles and responsibilities of the government body for which he or she works. Some government attorneys work with a wide variety of substantive law while the work of others is very specialized.
As one might expect, the daily activities of government attorneys are as varied as the breadth of areas in which they practice. Most government attorneys engage in some combination of the following tasks, depending on the scope and purpose of their position: conducting research; writing letters, briefs, pleadings, opinions, and memoranda; counseling government employees and officers; drafting and reviewing legislation, contracts, and regulations; assisting with investigations; undertaking enforcement of a statute or regulation; attending negotiations; preparing for litigation; appearing in court and in front of administrative bodies; interpreting the law; interfacing with the public; and lobbying.
The application process for government jobs is often quite bureaucratic. In addition to a standardized application, most jobs require a certain level of background investigation, sometimes in conjunction with a security clearance. Furthermore, many positions require applicants to be admitted to the state bar at the time they submit their applications (the most notable exception being government "honors programs"). However, the comprehensive nature of the application process should not deter attorneys from applying for government positions. The McGeorge Career Development Office (CDO) has resources to help students and alumni alike navigate the complexities of the process, and many people find that the benefits of a government job are well worth the initial hurdles.
Government lawyers are usually given a significant amount of responsibility early on, which provides beginning lawyers and lawyers looking to branch into new areas of law the opportunity to gain hands-on experience more quickly than they might in other settings. Furthermore, government jobs often come with good benefits and a manageable work schedule. Government lawyers gain satisfaction from their service to the public, and they like that they have no financial stake in the outcome of their work. For many government attorneys, these perks make up for the fact that they generally receive lower salaries than attorneys in private practice. Fortunately, there are programs — including McGeorge's Loan Repayment Assistance Program and the Federal Loan Forgiveness Program — that may help ease the burden of law school debt for government attorneys.
Breadth and Depth
McGeorge's Field Placement Program allows you to earn law school credit while performing supervised legal work as an extern at nearly 100 approved government agencies, courts or non-profit entities. Visit the Field Placement office on TWEN to learn about our Externship Programs or to schedule an appointment.
Clinics offer faculty-supervised, law office settings in a variety of legal practice areas. Go to the McGeorge Legal Clinics' web pages for the current list of clinics.
When hiring, government employers look for a demonstrated interest in government work and/or in the substantive area of law with which they work. A good way to secure a position with the government is to work for an agency or other government organization during law school as an intern, extern, or volunteer. As in private practice, having a mentor can also be extremely helpful in securing, and succeeding in, a job with the government. Some government bodies have summer intern programs with specific application procedures and strict deadlines. Other programs are more informal. Students should check the websites of organizations for which they might like to work and network with attorneys in those organizations to find out about available opportunities.
Among the federal agencies that host honors programs and fellowships are the following:
Other co-curricular activities that might benefit students interested in working for the government:
Government positions are located wherever there are government bodies—it follows, of course, that there are often more government positions in capital cities. Positions with the federal government are most commonly located in Washington, D.C.; however, there are also positions in federal government field offices outside of D.C., especially in New York City and other major metropolitan areas. As the capital of California, Sacramento is home to a very large number of government agencies. McGeorge students can, and should, take advantage of the opportunities offered by living and going to school in the capital city of the country's most populous state.
Government attorneys work in all three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial) at the federal, state, county, and local levels. Some examples are listed below:
The U.S. Department of Justice is the largest employer of attorneys in the federal government.
Other federal agencies that employ significant numbers of attorneys include:
In the executive branch, attorneys work for the following:
County and Local (Cities, Villages, Townships)
A variety of county and local organizations employ attorneys. They include, but are not limited to, the following:
Technically, a government attorney's client is the government for which he or she works. For example, the United States is the client of attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice and California is the client of attorneys at the California Secretary of State. However, many government attorneys also consider their client to be the citizens of the government for which they work.
The CDO also has a number of resources relevant to careers in state government, particularly that of California. They include, but are not limited to, the following: