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What Does a Government Lawyer Really Do?

For many people, government jobs are the dream. Federal agencies combine interesting work and long-term employment with great benefits. Local government lawyers are present at everything from criminal trials to city planning meetings.

Unless there is a big state criminal trial or a political quarrel in Washington, D.C., most people don't think much about the legal professionals who work in various government branches. When you do, you might wonder how one becomes a government lawyer and how to learn more about the profession.

Who Are Government Lawyers?

Most people are familiar with the state and federal attorney general and perhaps the district attorney of their county. They have heard of the public defender's office, although they may not have realized it is also a government agency. The district attorney's office and public defender work together on criminal cases, but this is only one branch of government law.

Other government legal offices may include:

  • General counsel: A "general counsel" is the chief legal officer in a department or agency. In government, it may include state, county, or special counsel, representing the government in legal matters and providing legal advice.
  • Compliance and code enforcement: Every regulatory agency has attorneys on staff to help interpret legislation and assist regulators and investigators with enforcing codes.
  • Oversight agencies: The FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and other investigative agencies have attorneys to assist with drafting legal documents, preparing warrants and motions, and presenting cases before the court.

The government's Congress members and lobbyists maintain full-time staff, including legal support, to review their proposals, research case law, and provide citations as needed.

Becoming a Government Lawyer

To be a government attorney at the highest levels, you'll want to start planning before law school. The Department of Justice has programs for students in college and law school who are considering a career in government. You will also need a postgraduate degree, a judicial clerkship, or a law school fellowship. You must pass the bar exam in at least one state.

Experienced attorneys looking for a career change may apply after one year in practice. Your legal services are in high demand in many places. The best place to start is still the venerable usajobs.gov website, which has listed government jobs since the internet was new.

Law Students and Recent Graduates

Government job postings are few and far between. Entry-level attorney positions are rare. Your best course of action is to prepare for the attorney job you want long before you graduate from law school.

Government service is not for the casual job-seeker. Take time to read each job description and see if this is the job you want. Pay attention to how your qualifications match the position. Government recruiters are looking for a law degree, good grades, a commitment to public service, and an interest in the practice area for which you applied. If all your law school experience has been in family law, do not apply for a position in administrative law.

Government positions list the exact qualifications for which they're looking, but they also want to see:

  • Judicial clerkships, especially if you have a letter of recommendation from the judge
  • Internships in the area of law for which you are applying
  • Other legal public interest work — the more, the better

Do not hesitate to use other eligibility, such as the veteran's preference. You should use every edge you have.

What Is the Average Salary for a Government Attorney?

Your salary as a government employee will vary depending on your experience and the institution in which you work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the median salary for a private attorney, depending on location, in 2021 at $127,990. A federal attorney may make much more, depending on the agency for which they work and their level of experience.

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ) website, U.S. attorneys (AUSA) are paid on an administrative scale depending on location and the number of years worked for the agency. As of 2023, the DOJ pay scale shows they may begin at just under $60,000 and top out at $183,000 per executive order.

All other attorneys are known as General Schedule (GS) employees and receive pay and promotions based on time in grade and performance. A lawyer fresh out of law school in the Honors Program with the DOJ begins as a GS-11 with starting pay of about $60,000. Employees receiving GS salaries receive "locality pay" for high-cost-of-living areas.

Why Work for the Government?

The advantages of working for the U.S. government are stable working hours, high pay, good benefits, and no push for billable hours. The downside is that the job can become a grind, with little client contact and not much room for expansion. At higher levels, vacancies usually don't happen until someone above you retires or dies.

Private attorneys have more flexibility in where they work and can strike out on their own. They interact with their clients and have more time with colleagues. Associates in large firms may have the same workload grind as their government counterparts, with the added crush of generating 80 billable hours per week.

Not everyone is a good fit for either world. Take the time to decide where you belong before starting a job search.

Can a Government Lawyer Help Me?

Most people seldom interact with actual government attorneys, except for public defenders and their district attorney counterparts. If they work in other branches of government, they may encounter their own general counsel during meetings.

If a layperson uses a government attorney, it may be through a government agency such as the Social Security Administration, disability, or unemployment. Attorneys in these agencies may be available to assist you with obtaining government benefits. Some agencies can refer you to local legal services in your area.

Are you entitled to services and benefits from the state or federal government? Speaking to a government agencies and programs attorney may be the best option to address your legal concerns.

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