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by Vault Law Editors | March 10, 2009

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Uncle Sam wants lawyers

Forget about big-firm recruiting machines -- the federal government is a big-time legal recruiter. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of March 2001 (the last date for which data was available), the federal government employed close to 58,000 people in "judicial and legal" positions. The statistics cover only civilian personnel and don't get more specific. Additionally, lawyers working in other positions (e.g., law enforcement) aren't included, so the actual number of JDs (or LLMs, etc.) may be higher. There are some basic conditions anyone considering a legal career within the federal government must meet. Since 1976 nearly every civil service job has required American citizenship or residency in American Samoa. Male job applicants also need to be registered with the Selective Service, the government's draft registry. Of course, a law degree is required, but as with most law firms, many government agencies have an honors program which allow law graduates to start working as a law clerk for up to a year before passing the bar exam.

If you were in the military before earning your law degree, you may be eligible for veterans' preference in being considered for government jobs. The preference generally only applies to those members of the armed forces who actually saw combat action, so you'll need to have participated in an officially recognized military campaign or expedition and received a campaign badge.

The government is a drug-free workplace, and the application process for most positions will include a screening test. Jobs at law enforcement or intelligence gathering agencies require a more extensive background check that can take months to complete. In addition to speaking with friends and family, government investigators interview professors and classmates, former bosses and coworkers, even old landlords and ex-spouses. They also do a close reading of tax records and check for any credit problems or arrests, building up a detailed history than can extend as far as a decade into the past. (Although standards vary from agency to agency, previous drug use won't necessarily be a disqualifying factor, depending on its extent and how long ago it occurred. For example, some agencies will tolerate occasional marijuana use provided it hasn't occurred within the last five years.)

Down with OPM

Although many of the federal agencies listed in this guide will have job openings posted on their web sites, almost applications or applicants go thorough the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the government's very own HR department, at some point, usually early in the process. The OPM has created a standardized "optional application for federal employment," also known as the OF-612, which identifies the minimum information you'll need to provide about work experience, education and other job-related qualifications; although it is not required, it is a common and useful substitute for a resumi. (The file is available for download in PDF or Word version at http://www.opm.gov/forms/html/of.asp.) Once this form is submitted, plus whatever additional materials are required in the vacancy announcement, you will be contacted directly by the agency to which you've applied.

Most government jobs follow a strict pay scale, available from the OPM as the General Schedule of salaries. (See below.) Corporate lawyers, though, are in for a treat; the Federal Reserve Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission have a separate pay structure with higher wages. Most government attorneys start out at the GS-11 level ($41,684 in 2002), but promotions can make a big difference. A third-year GS-11, for example, still had a base salary under $45,000 in 2002, but a GS-12 position boosts earnings to $53,000.

Local Governments

State and local governments are also serious recruiters of legal eagles. According to the U.S. Census, state and local governments employed approximately 400,000 judicial and legal personnel as of March 2001. (These positions aren't broken down by the Census Bureau and lawyers in some other categories may not be counted.) Of course, municipal government recruiting is tricky because it can vary even within one state, but there are a few popular legal positions that have pretty standard hiring processes.

Trying to land a job with a district attorney's office can be as competitive as applying for an associate's position at a major law firm, especially in a large city. The three cities profiled in this guide -- Chicago, Los Angeles and Manhattan -- can (and often do) receive up to 20 times more applications than they have available positions, and put their prospective hires through as many as four separate interviews before making their final decision. Although the background checks aren't as extensive as for a federal position, a prosecutor's office will, at the very least, check an applicant's history for any criminal record and require a drug test.

This pattern holds in other large cities as well: the Bronx DA's office had more than 700 applicants to choose from in 2000, and made offers to just 55. Some attorney's offices have the resources to recruit on law school campuses, while others rely heavily on prospective candidates to show initiative and seek them out. Most, but not all, will have information about applying for employment on their web sites, although the smaller offices will often refuse to accept applications if they don't actually have a vacancy to fill. And some offices have their own unique setups, like the Miami-Dade County Attorney's office, which selects many of its new hires from participants in its summer clerk program, an internship available to five to eight students each year.

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