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by Vault Law Editors | March 10, 2009

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The number one advantage of a government legal job is the fact that you can have work hours that are close to a 9-to-5 job. You can also have a flexible work schedule; some lawyers have every other Monday off, others have job share situations with other attorneys. "No one expects you to miss a friend's wedding or a doctor's appointment," explains one SEC attorney. "As a government lawyer, my clients are the investors of the United States. I'm not usually dealing with them. Instead, I'm dealing with the corporations who want to issue stock to them. So there's less pressure to drop everything to make the corporation happy. I can weigh the relative importance of a particular phone call or critique of a document versus the other work on my plate and my other life obligations. Some agency staff attorneys have never worked a weekend or stayed past 5:30 on a weekday. Others might work 7 a.m. to 12 a.m. for a month, then take a week off without asking for permission. The trade-off is that we make a lot less money."

A government job sometimes offers more interesting work than an entry-level job in the private sector. If you're in the right agency at the right time, you will do cutting-edge work, rather than document review. A government lawyer might have lots of high-level contact at the very beginning of his career. "Usually, an SEC staff attorney will be the sole contact on a major deal within the first month of the job," says one SEC lawyer. "If you're not comfortable with responsibility right out of law school, this might not be the right job for you." Government jobs also provide good benefits and a comfortable retirement. In addition, your work serves the American people in a way other corporate law jobs will not.

There are tradeoffs for these advantages. As noted above, the most obvious disadvantage of working for the government is the compensation. "What's most disturbing to me is that, relative to other employees in this agency, your law degree doesn't mean anything," says one government lawyer. "You could be a high school graduate and be making almost the same salary I make now. If you come out of law school with a ton of debt, your federal government job will not help you pay it down. However, this kind of job would qualify you for loan forgiveness, if your law school has a hefty enough endowment to offer it." Moreover, some government agencies won't pay for bar dues, continuing legal education or other perks typically provided by a law firm.

Other tradeoffs are less immediate. "Many government lawyers fear that they will become so specialized that they will no longer be able to get a job outside the government," reports one government attorney. "The flip side is that there are certain places in the government that will give you experience in your first year that you won't get for the first seven or eight years of your law firm job, and there are some niches in the government that have incredible marketability on the outside. If you choose to work for the government, just make sure that you learn a marketable skill set, whether you want to stay in the government for the rest of your career or not."

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