For graduates pursuing a legal career outside of BigLaw, the government offers myriad job opportunities on the federal, state and local levels.

AS NYU Law's former assistant dean for Public Service Deb Ellis points out: “Working in an entry-level government job offers the opportunity to assume responsibility early in one's career for significant matters, thereby quickly developing one's skills as a lawyer, while also earning an excellent salary and benefits.”

While salaries for government attorneys are admittedly lower than those working at private firms – indeed, an entry-level attorney working for the federal government can expect a starting salary of around $100,000, less than half of what BigLaw first-year associates make – there are nevertheless many benefits to choosing a government position. These include:

Geographical flexibility – Aspiring government attorneys face fewer geographical limitations than their BigLaw counterparts, who are typically restricted to major cities: state and local governments hire attorneys across all cities in the USA, and the federal government employs around 85% of its workforce outside of Washington, DC.

Loan repayment assistance – “A major concern of graduates in this economy is finding a position that allows them to manage their debt and still live comfortably,” a careers adviser at Cardozo School of Law tells us. Fortunately, a number of federal agencies offer student loan repayment schemes to assist recent graduates with their debt, and many law schools have similar financial assistance programs for aspiring public interest lawyers.

Early responsibility – “One great part of working for the government is that you get substantive work from day one,” a recent law graduate working for the Department of Labor reflected. Indeed, attorneys in both the federal and state/local government tend to manage their own caseloads from the start of their career rather than answering to a strict hierarchical chain.

Wide variety of work – “There is a whole slew of practice areas graduates can pursue in the government,” a careers adviser from the University of Chicago Law School rightly points out. Indeed, federal and state/local government attorneys work in all branches of the government as well as independent agencies performing all types of legal work, including litigation, advisory and regulatory work.

Tangible results – Because government legal employees tend to deal with concrete policies rather than abstract transactions, they're often able to see first-hand the effects of their work within the community, particularly those in the local sector. “The rewards are more intrinsic,” explains Laura Mangini, former editor-in-chief of the University of Connecticut's Public Interest Law Journal. “You come home feeling like you've done something good, like you've helped someone.”

Career flexibility – “Many government attorneys stay in their jobs a long time, but those who decide to leave have developed valuable transferable skills,” Deb Ellis tells us. With the variety of skills gained from a legal stint with the government – among them, research, communication and analytical skills – attorneys are equipped to work in a variety of jobs, from in-house or BigLaw associate positions to legal writing and teaching jobs.

Legal jobs with the government are available within two main divisions: the federal government and state/local governments. Some departments and agencies to consider in each include:

Federal  State/Local 
  • Central Intelligence Agency
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Federal Bureau of Investigations
  • Federal Trade Commission
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • State Attorney General's Office
  • Governor's Office
  • City Law Department
  • Mayor's Office
  • City Council

The federal route 

The federal government employs attorneys in each of its three branches – executive, legislative and judicial – as well as its independent agencies, which include the Federal Reserve System and the National Labor Relations Board. Of these divisions, the executive branch and independent agencies take on the greatest number of attorneys: in 2013, there were over 112,000 employees with full-time, permanent legal positions.

According to the Partnership for Public Service, the federal government was looking to fill 23,596 legal positions between 2010 and 2012, nearly a quarter of which were attorney positions. Entry-level positions to consider include those that specifically require a JD – such as attorneys or law clerks for the Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Homeland Security and Department of the Treasury (all of which have a particularly high number of jobs available each year) – as well as those for which a law degree is not required but highly recommended, such as paralegals, contact representatives, policy analysts, hearing and appeals specialists, estate tax examiners and labor relations specialists.

Contrary to popular belief, pursuing a legal career with the federal government does not restrict you to the courtroom; federal attorneys do everything from drafting legislation to handling depositions to advising on congressional inquiries. Some different areas of work include:

Litigation – Many federal litigators work for the DOJ, handling lawsuits and depositions; others are employed by agencies with independent litigating authorities, such as the Department of Labor, and typically handle drafting and other paperwork.

Advisory – Those interested in an advisory position can act as counselors or attorney advisers, providing advice and analysis for agencies like the Food and Drug Administration.

Regulatory – Regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency regularly hire lawyers to assist with the implementation of federal rules and regulations.

Public policy – Attorneys engage with public policy work in agencies like the Department of Commerce and Department of State, reinforcing the passage and interpretation of government legislation. There are several routes to landing a legal position with the federal government. While direct hiring is always an option – as all branches of government hire attorneys and other legal staff on a regular basis – there are also a number of programs designed to recruit recent graduates for which law students are eligible:

Recent Graduate Program – Under this program, which came into effect in late 2011, recent graduates are placed on a two-year career development scheme with a federal agency with the possibility of converting to a permanent position upon completion. Such jobs can include legal positions, though not typically attorney positions.

Honors Programs – The most common route for a federal agency attorney position, honors programs are tailored to specific agencies and generally entail a two-year fellowship with an agency, after which the majority of candidates are offered permanent positions. Some agencies with specific honors programs include the DOJ, CIA and Department of Homeland Security.

Presidential Management Fellows Program – Open to law, masters and doctoral graduates, this program places successful candidates in two-year management or policy positions that have the potential to result in permanent appointments. Again, positions can be legal-based but do not typically include attorney appointments.

Federal positions are highly sought after, so competition can get stiff for places. Having some type of work experience is essential when it comes to proving you're up to the task, whether it's a summer interning for a public interest organization or a full-blown fellowship with the federal government. “Government employers view work experience like internships as extended job interviews,” Deb Ellis tells us, pointing out that “many graduates who land coveted government jobs have interned at a government agency.” Most law school careers development offices can offer advice on how to pursue relevant stints of work experience, some of which include externships with state of US attorneys, clinical programs with the Supreme Court, summer internships with government organizations and post-graduate fellowships with federal bigwigs.

Some federal legal careers to consider in the long run include:

  • Public defender
  • Military attorney
  • Appellate judge
  • General attorney
  • Trial attorney

The state/local route 

Like the federal government, state governments are divided into three branches, all of which routinely recruit law graduates. The structures of local governments vary by community and work together with their respective state government to implement rules and regulations and maintain a balanced justice system. Thanks to a number of economic factors – including the impending retirement of the baby-boomer generation, the members of which occupy a significant portion of public sector jobs in the USA – the Department of Labor predicts that employment within state and local governments will rise by 4.2% between 2012 and 2022.

Entry-level jobs of interest to law graduates include honors attorneys – who typically work for city law departments or the state Attorney General's (AG) office – and in-house positions as legal counsel or general staff for various city and state agencies and departments, such as the Governor's Office, Mayor's Office and City Council.

Like their federal counterparts, state and local government attorneys practice a wide variety of law, including:

Administrative law – Many attorneys working for state agencies represent their agency in administrative proceedings and advise agency administrators and professional staff.

Environmental law – Environmental departments within AG offices employ attorneys to advise on state environmental policies and regulate initiatives.

Fraud – One of the main duties of attorneys in state AG offices is to protect citizens from various injustices, which often brings them into contact with fraud cases.

Civil rights law – Most state AG offices have a designated Civil Rights Division where attorneys handle civil rights-related litigation.

Labor law – City law department attorneys tend to practice in this area, among others, and most state AG offices have a Business and Labor Bureau that employs lawyers to handle employment matters.

The path to attaining a state or local government legal position varies depending on the sector: while both are willing to hire directly based on work experience, there are more opportunities to land a position with a local government straight after law school – particularly if you aim for a sizable office like the New York City Law Department, which hired 38 entry-level attorneys in 2012. There are also a few other avenues for entry-level candidates looking to get a foot in the door:

Summer internships – Many state and local agencies and offices have summer intern programs for law students, which they rely on for a certain portion of new recruits. The NYC Law Department, for example, runs a nine-week scheme for 50 interns each year, many of whom are offered permanent employment upon the completion of two summers.

Fellowships/honors programs – Because state and local agencies and offices prefer to hire those with several years of work experience, most offer paid fellowships or honors programs from which they recruit each year. The schemes range from one to three years in length and give candidates a chance to explore legal work within a particular area of the government.

Firm route – While it's a less common route than either of the aforementioned paths, there is the option of pursuing local government work through a private law firm that specializes in public sector law. Some municipalities contract out their legal work to private firms, so working as a public sector associate for a few years can provide you with enough work experience to apply directly for a legal position in local government work from there.

There's little central coordination when it comes to the hiring process within state and local governments, so it's up to students to research the recruitment process for each office and agency they're interested in and apply directly. “Some entry-level positions are harder to find and attain than others – the key is persistence,” advises a source from Duke's Career and Professional Development Center. A tangible interest in government-related work is a crucial factor in the hiring process, so students should look to their law school's CDO for opportunities to get involved with activities that will boost their credentials, such as judicial clerkships, legal externships, courses in public interest law and participation in government-related student groups.

Some state and local government legal careers to consider in the long run include:

  • State attorney general
  • State solicitor
  • Honors attorney
  • Policy director
  • Legislator

Resources and advice 

One of the best places for aspiring government employees to begin their job hunt is their law school's careers development office. CDOs at most law schools have a wing dedicated to assisting students with pursuits in public interest law and can advise on everything from summer clerkships to permanent attorney positions. The public interest departments at the following schools provide some especially useful resources:

NYU – As NYU alum Brandon Egren points out: “NYU is known as a law school with a big public interest focus – that was definitely visible during my time there.” In addition to hosting the largest public interest law fair in the USA, which a number of government agencies attend each year, the Public Interest Law Center is the brains behind the Public Service Law Network Worldwide, an “incredibly useful” website that details internships and employment opportunities with government agencies, public interest organizations and private law firms with expansive public interest practices.

Duke – The law school's career center publishes a career planning manual that outlines various career paths outside of BigLaw, including those with government agencies, and provides advice on interviewing, networking and preparing job applications. According to an insider, the school “also tries to organize visits from various government departments and holds a reception so that representatives can mingle with students and alumni.”

Yale – Yale's CDO maintains a comprehensive database of job listings for students to access, including opportunities in the public interest sector, and also co-sponsors an annual Public Interest Student Career Fair, which draws over 100 representatives from public interest employers. Additionally, the law school has one of the country's most extensive programs for summer public interest work: in 2012, the school provided fellowships for 193 students in government and public interest organizations.

Harvard – The law school publishes an annual directory entitled Serving the Public that details public service job opportunities for both students and graduates, including those in the government. The Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising also provides access to an online job search database and speciality guides that outline the application process for various types of public interest positions.

Our sources agreed that the avenue to a job with the government takes more focus and drive than most careers. As one points out: “These jobs are by no means seen as a back-up plan; there are a lot of people who really want to work in the government, so you really have to be focused if you want to succeed. It's imperative to show commitment to all your work throughout law school.” Deb Ellis agrees, urging interested students to “use your time in law school to develop the skills that will prepare you for a government career. It's helpful to take relevant courses, participate in clinics and develop excellent written and oral communication skills.”

Work experience is also key: “The best thing you can do for yourself is actually work in government by interning because there is no substitute for having experience in the office where you want to work,” Ellis continues. Finally: “It's important that students are broad in their thinking when it comes to a job with the government,” says another insider. “The DOJ and FCC are obvious places to start because they each hire a lot of lawyers, but beyond that there are a lot of agencies hiring that students don't even think of, like the Federal Aviation Association. Think creatively and leave the DOJ aside! Some agencies are really focused on their mission and have a whole slew of practice areas available – you just have to look.”

Some good places to start include: