The best way to find out about working in various agencies
is to talk to attorneys who already are practicing within the government
by Hindi Greenberg
Lawyers often perceive the government-as-employer as a kinder and gentler despot than private sector law employers. True or not, the time commitment and legal focus demanded in government practice often are less extreme than demanded in private firms. These are several reasons why experienced as well as new lawyers seek out interesting public sector jobs.
Although there are as many styles of lawyering and areas of inquiry within the government as there are in private firms, most agencies only handle matters within their purview. That specialization fits the needs of those lawyers who do not want to be generalists. The absence of competition for partnership (although there may be competition for promotion) lessens the stress within many agencies. Additionally, most government offices do not require lawyers to keep time records, a great relief to those with nightmares about a billable hours monster swallowing their life.
However, a down side to the stress reduction is that there is usually a reduction in income, with salaries more closely aligned with the median $60,000 a year that attorneys across the country earn. Seniority and increased responsibility can raise earnings, although they will remain well below the income of many law firm partners.
Government work generally provides job security and good benefits -- health, dental, retirement. Public agencies also are more often receptive to women and minority workers in positions of responsibility than is the private sector. Additionally, older attorneys and sole pracititioners may find that a public agency will look at their record with a less jaundiced eye -- when considering an experienced practitioner, law firms almost always require either a book of business or a specialized educational and/or practice background.
In the federal jurisdiction, litigators are hired by the U.S. attorney and the federal public defender. Staff attorneys are hired in agencies such as the EEOC, GAO, U.S. Marshall's Service, FTC, SSA, SEC, Department of Labor, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, Health & Human Services, DEA, Department of Education, Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, FHA, FCC, FBI, EPA, FDA, INS, IRS, HUD, ICC, NLRB and CIA.
Additionally, the Judge Advocate General Office of any military branch hires attorneys for active or reserve duty; the Army also has a Civilian Attorney Recruiting Program.
In state jurisdictions, attorneys are hired in most agencies. In California, they are hired as deputy attorneys general, administrative law judges, hearing officers, legislative analysts, state public defenders, probate referees, and as staff attorneys for agencies such as ALRB, ABC, banking, Cal OSHA, Coastal Commission, Consumer Affairs, corporations, Board of Equalization, Franchise Tax Board, Health Department, Department of Insurance, PUC, Secretary of State and Department of Real Estate. There is probably an agency to match anyone's interest and expertise.
In many counties, attorneys work as deputy district attorneys, in the sheriff's office, as county council legal advisor or as deputy public defenders. In many cities, lawyers are hired as city or deputy city attorney, law enforcement legal advisor, city council or board of supervisors legal advisor, commission heads and rent control hearing officers.
To find out about job openings, call the federal, state, county or city personnel offices or pay a visit to view recent job postings (both law and other professional positions). Also, contact the personnel departments for the agencies in which you are interested -- agencies don't always list their openings with the main personnel office.
The best way to find out about the various agencies and whether you would be happy working for one is to talk to attorneys who already are practicing within the government. Many openings are not widely advertised and these lawyers may have heard of a recent hiring announcement. Their experience also can be an excellent reality check for you; however, always talk to at least four or five such lawyers so that you obtain a broad perspective and not just one person's view.
Hindi Greenberg was a business litigator for 10 years before founding Lawyers in Transition in 1985. She can be reached at 415/285-5143.