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Careers in Federal Government

At first glance, seeking and applying for federal jobs can seem quite overwhelming. You may not know where to begin your search.  Before diving into our extensive Content Outline below, you can check out "Finding and Getting Federal Government Jobs," a PowerPoint presentation by the United States Office of Personnel Management. It covers finding federal jobs using USAJobs.gov (PSJD is also a great resource for finding federal government jobs!), applying for jobs, resume writing, narrative statements, and changes to the federal hiring process. 

Below you will find clear, easy-to-read information about where to find federal government jobs and how to apply successfully for those jobs.  Use the Content Outline to click through information topic by topic.

Would You Rather Have This Information in a shorter PDF?  The 2014-15 NALP Federal Legal Employment Opportunities Guide is a free, downloadable summary of the key topics in online content below.   

Content Outline

Why Work for the United States Government?

Federal employment offers:

  • significant responsibility early in one’s career;
  • intellectually challenging work; and
  • an opportunity to serve the public.

In addition, the federal government offers the highest attorney salaries in the public sector and wonderful work/life benefits, including reasonable and flexible work hours.  Aside from work on criminal matters – profiled on PSJD’s Careers Public Defense and Careers in Criminal Prosecution pages – government lawyers work on everything from constitutional issues to coal mine safety regulation.  Also, they work in all three branches of government, although most are employed in the executive branch.

Reasons to consider federal employment:

    • Guess Who’s Hiring? – Economic recession notwithstanding, an expected large-scale retirement by Baby Boomers in the next decade is likely to leave many federal positions open for new attorneys to fill.  
    • From Constitutional Law to Coal Mine Regulation – Attorneys work in all three branches of government and in numerous capacities, including litigating civil and criminal cases, counseling lawmakers, drafting statutes and regulations, enforcing regulatory compliance, issuing administrative legal opinions, and much more.  Remember, also, that "attorney" is not the only job title to search.  Other legal specialties include "contract specialists," "administrative law judges," and more.
    • Immediate Responsibility – Attorneys working for the federal government develop key leadership skills quickly as a result of managing their own caseloads and other significant immediate responsibilities.
    • Where in the World? 85% of federal jobs are located outside of the Washington, DC area, and almost 50,000 federal employees work outside the U.S.
    • Lighten the Debt Load – Many federal agencies have their own loan repayment assistance programs.  Learn more about federal student loan repayment programs, and note that the College Cost Reduction & Access Act can benefit attorneys working in the federal government.
    • High-end Public Interest Pay – Federal jobs tend to pay better than jobs with nonprofit organizations.  Starting salaries for entry-level federal attorneys are generally in the $50,000's or higher.  From there, federal attorneys can move up the salary scale quickly.  See the GS scale for more information.

For more about the benefits of working for the federal government, two attorneys share their personal experience – an attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and an attorney for the IRS Office of Chief Counsel, General Legal Services.

Learn more about opportunities with the federal government at GoGovernment, a federal careers website operated jointly by the Office of Personnel Management and the Partnership for Public Service.

Types of Practice for Lawyers in the Federal Government

Branches of Government

All three branches of the federal government employ attorneys: the executive (the President and his or her administration), the legislative (the Senate and the House of Representatives), and the judicial.  In addition, the federal government includes many independent agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Reserve System and the Smithsonian.  Among the three branches and independent agencies, the executive branch and independent agencies employ the greatest number of attorneys.  In early 2013, there were over 112,000 employees with full-time, permanent legal positions with executive and independent agencies.[1]  In contrast, the number of attorney jobs in the legislature is smaller, as is the number of jobs with the judiciary.  For more information about working on the Hill, see Yale Law School’s Guide, Working on Capitol Hill and Harvard Law School's Guide to Working on Political Campaigns.

Practice Areas

When most law students think of being a lawyer, they think of litigation – filing and trying lawsuits in court.  But lawyers in the federal government are just as likely to draft and interpret regulations, advise and counsel other federal employees, and write policy.

  • Litigation – If you know you want to litigate, consider the Department of Justice (DOJ).  The DOJ is the central agency for the enforcement of federal laws and consequently is the main litigating branch of the U.S. government.  The DOJ is composed of headquarters in D.C. and 93 U.S. Attorneys Offices throughout the country.  DOJ hires recent law graduates every year through the Attorney General’s Honors Program.  Most Honors Program positions are in D.C., though a few are in other major cities throughout the country.  Honors Attorneys work in component areas that range from Civil Rights to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.  (NOTE: Some attorneys at DOJ do not litigate but instead provide advice and counsel; for example, attorneys in the Office of Legal Counsel and the Federal Bureau of Prisons rarely litigate and focus instead on providing analysis and advice.)  In addition to DOJ, attorneys at many other federal agencies are also involved in litigation.  Offices with independent litigating authority include the Department of Labor, Office of the Solicitor and the Securities Exchange Commission, Division of Enforcement.  Finally, the majority of agencies have “coordinate jurisdiction” with the DOJ, meaning that DOJ attorneys initiate all lawsuits and handle any depositions and oral arguments, while the agency attorneys draft the legal papers and provide the subject-matter expertise.
  • Regulatory – Regulatory lawyers are at the forefront of forming and enforcing new rules.  Agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and many others are considered regulatory agencies, because they are empowered to create and implement rules and regulations.
  • Advisory – If you think you would enjoy working with clients to help them comply with the law, you should investigate “attorney advisor” or “counselor” positions.  For example, lawyers at the Food and Drug Administration are divided into “counselors” and “litigators.”  The counselors work on congressional inquiries, Freedom of Information Act requests, rulemaking and citizen petitions.
  • Public Policy – While many individuals employed as federal attorneys focus on policy work, those who are pursuing policy-based positions should look beyond just “attorney” positions.  Almost all federal agencies engage in policy work on some level.  Agencies that are engaged in a lot of policy work include the Department of State, Department of Commerce, and Congressional Research Service.  An excellent entrée to federal policy-making is the Presidential Management Fellows Program (PMF).  The PMF Program is a two-year fellowship that places hundreds of graduate students (including J.D. 3Ls and LL.M.s) in public policy and management positions with executive agencies.  Possible placement and roational opportunities include the Department of Defense, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Department of State, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Where Are the Federal Government Jobs?

There are currently 107,789 employees working in the legal field in the federal government. Examples of these types of jobs include attorneys, law clerks, paralegal specialists and contact representatives.  There are currently 35,347 general attorneys employed by the federal government in the United States, U.S. territories, foreign countries and unspecified locations; this figure includes cabinet level agencies and large, medium and small independent agencies.

Within the executive branch, the agencies with the most attorneys are:

  • Department of Justice: 10,295
  • Department of Defense: 3,330
  • Department of the Treasury: 2,196
  • Department of Homeland Security: 2,069
  • Department of Commerce: 938

There are many jobs that are filled by attorneys but not classified as attorney positions. One of the biggest challenges for a graduating law student or attorney is to discover where, in the intricate bureaucracy of the United States government, he or she will be able to make the best contribution.  From environmental work with the Department of Agriculture to labor law for the Department of Transportation, there are a wide variety of opportunities available for both attorneys and individuals with legal backgrounds at federal agencies across government. From the Federal Communications Commission to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and every office in-between, the federal government is looking for attorneys and legal professionals, and it is important that you do your homework to determine which agencies best fit your interests and skill set before applying for positions. To learn more about various agencies, their missions and available positions, visit individual agency Web sites, USA.gov, USAJOBS.gov and gogovernment.org

Jobs for Students, Recent Graduates, and Experienced Attorneys

Student Internships

Just about every legal office in the federal government hosts summer interns and most host interns during the academic year as well.  Two of the most popular summer programs, for instance, are the:

 A terrific resource for finding internship opportunities is the annually-updated Government Honors & Internship Handbook published by the University of Arizona's College of Law which highlights summer and entry-level opportunities at a number of agencies.  Speak to your career services counselor to see if your school has access to the Handbook.  If you do not have access to the Handbook, do not hesitate to research federal agencies independently (you can use PSJD) and contact them directly about internships.  

Note that many federal offices hire paid interns as well as volunteers.  For 1Ls, compensation for paid internships is generally based on the GS-7 scale, or $7500 for ten weeks of work, while 2Ls are paid based on the GS-9 scale, or approximately $9250 for ten weeks of work.  Compensation varies by agency.

Recent Law Graduates/Entry-Level Attorneys

There are three main avenues through which recent law school graduates seek federal government employment:

    • Direct Hiring – All three branches routinely hire attorneys and staffers with legal training. PSJD posts federal hiring announcements every week.  Job seekers can also visit the USAJobs website.  3Ls and recent graduates will want to focus their search on opportunities in the Pathways Program.  This program encompasses the large-scale recuritment and hiring reforms just undertaken by the federal government.  See the tutorial and search guidance and tips for information on how to search and apply for these positions via USAJobs. Current 3Ls should know that many agencies require applicants to have passed a bar exam, but some agencies will post opportunities for which graduating students are eligible, and the successful applicant will have a specified time period in which to sit for and be admitted to a bar.
    • Honors Programs –  Many federal agencies hire new attorneys primarily (and sometimes solely) through an “Honors Program.”  The most comprehensive resource for post-graduate Honors Program is the Government Honors & Internship Handbook published by the University of Arizona's College of Law.  This Handbook provides substantive information including program descriptions, requirements, and application procedures.  Annual online subscriptions are available to law schools for distribution to their students and graduates.  Law students and graduates are advised to contact your career services offices for further information.    

Some of the government organizations that offer honors programs are listed below, with a link to each program and application deadline if available.  A comprehensive list of Entry-Level Honors Programs can be found in the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law Government Honors and Internship Handbook, available through your law school's career development office.

  

Government Organization

Honors Program

Application Deadline

Central Intelligence Agency, Office of the General Counsel

Honors Attorney Program

  Rolling

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation

Honors Attorney Program

September 30, 2014

Internal Revenue Service

Chief Counsel Honors Program

Rolling (application packets accepted in the Fall)

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Honor Law Graduate Program

 October 1, 2014

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, General Counsel

General Counsel's Honor Program


September 15, 2014

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Legal Honors Program (pdf)


September 5, 2014

U.S. Department of Justice

Attorney General Honors Program

 September 2, 2014

U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Solicitor

Honors Program


October 10, 2014

U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of the Secretary

Honors Attorney Program

  • Recruit in odd numbered years
  • Applications accepted in the fall

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of General Counsel

Honors Fellowship Program

 

U.S. Federal Communications Commission

Attorney Honors Program

September 28, 2014

U.S. Federal Trade Commission

Entry Level Attorney Program

  • Competition:
    September 15, 2014
  • Consumer Protection:
    September 7, 2014


  • The Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program is another entry-level option under the Pathways Program.  It is a competitive program that recruits masters, law, and doctoral-level students to policy and management jobs (not attorney positions) in the federal government.  Students must apply in the fall of their final year of school and should contact their career service offices for information on the nomination and application process.

Graduates may wish to consider civil service jobs for which a law degree and/or legal experience may be useful but not a requirement, such as Paralegal Specialist, Hearings and Appeals Specialist, Contract Specialist, Labor Relations Specialist, Policy Analyst, and Estate Tax Examiner.  See Attorneys in the Federal Service on USAJobs. 

Experienced Attorney Jobs

The main conduit for finding and applying for federal jobs, in addition to PSJD, is the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) Official Job Site, called USAJobs.  See Resources to Help you Find a Position with the Federal Government for information on how to search and apply for jobs via USAJobs. 

In addition to attorney positions, an experienced attorney may consider applying for a position as an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  Many agencies hire attorneys with at least seven years experience for these positions.  ALJs conduct formal hearings to resolve disputes between government agencies and someone affected by a decision of that agency.  The Office of Personnel Management administers competitive examinations to fill all ALJ positions.

Practicing Law in the Military

A military legal career offers significant immediate responsibility for managing cases and exposure to a wide variety of law.  All five military branches have a JAG Corps: United States Air Force JAG Corps, United States Army JAG Corps, United States Coast Guard JAG Corps, United States Marine JAG Corps and United States Navy JAG Corps.

Foreign Government Service Opportunities 

The U.S. Department of State is the lead U.S. foreign affairs agency, focusing on achieving diplomacy around the world.  For a great resource to learn more about how and where this work is performed, visit U.S. Department of State - Careers Representing America.  

Resources To Help You Find a Position with the Federal Government

  • PSJD - the good news: you're already here!  We collect federal legal job postings from a wide variety of sources and  post several new announcements every week in our opportunities database.
  • USAJobs.gov – This is the official job site of the United States Government, and the majority of all federal job openings are posted on this website.  You can complete a job search by job type, location, salary, agency and other criteria.  Job seekers can become members of USAJobs, at no cost, and then post resumes online, apply to jobs directly through the website, and receive automated email alerts of recent job openings.
  • United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions Book  This publication, commonly referred to as the Plum Book, is published every four years, just after the Presidential election.  The Plum Book contains data (as of December 1, 2012) of over 7,000 Federal jobs that are political appointee positions.  If you find a position that interests you, apply directly through that agency. 
  • The University of Arizona Government Honors and Internship Handbook This Handbook provides application information and deadlines for federal, state and local honors programs and internships, including deadline tables arranged alphabetically by agency and by class year.  The Handbook is geared to current students seeking summer employment and entry-level positions.  Annual online subscriptions are available to law schools for distribution to their students and graduates.  Law students and graduates are advised to contact their career services offices for information on accessing this resource.
  • Guide to Public Sector Legal Job Applications  This Georgetown University Law Center publication includes tips for constructing resumes and other application materials.  Note that most federal resumes requested through USAJobs require more detail than traditional legal resumes.  See How Do I Make my Application a Success? for more information.
  • Working on Capitol Hill – Yale Law School's guidebook breaks down the types of employment opportunities available on the Hill and includes personal narratives from Hill employees.
  • Senate Employment Bulletin - This is the official recruitment site for the United States Senate. Updated weekly, opportunities range from unpaid internships to legislative counsel to chief of staff positions.
  • House Employment Bulletin - This is the official list of opportunities for the United States House of Representatives.  Unlike the Senate's online version, the House Vacancy Announcement and Placement Service is by subscription.  It is updated weekly and has member, committee, and internship vacancy listings. 
  • Guide to Criminal Prosecution Careers – This Yale Law School publication provides information on both summer and permanent hiring processes in U.S. Attorneys’ and local prosecutors' offices. 

Titles and Terminology for Federal Hiring

Government Employment In a Picture...

Civil Service Positions

There are more than two million people employed as federal civil servants.  The federal civil service system includes all federal government employees except positions that are politically appointed and military positions in the uniformed services.  The civil service consists of i) competitive service positions; ii) excepted service positions; and iii) Senior Executive Service (SES) Positions.  The primary differences among these three services are in appointment procedures and in job protections. 

    • The Competitive Service – The majority of Federal Government employees are hired through what is known as the “competitive service,” for which the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) posts open positions on USAJobs.gov and applicants compete in a merit system organized by OPM for those jobs.
    • The Excepted Service – All attorney positions in the Federal Government are in the excepted service, typically under an appointment called "Schedule A.” Therefore, agencies may hire for attorney positions directly without conducting examinations or working through OPM.  To be safe, you should look at individual agency websites, in addition to USAJobs, when searching for attorney jobs.  Nevertheless, many attorney positions are still advertised on USAJobs.  See Go Government for more information about excepted service.
    • The Senior Executive Service (SES) – Senior Executive Service employees are primarily managers and supervisors, just below the top Presidential appointees.  OPM manages SES hiring with a unique set of regulations. See USAJobs for more information.

Political Appointments

In addition to civil servants, federal agencies have political appointees.  Under the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, government officials are prohibited from considering candidates’ political affiliations when hiring for civil service positions.  In contrast, political appointees are selected by the President or Congress to serve in specified leadership positions.  The vast majority of jobs with the federal government are competitive service positions.

Compensation and LRAP

Government Salaries

At most federal agencies salaries are set by the General Schedule (GS), which goes from Grades 1-15. There are ten steps within each grade and an individual moves through those steps based on the number of years she or he has worked for the government as well as by the quality of her or his performance, and by promotion.

Law school graduates generally start as a GS-9 or GS-11. It is important to note that there are variations in pay based on geography or calculated cost of living differentials. For example, in 2014 an attorney starting as a GS-11 would earn $63,091 in Washington, D.C. while someone in the same position would earn $68,643 in San Francisco, CA.

Additionally, there are excellent opportunities for advancement in government. Top performers will be promoted quickly, and an attorney in New York City starting as a GS-11 could rise to a GS-13 in just two years, and increase her or his salary by nearly $30,000.

To learn more about the General Schedule and view locality pay tables, visit OPM's 2014 General Schedule Locality Pay Tables.

Agencies that belong to the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (including the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Comptroller of the Currency) pay significantly above the GS scale.  For example, in 2011, first year attorneys with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in DC earned $91,075.

Federal Loan Repayment Assistant Program (LRAP)

One of the biggest benefits of federal employment for recent law school graduates is student loan repayment assistance. Federal agencies are authorized to provide up to $10,000 in loan repayment assistance per year for federal loans with a total lifetime cap of $60,000 per employee. In exchange for each year that an employee accepts this benefit, she or he must commit to working for the federal government for an additional three years. If an employee accepts this benefit and leaves before this period expires, she or he must repay the full amount.

While not all agencies offer this benefit, many do. In 2011, 34 federal agencies provided more than $71.8 million in loan repayment assistance to their employees; this represents a 16 percent decrease from 2010. Of the 10,134 federal employees who received this benefit, 823 were attorneys, an increase of 1.6%. The Department of Justice has the largest program, providing over $20 million of assistance in 2011 to over 2500 employees.

To learn more about the Student Loan Repayment Program, visit the Office of Personnel Management’s website or contact human resources representatives at the federal agencies you are most interested in.

College Cost Reduction & Access Act of 2007 (CCRAA)

Federal legislation titled the College Cost Reduction & Access Act created a new repayment option for qualifying public service lawyers, called Income Based Repayment (IBR), AND established a loan forgiveness program that will forgive eligible federal educational debt after a 120-month (10-year) period of repayment.  The program is designed so that after paying via IBR for period of time, a public service lawyer may be qualified to have the rest of his or her eligible loans forgiven. 

    • Income-Based Repayment – Through IBR, high debt/low income borrowers can significantly reduce their monthly payments for their federal loans if they can demonstrate “partial financial hardship,” as defined in the CCRAA statutory and regulatory language.  It is essentially a calculation based on the amount of your eligible debt and your income.  You do not have to be poverty-stricken to qualify for IBR; on the contrary, its provisions are generous.
    • Public Service Loan ForgivenessBorrowers working in a broadly-defined group of public service jobs may have qualified educational loans forgiven after a period of ten years (120 monthly payments) working in public service, provided that during that period they make monthly payments via the IBR Program (or through a combination of IBR and other payments).

For more information on CCRAA, check out these sites:

Security Clearances and Citizenship Requirements

Security Clearances

Most attorneys working for the U.S. government must pass security clearances.  Law student interns generally must gain security clearance as well, although the process for summer employment is considerably shorter.  If U.S. government employment is your goal and you engage in any illegal or questionable behavior, such as recreational drug use or inappropriate web postings, clean up your act!  For example, attorneys with the Department of Justice undergo an investigation that includes a name and background check; interviews with references, close personal associates, former spouses, former employers, co-workers, neighbors, landlords, and educational institutions; a drug test; and a thorough check of credit, military, tax, and police records.  The background investigation covers a period of seven to ten years.  This process may take seven months or more to complete.  As you move through a security clearance, you must answer all questions completely and accurately.  Think carefully about your answers, and don’t hesitate to consult with a career services counselor if you have any questions.  Students and alumni have been found ineligible for federal positions based on past activities that, had they been properly disclosed, would not have been a bar to employment.  The Partnership for Public Service provides information on security clearances for prospective federal job applicants.

Citizenship Requirements

Many attorney jobs with the federal government are open only to U.S. citizens.  Still others are technically open to citizens of foreign countries but extend offers to non-U.S. citizens only in extraordinary circumstances.  Finally, at those agencies that regularly hire foreign citizens, the problems of conducting a security check overseas (e.g., interviewing employers, friends and family in a different time zone and in a foreign language) can significantly delay the start date of employment.  If you are not a U.S. citizen or hold dual citizenship and would like to consider federal employment, please make an appointment to meet with a career services advisor.


[1] Data available on Fedscope, http://www.fedscope.opm.gov/.  “Legal positions” includes attorneys as well as administrative law judges, various administrative and managerial positions, and paralegals.

 

Careers in Federal Government

Category: Government Careers

Tags: Federal Government Resources, Government Careers