How to Get an Attorney Job with the Federal Government
Employment as a federal-government attorney offers a lot to desire. The government generally does not require the high hours of big law and provides high levels of responsibility. This article summarizes a recent panel at the Section of Administrative Law’s annual conference, where I explained the hiring process for attorney positions with the federal government.
The ABA Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice recently introduced a great YouTube page and the video recording of the panel is available there.
When considering federal-government positions, there are likely more options than you may think. For instance, you are not just limited to working for the Department of Justice or in Washington, D.C. (only about 15% of federal jobs are in the D.C. area). Likewise, federal agencies have wide discretion for bar requirements. Federal attorneys may be barred in any state (i.e., do not have to be barred in the state in which they practice) and agencies may hire recent graduates as law clerks (even for non-honors positions), converting them to attorneys once they become members of a state bar.
How Do I Find a Government Job Opening?
The process for hiring government attorneys does not necessarily conform to “traditional” government hiring. As attorney positions are an excepted service position, agencies do not have to follow any set process (e.g., points based veteran’s preference or a USAJOBS posting) before hiring an attorney.
Nevertheless, the easiest way to find an opening is still USAJOBS.gov. The website lists government openings, including internships and honors programs. On the site, you can search by job series (i.e., positions with a similar specialized line of work and qualification requirements), location, experience required, and agency. Nearly all attorney positions will be in the “0905 series” and legal internships will be in the “0999 series.” Once you have completed a desired search using these filters, you can also set up automated email updates whenever a new position is posted.
However, USAJOBS will not have every job opening. Some agencies post openings only on their own website and other agencies will post links to resume banks where interested applicants can send their application. An agency may not even have a uniform way of posting, which can cause postings to differ based on the specific opening. Often, the best way to determine how a particular agency hires is by checking an agency’s website and/or contacting an alum of your law school who works at that agency.
If you are a current law student, the Arizona Government Honors Handbook also compiles a good list of job postings for honors attorney positions—you will have to ask your law school for login information.
What Is the Government Looking For?
There is no singular hiring criteria used by the government. Except for the limited spots in honors programs, hiring is usually done by the manager who will be directly in charge of the applicant. Different hiring managers will have different criteria for evaluating an applicant.
Nonetheless, there are generalities in what the government is looking for. Government agencies are looking to hire people interested in government service and the agency’s mission. This is not to say that the government is only looking to hire applicants with a history of public-interest work. You just need to explain why you are interested in government service and in the mission of the agency. A great applicant for the Department of Transportation, for example, might be a poor applicant for the Department of Education. Similarly, you need to explain why you are interested in the specific position that is open. A great applicant for enforcement work might be a poor applicant for reviewing government contracts. It is okay if you do not have direct experience in an area as long as you can explain how your skills translate to the position.
What Should I Do If I’m a Law Student?
I suggest that you intern for an agency you would like to work for after graduation. This will help you understand whether you like the work. Also, you can meet some of the hiring managers and get a leg up on the application process when the managers hire. If there is an opening in another area of the agency, having an internship at the agency will demonstrate interest and help get your resume pulled from the stack. You can often find information on legal internships on an agency’s website, USAJOBS, and the Arizona Government Honors Handbook.
However, I also suggest that, if possible, you only intern with the federal government your first summer or during the school year. For your second summer, try and work at a law firm. Agencies will often extend internship offers at a much later date than law firms, and I would advise against turning down a firm offer for the potential of an agency internship offer.
I Didn’t Get a Job at a Big Firm. Will the Government Hire Me?
Not everyone who is hired by the federal government worked at a big law firm. Some of the work federal agencies perform has no big law equivalent (e.g., Social Security), but is practiced by plenty of smaller firms and solo practitioners. For these openings, it is an advantage to have the specific experience that only a smaller firm can provide. Additionally, smaller firms often offer more responsibility and skill-building opportunities that you can highlight in your resume.
Even if you are interested in a field that only big firms traditionally practice, such as financial-sector work, there are many opportunities to get experience in the subject matter without working at big law. For instance, each state government performs white collar prosecution, has bank regulators, and has a state securities office. Private entities such as FINRA typically hire recent graduates in financial-sector enforcement roles. Although these financial-sector opportunities do not pay as well as big law, they usually offer better hours and more responsibility than big law.
Understanding a Federal Job Offer
Most agencies set their pay based on a general service pay scale that includes grades and steps. Attorney positions are generally in the GS-11 to GS-15 pay range. The base rate of pay is then multiplied by a locality rate, based on the location of the job, to get a final salary for the employee.
First-year attorneys are eligible for the GS-11 grade and applicants are eligible for an additional grade for each year of experience. When applying, you may apply for a position with a lower grade than your experience.
Each position will have an initial grade and what is called a “career ladder” or “promotion potential” grade. This means the pay grade someone may reach without having to compete for another job. Although not guaranteed, agencies can, and usually do, annually promote an employee one grade level until the attorney reaches the max grade for the position. As such, for those wanting to spend their career with the federal government, the promotion potential of a position is often the most important pay factor to consider.
Within each grade are steps. These range from 1 to 10. If an employee gets a satisfactory annual review and does not get a grade promotion for the year, the employee can automatically get a step increase. Assuming an employee starts at a step 1, the employee increases one step every year for three years, then one step every two years for six years, and finally a step every three years.
When negotiating an offer, two aspects are most negotiable. First, the step you start at is negotiable. For instance, if you are an attorney with five years of experience hired as a GS-14, you could have a GS-14, step 3 salary if you had started with the agency out of law school. As such, you would have a good argument to request your starting pay be at a step 3. Second, your vacation time is negotiable. Government employees generally get annual leave (i.e., vacation time) based on their years of federal experience. Initially, employees get four hours of annual leave per pay period (every two weeks), six hours of annual leave after three years of experience, and eight hours of annual leave after fifteen years of experience. However, your “experience” for leave purposes is negotiable. I would suggest asking an agency to credit you any years of post-law school experience.
Although searching USAJOBS for 0905 job-series positions provides an excellent insight into government hiring, there is no uniform hiring process because federal-government attorneys are in excepted service positions. If interested in a government job, I suggest searching an agency’s website and/or contacting an alum of your law school who works at the agency to see if the alum can explain the hiring process.
Also, do not get discouraged if at first you do not get a job. If you are not hired for a position, but the hiring manager liked you, the hiring manager could forego the formal application process for the next opening and directly hire you. This is how I got my first (pre-law school) job in the federal government.
Sam Wice is an attorney at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), former detailee/policy analyst at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, former analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, and a former Council Member of the American Bar Association’s Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice. The SEC disclaims responsibility for any private publication or statement of any SEC employee or Commissioner. This article expresses the author’s views and does not necessarily reflect those of the Commission or other members of the staff.
 Other potential series are 0904 law clerks, 0935 administrative law judges, and 1222 patent attorneys. Generally, agencies that hire recent graduates without bar membership (i.e., applicants that will be hired as law clerks) will not separately post jobs using the law clerk series. However, for completeness, recent graduates without bar membership should still search for jobs listed under that series.