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Government Practice Pathway

For a significant number of attorneys, working for the government is an appealing alternative to the private practice of law. Government lawyers handle many of the same tasks that lawyers in law firms handle but within a different framework. These lawyers find that working for the government provides them with work that is meaningful because of its impact on citizens and its role in shaping public policy.

Government lawyers work in all three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — at the federal, state, county, and local levels. Attorneys in the executive branch work for government agencies and offices, while the legislative branch employs attorneys as legislative counsel and staff, and the judicial branch has attorneys who work as judges, clerks, and court administrators. There are also many non-lawyer jobs in government that are well-suited to candidates with a J.D.; however, this Pathway will focus primarily on government positions that require a law degree.

There are opportunities for government attorneys in virtually every area of substantive law. Attorneys who are interested in tax law, for instance, may work for the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the California Franchise Tax Board, and those who are interested in environmental law may work for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the California State Lands Commission. Some government attorneys work with multiple areas of law, while others have very specialized duties. The substance of a particular government lawyer's assignments will depend on the roles and responsibilities of the government body for which he or she works. Some government attorneys work with a wide variety of substantive law while the work of others is very specialized.

As one might expect, the daily activities of government attorneys are as varied as the breadth of areas in which they practice. Most government attorneys engage in some combination of the following tasks, depending on the scope and purpose of their position: conducting research; writing letters, briefs, pleadings, opinions, and memoranda; counseling government employees and officers; drafting and reviewing legislation, contracts, and regulations; assisting with investigations; undertaking enforcement of a statute or regulation; attending negotiations; preparing for litigation; appearing in court and in front of administrative bodies; interpreting the law; interfacing with the public; and lobbying.

The application process for government jobs is often quite bureaucratic. In addition to a standardized application, most jobs require a certain level of background investigation, sometimes in conjunction with a security clearance. Furthermore, many positions require applicants to be admitted to the state bar at the time they submit their applications (the most notable exception being government "honors programs"). However, the comprehensive nature of the application process should not deter attorneys from applying for government positions. The McGeorge Career Development Office (CDO) has resources to help students and alumni alike navigate the complexities of the process, and many people find that the benefits of a government job are well worth the initial hurdles.

Government lawyers are usually given a significant amount of responsibility early on, which provides beginning lawyers and lawyers looking to branch into new areas of law the opportunity to gain hands-on experience more quickly than they might in other settings. Furthermore, government jobs often come with good benefits and a manageable work schedule. Government lawyers gain satisfaction from their service to the public, and they like that they have no financial stake in the outcome of their work. For many government attorneys, these perks make up for the fact that they generally receive lower salaries than attorneys in private practice. Fortunately, there are programs — including McGeorge's Loan Repayment Assistance Program and the Federal Loan Forgiveness Program — that may help ease the burden of law school debt for government attorneys.


Externships & Clinics

Externships

Pacific McGeorge's Field Placement Program allows you to earn law school credit while performing supervised legal work as an extern at nearly 100 approved government agencies, courts or non-profit entities. Visit the Field Placement office on TWEN to learn about our Externship Programs or to schedule an appointment.

Clinics

Clinics offer faculty-supervised, law office settings in a variety of legal practice areas. Go to the Pacific McGeorge Legal Clinics' web pages for the current list of clinics.

Skills

  • Interpersonal skills
  • Knowledge of administrative law
  • Litigation
  • Negotiation
  • Oral and written communication skills
  • Passion for public service
  • Statutory interpretation

Co-Curricular Activities

When hiring, government employers look for a demonstrated interest in government work and/or in the substantive area of law with which they work. A good way to secure a position with the government is to work for an agency or other government organization during law school as an intern, extern, or volunteer. As in private practice, having a mentor can also be extremely helpful in securing, and succeeding in, a job with the government. Some government bodies have summer intern programs with specific application procedures and strict deadlines. Other programs are more informal. Students should check the websites of organizations for which they might like to work and network with attorneys in those organizations to find out about available opportunities.

Among the federal agencies that host honors programs and fellowships are the following:

  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • Department of Energy
  • Department of Justice (DOJ)
  • Department of Labor, Office of the Solicitor
  • Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
  • Office of the General Counsel
  • National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
  • United States Office of Personnel Management, Presidential Management Fellows Program

Other co-curricular activities that might benefit students interested in working for the government:

  • Research the Capital Fellows Program. Applicants may apply for more than one program but must submit separate materials for each one. Each Capital Fellows program requires applicants to submit three letters of recommendation, transcripts from all post-secondary institutions attended, and at least two essays, as well as complete a lengthy online application process, so it is best to begin compiling your application materials early.
  • Join chartered student organizations that are relevant to government practice. Examples of these organizations are listed below. Also join organizations that are relevant to your particular interests. For example, you may want to join the McGeorge Health Law Society if you are interested in working in a government job that involves health law.
  • McGeorge Governmental Affairs Student Association (GASA)
  • McGeorge Public Legal Services Society (PLSS)
  • American Constitution Society, McGeorge Chapter
  • McGeorge Federalist Society for Public Law and Policy
  • McGeorge First Amendment Society
  • Attend events hosted by the Pacific McGeorge Capital Center for Public Law and Policy to learn more about government practice and public policy and to network with government attorneys.
  • Consider volunteering with a political campaign. This will (1) demonstrate an interest in government and public policy, (2) familiarize students with the pressures and other aspects of government work, and (3) provide opportunities to network with government attorneys.

Practice Settings & Clients

Practice Settings

Government positions are located wherever there are government bodies—it follows, of course, that there are often more government positions in capital cities. Positions with the federal government are most commonly located in Washington, D.C.; however, there are also positions in federal government field offices outside of D.C., especially in New York City and other major metropolitan areas. As the capital of California, Sacramento is home to a very large number of government agencies. Pacific McGeorge students can, and should, take advantage of the opportunities offered by living and going to school in the capital city of the country's most populous state.

Government attorneys work in all three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial) at the federal, state, county, and local levels. Some examples are listed below:

Federal

The U.S. Department of Justice is the largest employer of attorneys in the federal government.

Other federal agencies that employ significant numbers of attorneys include:

  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • There are opportunities for attorneys to work in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives as staff counsel and legislative staff.
  • Government attorneys also work in the federal court system.
  • The Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG) also employs attorneys, who are considered officers of the United States Armed Forces, to advise members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard on a variety of issues.

State

In the executive branch, attorneys work for the following:

  • State agencies
  • State commissions
  • Governors' offices
  • Attorney generals' offices
  • In the legislative branch, attorneys work as staff counsel and legislative staff.
  • In the judicial branch, attorneys work as clerks and staff counsel for state courts.

County and Local (Cities, Villages, Townships)

A variety of county and local organizations employ attorneys. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Office of the County Attorney
  • Office of the City Attorney
  • School boards
  • Park boards
  • Zoning boards
  • Planning commissions

Clients

Technically, a government attorney's client is the government for which he or she works. For example, the United States is the client of attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice and California is the client of attorneys at the California Secretary of State. However, many government attorneys also consider their client to be the citizens of the government for which they work.

Professional Resources

  • American Bar Association Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division
  • American Bar Association Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice
  • American Bar Association Section of Public Contract Law
  • American Bar Association Section of Public Utility, Communications, and Transportation Law
  • American Bar Association Section of State and Local Government Law
  • State Bar of California Section of Public Law
  • Sacramento County Bar Association Section of Administrative Law
  • Government Law Online, a creation of Albany Law School's Government Law Center, hosts a collection of government law and policy resources.
  • Government Careers on PSLawNet provides a thorough explanation of resources for both federal and state government jobs.
  • Attend Public Interest/Public Sector Legal Careers Day (PI/PS Day), held in San Francisco in early February. At PI/PS Day, public interest and public sector employers from across the country hold interviews for both summer and post-graduate positions. For more information, visit http://www.one-justice.org/LawStudents.
  • The Federal Loan Forgiveness Program offers partial loan forgiveness for attorneys who work for ten years at a qualifying public interest or government agency. Find out more at http://www.equaljusticeworks.org/ed-debt/post-grad/public-service-loan-forgiveness.

Federal Government Resources

  • The United States Office of Personnel Management Official Job Site has a search engine for job openings in the federal government. However, the list of federal jobs on this site is not all-inclusive.
  • Department of Justice Employment Search
  • The University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law Government Honors and Internship Handbook includes a comprehensive listing of opportunities in the federal government that are available to students. The Handbook is available in hard copy in the CDO and also online. Check in with the CDO to obtain login information for online access.
  • The United States Government Manual, available for reference in the Gordon D. Schaber Law Library and online via HeinOnline, is the official handbook of the federal government. "This special edition of the Federal Register is currently updated to provide comprehensive and authoritative descriptions of the programs and activities of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. The Government Manual also includes information about quasi-official agencies, international organizations with U.S. membership, and Federal boards, commissions, and committees." See http://www.usgovernmentmanual.gov for more information.
  • The CDO also has a number of resources relevant to careers in the federal government. They include, but are not limited to, the following:
    • Government Legal Careers Handout
    • Landing a Federal Legal Job: Finding Success in the U.S. Government Job Market by Richard L. Hermann (a publication of the American Bar Association which identifies federal agencies that employ attorneys and provides other information about these agencies and the federal hiring process)

State and Local Government Resources

The Capital Fellows Program — administered by the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento — is an excellent way to gain experience in California government and prepare for a career of leadership in civil service after you receive your J.D. For ten to eleven months, fellows work full-time in a government office and are also enrolled as graduate students at Sacramento State. There are four separate fellowships under the program, covering all three branches of government:

  • Executive Fellowship
  • California Senate Fellowship
  • Jesse M. Unruh Assembly Fellowship
  • Judicial Administration Fellowship

Admission to the Program is extremely competitive. Several alumni of Pacific McGeorge have been awarded fellowships. For more information, visit http://www.csus.edu/calst/capital_fellows_programs_overview.html.

The CDO also has a number of resources relevant to careers in state government, particularly that of California. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Government Legal Careers Handout
  • State of California Hiring Handout (explains in detail how to apply for jobs with California state agencies)
  • State Yellow Book
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  • Judith Carlson

    Judith Carlson

    Deputy Attorney IV and Environmental Team Leader at California Department of Transportation, Legal Division
    Government Law
    2000

    As a long-time Sacramento resident, it was easy for Judith Carlson to choose Pacific McGeorge as the school she wanted to attend for law school. After graduating from CSU Sacramento ...

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  • Janet Bender

    Janet Bender

    Deputy County Counsel, Sutter County
    Government Law
    1999

    Working in claims management with State Farm insurance, Janet Bender became interested in law through her interactions with various defense counsels. At the age of 32, she started law school at McGeorge ...

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