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Entry Level Attorney Positions In the Federal Government

Over the past several years, we’ve all read or seen numerous media reports about the ever shrinking pool of attorney positions available to law school graduates.  As a result of the sluggish economy, the private sector legal profession is reorganizing itself in dramatic ways to operate more efficiently in an environment marked by enhanced competition to obtain and retain clients.  In addition to holding down administrative costs and being more amenable to negotiated rates, private law firms are hiring fewer attorneys and contracting out many basic legal services.

There has been overall contraction in the number of new Federal sector attorney positions as well due to the cumulative effect of recent budget cuts and the heightened expectation of doing more with fewer resources. Nevertheless, the Federal government remains a viable employment alternative for law school students and graduates.

Anyone interested in pursuing a Federal sector position should take full advantage of their available law school resources, as well as contacting professors, current agency attorneys, and others willing to share their experiences and insights as to both pursuing an attorney position and what to expect once employed in that position.

What follows is a general description of the most effective ways to obtain that employment.

Legal Intern Position

Many agencies provide internship opportunities to students following completion of the first year of law school.  These internships are either paid or volunteer depending on the agency.  For example, the Department of Justice currently employs approximately 1800 unpaid interns and up to 70 paid interns. The best ways to become aware of these positions and their application requirements are through your law school placement office and the various agency websites.  Agencies commonly attend law school job fairs in order to gather resumes and conduct first-round interviews. Upon completion of a summer agency internship, students often receive opportunities for continued Federal experience throughout the school year.  These internships expose students to the internal workings of a General Counsel’s Office and, in many cases, provide much greater responsibility than they could obtain in the private sector.  Even though the vast majority of these jobs are unpaid, the experience gained can prove invaluable. Perhaps more importantly, students who perform highly during the internship can gain a decided advantage in the selection process for an Honors Attorney or other entry level attorney position upon graduation.

Honors Programs

Several agencies conduct an Honors Program designed to recruit top third-year law students, as well as recent graduates and judicial law clerks.  These Programs typically rotate attorneys through the various areas of agency legal practice over a two year period and offer a salary that exceeds entry-level pay.  Although permanent employment is not guaranteed, many of these agencies use the Honors Program as the primary source for filling attorney positions on a permanent basis.  Each agency website includes a wealth of information about their program details, including when to apply and what to expect if you are selected.  Some of the more notable Honors Attorney Programs are those offered by the Department of Justice, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Security and Exchange Commission.  For detailed information about which agencies offer such programs see this list provided by American University, Washington College of Law.

Entry Level Application

Recent law school graduates, particularly those with germane experience as a law clerk, may also find attorney positions for which they qualify through the usajobs.gov website or on the job postings portal of the particular agency(s).  Since attorney positions are in the “excepted service,” i.e., excepted from competitive examining, agencies may solicit applications through whatever mechanisms they determine to be most efficient including legal publications, newspapers, and job fairs.  Recent graduates may also be able to obtain a legal position through the relatively new Pathways Program. Those hired pursuant to the Recent Graduates portion of the Pathways Program enter a structured developmental program generally lasting one year.  At the program’s conclusion, the participant may be converted to a permanent position assuming successful completion of the requirements and the availability of a position.

In addition to the resources referenced above, please see the extensive information provided at http://www.psjd.org/Careers_in_Federal_Government.

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The information provided may not cover all aspects of unique or special circumstances, federal regulations, and programs are subject to change. Our articles and replies are time sensitive. Over time, various dynamic human resource guidance and factors relied upon as a basis for this article may change. The advice and strategies contained herein may not be suitable for your situation and this service is not affiliated with OPM or any federal entity. You should consult with school counselors, hiring agency personnel offices, and human resource professionals where appropriate. Neither the publisher or author shall be liable for any loss or any other commercial damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages.

About The Author

David Scholl recently retired with 35 years of Federal legal and human resources experience from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. While at OPM, Scholl served as a Deputy Assistant General Counsel where he was the principal agency labor-management relations legal advisor and handled a variety of Federal staffing issues. At the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Scholl held positions as an Assistant Director of Personnel for Labor and Employment Relations and as a Senior Counsel in the Legal Division, where he conducted labor and employment law mediation, negotiation and litigation. Scholl began his Federal career with the Office of the General Counsel of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Scholl received his law degree from The Catholic University of America and undergraduate degree from Lehigh University.