Lawyers interested in government service have a wide range of opportunities to consider. The first question being: at which level of government to serve — federal, state or local? Each presents its own unique set of pros and cons.
Whether at the federal, state or local level, lawyers who choose government service acquire valuable knowledge, relationships, trial and appellate skills that, if cultivated, can create many opportunities for post-government service. For one thing, government service gets one front line experience far sooner than any other career path. Beyond this, at the federal level, in particular, with all the daily national and international contacts and issues that arise, government service can lead to private practice, a judicial appointment, a run for public office, or a career in public policy/lobbying.
The higher one rises in government, whether federal, state or local, the richer, deeper and more valuable one's knowledge, experience, relationships and contacts become. And clients in need of deep understanding about process, or access to decisionmakers, find great value in persons who have been "inside," who know the system or process, and its people.
The downside of government service, at any level, is the comparatively low pay compared to private practice peers. The longer one stays, presumably on the climb to higher levels, the wider the pay gap vis-a-vis private practice peers. For some, that could feel like a life of sacrifice while in other ways, public service is its own reward, imbuing lawyers with a strong sense of commitment and closer connection to one's country, state or community.
Federal service: departments and agencies across government
On the federal level, many departments and agencies offer opportunity to gain subject matter expertise on federal policy underlying a variety of federal statutes and regulations, as well as procedural expertise in dealing with agencies and their respective forum and procedural rules. Such expertise has tremendous value to private companies who, in any aspect of their business, are subject to federal regulation, and to the law firms that represent and advise them. Because of this, law firms and corporate law departments are always interested in recruiting government lawyers.
The Department of Justice stands at the apex of federal legal employers and offers an array of opportunities in almost endless subject areas, such as civil and criminal, constitutional issues, public integrity, civil rights, antitrust, appellate, trade sanctions and national security, to name just a few.
Beyond DOJ, a number of federal departments and regulatory agencies, such as the Department of Labor, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Federal Trade Commission, offer opportunities to learn the regulatory and compliance frameworks and enforcement procedures that govern and overlay a number of national industries.
These and other agencies have civil enforcement authority, i.e., the ability to file actions either in federal court or in their own administrative forum, and to seek and impose sanctions, monetary penalties and limitations on activity, up to and including revocation of registration and even a bar from the industry for bad actors.Lawyers in these agencies conduct preliminary inquiries and full-fledged investigations, using subpoena power, whenever it appears someone may have run afoul of federal statutes or rules. Where they find violations, these attorneys pursue appropriate remedial action up to and including taking cases to trial. When they leave government service, these lawyers are often scooped-up by companies regulated by their agency or department, and the law firms that advise them.
Federal service can also be influenced by larger issues such as economic cycles where businesses can get bigger, smaller, or fail. Federal lawyers can be more active during certain cycles than others. For example, lawyers in the U.S. Trustee's Office are busiest during weak economic cycles, when bankruptcies spike, whereas lawyers who focus on cyber currency, initial public offerings and hedge fund issues at the SEC, or antitrust issues at the FTC see upswings when the economy is strong and corporate activity increases and companies go public, or get larger and threaten to become monopolistic.
In times of international tension, imposition and policing of trade sanctions and heightened national security concerns create issues and situations lawyers in various agencies (Department of Commerce, Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection) have to monitor and enforce per federal law.
State attorneys general
At the state level, Attorneys General ("AGs") serve to enforce compliance with all state laws and oversee all major matters within their state that are not within the jurisdiction of a local district attorney. Even then, they can join with or supersede a local DA in particularly important matters implicating state interests, or where the state or any subdivision thereof is or expects to be a party or where a conflict may warrant the DA recusing themself. A recent example had the Attorney General of South Carolina participating in a high-profile murder trial involving a prominent lawyer from a well-known family.
The work of AGs is most often noticed in connection with high-profile or politically sensitive matters. In recent years this has been seen in positions taken in coordination with other states against various industries, including the sub-prime mortgage industry, the for-profit education industry, opioid industry/Big Pharma, gun makers and Big Tobacco.
Having direct involvement in such landmark disputes is intensely engaging, requiring deep knowledge of the underlying law, policy and political sensitivities. It can also be career building, where demand for studied advice and informed representation on state issues is essential to avoid pitfalls or extract a client from a high-risk situation.
AGs and their Assistants also advise on draft legislation and provide opinions, guidance and representation to executive branch agencies and officials when and as needed. Beyond these specific activities, AGs toil every day to police compliance with state law.
Working in an AG's office is a good path for lawyers who aspire to make a difference in their state, and those who may aspire to state elective or judicial office, where intimate knowledge of state law and statutes, and drafting of legislation, is always a plus, if not a necessity. It's also good to know the people in a given state who make things happen. Such people can aid advancement of one's — or one's client's — cause, particularly if serving as counsel to a client in an industry regulated by the state, or for which the state requires a license or certification.
District attorneys and public defenders
Many politicians, hot-shot defense attorneys and superior court judges have begun their careers in, and risen to prominence through, a local DA's office. Serving in DA offices opens up opportunities for trial work as well as in directing DA investigators in gathering and marshaling relevant evidence and reviewing reports prepared by local police officers and detectives to determine if sufficient evidence of crime exists. Lawyers in DA offices can also choose to become expert in a number of specialty areas, including organized crime, hate crimes, family violence, sexual violence, consumer fraud, elder abuse and other high impact crimes.
Public defenders — both federal and state — represent a noble tradition, being the thin line separating a potentially wrongfully accused person against the howls of the angry mob. Known for long hours, having too many clients and little pay, they are often overlooked and underpaid, but acquire excellent trial skills, which are always in demand in private practice. They also handle all aspects of criminal defense practice, including arraignments, issuance of subpoenas and preparing lay and expert witnesses for trial.
Beyond these visible government service roles are lawyers who serve in many behind-the-scenes roles as judicial law clerks, to help judges think through complex issues and draft meaningful opinions; legislative assistants, to advise legislators on policy goals and impacts, draft legislation, rules and regulations; and advocates, who specialize in drafting and arguing appeals.
All of these functions have corollaries in the private sector, whether as litigators in private practice, lobbyists or policy advisers with think tanks or advocates/activists for interest groups.
Many lawyers pass through government service at some stage of their career, whether to serve their country, state or community, to acquire certain specialized knowledge or expertise or to springboard themselves onto another path.
No matter on which level a government lawyer serves, all of these positions share common features: being government service, they don't pay particularly well, though public service is its own reward. The commitment and closer connection to one's country, state or community engenders the respect of those constituencies in return. They also bring lawyers in these positions into contact with peers in similar offices in sister jurisdictions across the country and even internationally. Which is why a robust contacts list is a valuable asset in a lengthy legal career. Indeed, it may even be one's ticket out of government.