public sector careers
Legal jobs can be found in municipal, county, state and federal settings. In assessing your interest in government work, it helps to identify the area of practice or the issue that attracts you, as a lawyer can practice in virtually any area of the law in a government setting, including environmental law, consumer protection, labor law, international relations, energy law, civil rights, contracts, torts, business law, tax law, and more. Below you can find some basic information about different types of government careers. Further information can be found in the Job Search Handbook, and also on PSJD.org's Resource Center.
Most cities of substantial size in the United States have a staff of lawyers, generally organized in a city law department, Office of Corporation Counsel, or City Solicitor Office. Lawyers in these offices may practice in areas such as tax assessment and collection, labor, eminent domain, historic preservation, real estate development and voting law. Municipal lawyers also handle a significant amount of litigation, including contract claims, employment discrimination and other civil rights defense, tort defense and even medical malpractice defense on behalf of city hospitals. Municipal lawyers also act as general counsel to city and town departments and boards, such as the police department, the department of education and the zoning board. If the local government structure includes a deliberative body, such as a city council or a board of selectmen, these bodies often have a lawyer on staff. Some cities (including Boston) have a residency requirement for city employees.
Lawyers employed at the county level are generally working as criminal prosecutors for the County or District Attorney's Office. District Attorneys' offices prosecute all levels of crime, from misdemeanors to major felonies. The caseload is enormous and the pay is low to moderate, but prosecutors report a higher level of job satisfaction than lawyers in nearly any other area of practice. In some states, the jails are operated at the level of county government, often by elected sheriffs, who may employ an attorney as staff counsel.
Lawyers are employed in all three branches of state government.
Employment in the EXECUTIVE BRANCH includes:
1. Working directly for the Governor as in-house counsel, or as staff. Lawyers in this setting review and draft legislation, work on personnel matters, serve as liaison with the Attorney General on behalf of the Governor, draft executive orders and opinions and otherwise perform whatever vetting and counseling duties the Governor requires.
2. Working as/for counsel to a state executive agency, including, but not limited to, the agencies responsible for environmental protection, social services, bank regulation, insurance regulation, taxation, corrections, parole and probation, transportation, child protection, consumer protection, elder protection, public health, public safety, energy, telecommunications, professional licensing, healthcare and others. Agency counsel can be charged with civil enforcement of state statutes, including acting as civil prosecutors in administrative hearings. They are often involved in drafting and interpreting state statutes and regulations. They act as adviser to the Secretary or Commissioner or Director who heads the agency and work closely with the Attorney General's Office. Lawyers for the state can also serve as administrative hearing officers deciding such matters as workers’ compensation claims. Agency lawyers have the opportunity to do significant work very early in their careers and may become local or national experts in complex areas of government regulation within a matter of years.
3. Working for the Attorney General as an Assistant AG. The Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer of the state. S/he may be elected or appointed. An Attorney General prosecutes crimes and generally has the jurisdiction to become involved with any criminal matter in the state, regardless of county lines. As a practical matter, most Attorneys General focus on crimes that cross county lines, complex matters that require more forensic support than is available to the counties, matters where s/he is called in by the district attorney (such as where a conflict of interest may exist) and larger matters that touch directly on a particular priority of the Attorney General or Governor, whether it be online enforcement or protection of the elderly. Attorneys General also are chief enforcers of the state civil laws and may have significant staff in areas such as environmental protection, consumer protection, regulation of charities and trusts, enforcement of wage and hour laws, civil rights, antitrust and others. Finally, Attorneys General are litigation counsel to the Governor and the executive agencies. They can enforce agency decisions and defend agencies if they are sued. They also handle appeals of agency dispositions.
Employment in the LEGISLATIVE BRANCH includes working as staff counsel to a house or senate committee, or to an individual legislator. The work primarily involves drafting legislation and reviewing proposed legislation. Counsel may also be called on to handle personnel matters, advise on open meeting requirements, create document retention policies, communicate with the other branches of government, and provide constituent services.
Employment in the JUDICIAL BRANCH includes becoming staff counsel or permanent clerk to a court or a judge. These jobs are almost entirely dedicated to research and drafting on behalf of the judge as s/he makes decisions, at the trial or appellate level. Some courts also have staff lawyers as policy advisers or human resources supervisors. In many states, the Public Defenders are a branch of the court system. And, of course, the positions of judge and magistrate are virtually always filled by lawyers. For information on post-graduate clerkships, see Career Services Judicial Clerkship Guide.
Like state government, the federal government employs lawyers in all three branches of government. The United States government is the single largest employer of lawyers in the country.
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH of the federal government is enormous and encompasses virtually every type of practice and practice setting. It includes the White House legal staff, all the cabinet offices and their reporting agencies, departments, offices and commissions, and the military legal corps.
New lawyers are often interested in working for the Department of Justice (DOJ). It is located in Washington, DC and commonly referred to as "Main Justice." DOJ attorneys provide legal advice to the President, handle civil litigation in such areas as antitrust enforcement and civil rights enforcement, and oversee federal prisons. The DOJ also encompasses the Offices of the United States Attorneys (USA). There is one USA office in each state, headed by a Presidential appointee, which prosecutes federal criminal cases, handles civil asset forfeiture matters and acts as field support for attorneys at Main Justice. DOJ hires entry-level attorneys, mostly for Main Justice (but occasionally for a USA office) through the Federal Honors Program.
Students interested in policy work also have the opportunity to apply for the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) in early autumn. The PMF program is open to students from all disciplines in their final year of graduate studies and those who have received a graduate degree within the preceding two years. Eligible nominees are invited to participate in the first part of an assessment in the fall. Semi-finalists are chosen and invited to the second part of the assessment, after which finalists are selected. Finalists are invited to a dedicated job fair and may apply for PMF designated positions throughout the Federal government.
Some of the other large agencies that employ significant numbers of attorneys, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, also have a dedicated process for hiring at the entry level. Please check the agency website for further details.
The Armed Forces of the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy hire entry-level attorneys for their Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) and also run summer programs for law students.
LEGISLATIVE work on Capitol Hill is similar to working for a state legislature. Federal legislative aides are encouraged to become experts in complex areas of law, which lends credibility and increases the productivity of the committee or individual you work for. Party affiliation can be required by elected representatives and senators who often hire constituents or those with an established track record on the Hill. The website www.hillzoo.com lists openings.
The FEDERAL COURTS are extensively staffed with lawyers both on the bench and in supporting roles. You may consider this an option during your third year of law school or later in your career. Post-graduate clerkships consist of one or two year appointments to the chambers of an individual federal judge to provide research and drafting support and to receive mentoring and training in litigation or appellate advocacy. Some staff attorney positions are available at the entry level, although most require several years of experience. Boston College Law School encourages its students to consider clerkship opportunities. Please see the Career Services website for additional information regarding the clerkship application process.
- Network through the bar association; there is generally a committee or practice group focused on municipal and state law.
- Volunteer during summers and the school year to make contacts and learn of openings before they are widely advertised. Semester in Practice also provides a great opportunity for such a placement.
- Get involved in local politics and become a useful resource to an elected official. Volunteer on a local campaign or committee. In general, more jobs open after an election.
PSJD.org Resource Center: Government Careers
State government websites. For Massachusetts, visit http://www.mass.gov