Monday, June 21, 2010

Government work is NOT an alternative to private practice

It’s exasperating to hear naïve 0Ls, 1Ls, and even some dumber upperclassmen, talk about public-sector work like it is still a viable option for them. They'll say how are disappointed they are that biglaw is closed, but they will just go and work for “the government” instead. They usually cite something about how the lower salaries are worth working fewer hours and devoting yourself to “more meaningful” work.

These jobs were always scarce before the recession, and they also paid crap compared to the 100 or 150 thousand dollar debt students have. For as many law students that professed their desire to work in the public sector, there were never enough of these positions for them even in the best of times. They are even more scarce now as many government and nonprofit employers have seen their budgets crater. Those that are still around aren’t paying you any more than they ever were. Only a few schools have a worthwhile LRAP program that will make any significant dent in your debt, and they all happen to be top schools. If you go to a crap school or even a first tier toilet, and expecting to be bailed out by your school in exchange for taking a $35,000 yearly salary from some legal aid ain't going to happen.

To anyone who has been living under a rock lately, government isn’t exactly a boom industry when it comes to jobs for law grads. Fluff news stories like to talk about how government is one of the only sectors growing. This is true...if you are a temporary census worker, or are willing to enter at the bottom of the pay scale as a Forestry Service technician making $9/hour. There are not, however, thousands of new legal positions being created. The tens of thousands of unemployed or temporarily-employed JDs out there are not going to find full-time attorney jobs with the government.

State and local government is much, much worse off than the feds. Several states that are home to a lot of unemployed lawyers are ready to implode for lack of funding. They aren’t exactly on a hiring boom. Many other states have severely constrained budgets and are trimming their judicial branches, county legal services, and the like. State-level judges are cautioning that this austerity, lack of funding, and lack of personnel is going to be long term (read: permanent).

No, you’re not going to be able to slide into a job as assistant city attorney or public defender with ease. As you may have noticed, every recent grad who hasn’t yet committed suicide is plastering the few remaining government jobs with resumes. There are tends of thousands of newly-minted, unemployed JDs trying to find ANY sort of paid work. Local governments are taking advantage of this bumper crop of unemployed law students and recent graduates by taking them on as volunteers, with no promise, prospect, or insinuation that they will ever get a job.

Back at the federal level, there are only a tiny amount of attorney positions open. They are being filled by biglaw refugees with fancy degrees and gold-plated experience at some of the nation’s premier firms. In other words, not slack-jawed recent graduates, or TTT lawyers looking to move up onto the federal general schedule. One of my good friends, from back in the day before I lost half of my brain mass and decided to go to law school, actually works for the federal government. The Department of Justice probably has a lot of lawyers and is a good place to sample what hiring at the federal level is like. Let’s see what he says:

“Even before the recession a lot of these jobs were only looking at 5% of applicants, now it's much less. No one looks at the thousands of USAjobs applicants, you need something stellar to stand out. We have a lot of solid talent from the private sector coming in, our division hired some experienced attorneys from big firms in the past year or so. All the people in my office who have degrees from places like UConn or non-Ivy schools were here long before the economy got bad. DOJ has its pick of experienced lawyers with white shoe credentials. Everyone is trying to get into the federal government because it’s more secure.”

Wait, where was the part about them hiring new grads or students from shitty schools?

Bottom line: government work is AT LEAST as hard to get as a halfway decent private sector job, if not harder. I think all but the most delusional students outside the very top schools have given up their dreams of biglaw. Students need to start giving up their hopes of government work: local government doesn’t have the money to hire you, and the feds would prefer experienced lawyers with excellent academic credentials from top schools. Your students and grads from the T14 are also shut out of biglaw and are trickling down to take entry-level government jobs that might have considered you in the past.

What does that leave you? Bankrupting yourself starting a solo practice, or working for some schlubby shitlaw practitioner in traffic court or family law for $25k a year. There is probably some of that work to be found, but still not enough for the 45,000 law grads emerging every year. So don’t lose heart, you might still find "a job." Do write back when your prelaw dreams of legal glory clash with the realities of shitlaw.


  1. Very true. The government/civil service sector is very tight. No "fallback" positions there.

  2. I was reading through the TLS boards over the weekend. Many kids there seem to believe they will work hard, graduate in the top 10%, make law review, order of the coif, network their way to multiple job offers (as a result of being wonderful and reading Guerilla Tactics to Getting your Dream Legal Job). Most of these kids are in denial and cannot handle the reality of the recession. That is why they are enrolling in law school--to escape the reality of the recession. If I were hiring in 2013, the first thing I would ask a non-trad law school graduate is why did you run to law school during the recession? Were you unsure that you would survive on your own during the recession? These kids are dumb cowards who will soon realize their dreams will be crushed only to be replaced with shit eatting reality.

  3. This is a very strong post that smashes the "I'll just work for the government" fallback illusion. Even at my T14, it was hard to get an interview with the Federal Government, let alone a job. One day at a barbecue with some Harvard Law students, I found out why. Many of the Harvard students were being deferred or no-offered; so these men and women were applying to work "for the government."

    Also keep in mind that the Federal Government never really had that many full-time legal positions open, and they definitely do not have enough now.

    Scammed, great post; but could you edit the "first tier toilet" hyperlink? It doesn't connect to my blog.

  4. This is especially true in the bigger markets. My friends from Chicago report that it's nearly impossible to land an Assistant State's Attorney job nowadays because there is either an ongoing hiring freeze, or the office is overwhelmed with recent grads willing to work gratis. The PD's office is no better...they have been on a hiring freeze for years.

    The thing about a lot of these types of jobs is that the law schools are now pushing unemployed grads to "avoid resume gaps" by just offering their services for free to any government agency that will take them. As long as this is happening, and budgets are so tight, why would these agencies actually PAY for employees?

    The only exception I've heard of is for URM students...BLSA kids are getting jobs, but that seems about it...and it's not the best gigs, just 45-50K (okay, that is pretty decent nowadays, just not great when dealing with a huge debt load).

    The same kids who brag that they never went to law school to get BigLaw are the same ones who honestly believe that non-profits and legal aid foundations are just dying to hire them. Please! These jobs are even more competitive now that the public interest organizations have had a taste of those subsidized deferred BigLaw associates. Are they really going to hire a bottom half of the class TTT grad after spending a year enjoying completely free work from a Harvard or U. Chicago grad?

  5. bailed out by your school in exchange for taking a $35,000 yearly salary from some legal aid group

    Maybe in a future post you could talk more about this. Much has been written about the bleak future in Big Law but little about what awaits naive do-gooders if they want to go to some rural area helping farm workers.

  6. I work as an ASA in a midsized, 1600k pop county in the midwest. I LOVE my work as a misdemeanor prosecutor- trials everyday, in ct, good support, and a pretty collegial local bar... and that's all good. The bad news... the county is not hiring, and we actually lost staff. We get STACKS of resumes. The only reason I got an ing was a family connect, and the reason I got the offer over their 2 law clerks was my major felony jury, bench, and mtqs experience. Pay is low 40k and things are tight with loans. The office does not turnover near as often as it used to, so I'm guessing 8th will be a while until I make felonies. So.. I love my job, but I'm very lucky and its hardly 100k and Jack McCoy. I am an 08 t2 grad, top 50%, worked 9 months as a criminal solos associate for 7 months in major market prior. Hope this is helpful to those considering law school.

  7. Yet, the lemmings WILL overcome the odds and build up a large clientele with the force of their winning personalities, right?! Yeah, sure they will and Salma Hayek just asked me to get off the computer so she can climb on top of me.

  8. If you want to do public interest or criminal law (even if it is criminal defense), you should start out with an internship in the prosecutor's office. Your life will be a hell of a lot easier. People have critiques about the salary, but when you add in the fact that they take care of your bar dues, occupational taxes, CLE, and health insurance, (not to mention that you don't have to pay a dime in legal malpractice insurance because of qualified immunity and you get retirement and possible 401K), PLUS the fact that you aren't paying self-employment taxes, you are actually clearing a lot more money than the dollar figure reflects.

    I had friends who bet on the right team while in law school and the majority of them have a job. Even if their DA loses the election and they have to leave, I'm sure they can move somewhere else and get a job. DA's offices are one of the few places that welcome new talent.

    You can intern for the department of justice if you like, but, in the majority of cases, they won't look at you unless you've had 10+ years of experience plus the ability to pass their incredibly rigorous background check.

    Other than that....public interest is definitely not a fall back. State budgets have eaten into a lot of that, but the state and federal lawmakers figured out over the years that they can simply rewrite the laws and allow lay persons to do most of that work and keep enough attorneys on staff to do actual court appearances.

  9. How do you pay your student loan debts? The numbers for a starting lawyer seem impossible. Any insight?

  10. "BLSA kids are getting jobs"

    Really? Where?

  11. Plenty of county attorneys are offering unpaid internships, it's true, but this should NOT fool anyone into thinking this means there will be a job there for them. They are just being smart and taking advantage of the glut of students and recent grads desperate for something to put on the resume. Sure, the experience will be great, but you can keep your experience and give me a paycheck. Or better yet, give me experience and a paycheck like a REAL job!

  12. No one mentioned the Income Based Repayment (IBR) option. With a public interest job, your federal student loan debt can be forgiven after paying a % of your discretionary income for 10 years rather than 25 yrs for other jobs. I wonder how much IBR will drive up the demand for these jobs?

    All student loan debt repayment should be income based with a cap. The schools should be on the hook for the loss not the taxpayers. Then the schools' interests would be in line with their grads.

  13. Public interest jobs are a moot point for most people...there just aren't that many of them out there, and too many students want them. They end up being nearly as selective as any legal job with a primo salary. And, even with IBR, the pay is crap.

  14. Employment growth was not sufficient to reduce unemployment because of increased labor force participation.

  15. As the public sector shrinks relative to the private sector, the private sector has more room to grow, and it's the private sector that delivers prosperity. federal attorney case management