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 group...it 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.