“How Do I Become A Government Attorney?”
Hey, Guys! Welcome back to our alternative career path series where we are uncovering alternative careers for attorneys who aren’t interested in pursuing the traditional law firm route. Today we’ll be digging deep into the field of government work! If you’ve already done some research into this field, you probably already know that these are the attorneys working within the city, state or federal level of government and even attorneys serving the U.S. military as JAG officers. In other words, these are the public defenders, district attorneys and U.S. attorneys we so often see in the courtroom. The litigators who advocate on behalf of the State or who serve as counsel for the indigent. Being a government attorney is not necessarily the most glamorous position. However, these attorneys are very highly revered for their service and advocacy. Still interested? Then keep reading.
Absent my very short-lived exposure to government legal work as a judicial intern during my 1L summer, I admittedly don’t know much about what it’s really like to be a government attorney. But don’t worry, I did my homework! I’ve spoken with two government attorneys that gave me some insight into what it’s really like to work in this field. I spoke with a recent law school graduate who is currently practicing as a JAG officer and I also spoke with a city attorney who has been practicing for some years now. The recent graduate went into some detail about what her experience was like in law school trying to get a position as a JAG officer, and she also explained what her experience is now that she has been practicing within this field for a few months. The city attorney described what her experience was like transitioning from a law firm into the government field and what her day to day experience is, currently working in that field. To make this information more helpful I’ve broken it down into two categories: what to do now if you want to become a government attorney and what to expect if you land a government attorney position with JAG or the City Attorney’s Office.
What To Do Now:
Take The Right Courses
As a current law student, it would be beneficial for you to take courses that are affiliated with the government career you would like to embark on in the future. If you’re interested in JAG, taking courses such as: Evidence, Trusts & Estates, and Family Law, would help to set you up for success in this field because these are areas of law that you may frequently come across in your practice. Additionally, if you’re interested in becoming a District Attorney or Public Defender, it would be beneficial for you to take practical courses that will help you to hone your skills as a litigator. So don’t be afraid to take a practical trial skills course or other similar courses because this helps to create a litigation theme on your resume that will set you apart for an interview.
Get Work Experience
As a law student, it’s important for you to get out there, get your hands dirty and get some work experience if you’re trying to get into the government field. If you’re interested in a JAG career, it’s important for you to do A LOT of public service work during law school because this is certainly something that recruiters look for during the hiring process. The recent graduate I spoke with mentioned that she got some work experience with the Department of Veteran Affairs, an Appeal for Youth Clinic, and a fellowship with a judge who formerly served as a JAG officer. She also completed a lot of community service. These were all opportunities which helped to boost her resume.
If you’re leaning towards a District Attorney or Public Defender position, the above also applies. Try your best to get as much litigation related work experience as you possibly can. Be sure to complete at least one or two externships with your government department of choice during law school. Also, depending on the state you live in, there may actually be a second year or third year practice act in place which allows 2Ls and 3Ls to represent clients under the supervision of an attorney. So get this experience while you still can!
If you’re looking to launch your legal career or looking to transition into the government field, it’s important for you to network intentionally with the people in your field of interest. If you’re more extroverted and not afraid to network, then attend a few national law conferences, meet as many people as you can who may be practicing in your government field of interest and follow up with them.
However, if you’re a bit more introverted, try to set up informational interviews with people who are just a few years senior to you to let them know your interests and to pick their brains about their practice. These interviews will usually lead to another call which may ultimately lead to your dream government job.
Smart Interview Prep
If you’re looking to get into the government field, then it’s important for you to apply smart interview prep techniques before going into an interview. Make sure to learn as much as you can about your interviewer, but be sure to speak to people who are similarly situated to the interviewer. Try to learn about the day to day duties of the position as this will help you to stand out. Additionally, if you’re a postgraduate, try to learn as much as you can about the actual cases handled within your government field of interest. This will certainly be an expectation from you, especially if you’ve been out of law school for a few years.
What To Expect If You Become:
A JAG Officer
Expect about four months of intensive training at the start of your program because JAG Officers are trained to be both soldiers and practicing attorneys. Since there is so much training involved, the great news is that you don’t need prior military experience to become a JAG officer. Once your training period is over, you begin your actual practice representing members of the military in a variety of legal issues.
Although JAG Officers don’t get paid as much as big law associates, there are many benefits you can accrue from this position. On top of salary, JAG Officers receive a housing allowance, free healthcare, a food allowance and enrollment into a student loan government program that allocates money towards your student loan debt. Additionally, JAG Officers don’t have the pressure of billing their hours, they receive a lot of training and guidance, exposure to a variety of practice areas, and they also get to serve their country.
What More Could You Want!
A City Attorney
Working for the government means that you have to learn to succeed in a position with very limited resources available. Therefore, as a city attorney, a lot of your job will involve organization, project management and finding ways to do things in an expeditious manner. A great aspect of this job, especially for a young attorney, is the ability to get hands on experience very early in your career. You will have a lot of independence within this position and the ability to make strategic decisions about cases because you have a small group to run ideas by.
If you’re a self-starter and, if you’ve taken advantage of all the litigation opportunities during law school, this position would be the perfect opportunity to put your skills to practice as soon as possible.
Hope this helps if you’re trying to decide whether a government career is right for you! But if you’re not quite sold, stay tuned to this series as we explore other alternative careers.
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