For a significant number of attorneys, working in government practice is an appealing alternative to private practice. Government lawyers handle many of the same tasks that lawyers in law firms handle but within a different framework. These lawyers find that working for the government provides them with work that is meaningful because of its impact on citizens and its role in shaping public policy.

Government lawyers work in all three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — at the federal, state, county, and local levels. Attorneys in the executive branch work for government agencies and offices, while the legislative branch employs attorneys as legislative counsel and staff, and the judicial branch has attorneys who work as judges, clerks, and court administrators. There are also many non-lawyer jobs in government that are well-suited to candidates with a JD.

Opportunities abound for government attorneys in virtually every area of substantive law. Attorneys interested in tax law, for instance, may work for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the California Franchise Tax Board, and those who are interested in environmental law may work for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the California State Lands Commission. Some government attorneys work with multiple areas of law, while others have very specialized duties.

The daily activities of government attorneys are as varied as the breadth of areas in which they practice. Most government attorneys engage in some combination of the following tasks, depending on the scope and purpose of their position: research and writing; counseling government employees and officers; drafting and reviewing legislation, contracts, and regulations; assisting with investigations; undertaking enforcement of a statute or regulation; attending negotiations; preparing for litigation; appearing in court and in front of administrative bodies; interfacing with the public; and lobbying.

The application process for government jobs, in addition to a standardized application, typically requires a certain level of background investigation, sometimes in conjunction with a security clearance. Many positions require applicants to be admitted to the state bar at the time they submit their applications (the most notable exception being government "honors programs"). However, the comprehensive nature of the application process should not deter attorneys from applying for government positions. Many people find that the benefits of a government job are well worth the initial hurdles.

Government lawyers are usually given a significant amount of responsibility early on, which provides new lawyers and lawyers looking to branch into different areas of law the opportunity to gain hands-on experience more quickly than they might in other settings. Furthermore, most government jobs offer competitive benefits and a manageable work-life balance. For many government attorneys, these perks make up for the fact that they generally receive lower salaries than attorneys in private practice. Fortunately, there are programs — including McGeorge's Loan Repayment Assistance Program and the Federal Loan Forgiveness Program — that may help ease the burden of law school debt.

Professional Resources

  • American Bar Association Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division
  • American Bar Association Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice
  • American Bar Association Section of Public Contract Law
  • American Bar Association Section of Public Utility, Communications, and Transportation Law
  • American Bar Association Section of State and Local Government Law
  • State Bar of California Section of Public Law
  • Sacramento County Bar Association Section of Administrative Law
  • Attend Public Interest/Public Sector Legal Careers Day (PI/PS Day), held in San Francisco in early February. At PI/PS Day, public interest and public sector employers from across the country hold interviews for both summer and post-graduate positions. For more information, visit http://www.one-justice.org/LawStudents.
  • The United States Office of Personnel Management Official Job Site has a search engine for job openings in the federal government. However, the list of federal jobs on this site is not all-inclusive.
  • Department of Justice Employment Search
  • The University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law Government Honors and Internship Handbook includes a comprehensive listing of opportunities in the federal government that are available to students. The Handbook is available in hard copy in the CDO and also online. Check in with the CDO to obtain login information for online access.
  • The United States Government Manual, available for reference in the Gordon D. Schaber Law Library and online via HeinOnline, is the official handbook of the federal government. "This special edition of the Federal Register is currently updated to provide comprehensive and authoritative descriptions of the programs and activities of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. The Government Manual also includes information about quasi-official agencies, international organizations with U.S. membership, and Federal boards, commissions, and committees."
  • The CDO also has a number of resources relevant to careers in the federal government. They include, but are not limited to, the following:
    • Government Legal Careers Handout
    • Landing a Federal Legal Job: Finding Success in the U.S. Government Job Market by Richard L. Hermann (a publication of the American Bar Association which identifies federal agencies that employ attorneys and provides other information about these agencies and the federal hiring process)
  • Government Legal Careers Handout
  • Landing a Federal Legal Job: Finding Success in the U.S. Government Job Market by Richard L. Hermann (a publication of the American Bar Association which identifies federal agencies that employ attorneys and provides other information about these agencies and the federal hiring process)
  • The California State Personnel Board provides a hub for information about employment with the State of California. It is a good place to go to learn about applying for a job with the State and to learn about state agencies.
  • Take employment exams and search job vacancies at the state's Careers in California Government page.

The CDO also has a number of resources relevant to careers in state government, particularly that of California. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Government Legal Careers Handout
  • State of California Hiring Handout (explains in detail how to apply for jobs with California state agencies)
  • State Yellow Book