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Lawyers work in the White House in many roles. The White House Counsel’s Office is the in-house counsel to the President and Vice President; work in the Counsel’s Office covers a wide variety of subjects--everything from constitutional issues of executive privilege to personnel matters and Freedom of Information Act requests. Outside the Counsel’s office, White House lawyers also work in administrative and policy offices, including the Office of Management and Budget, the National Security Council, the National Economic Council, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (though often more as policy advisors than practicing lawyers).
Law students can and do intern in the White House, but these are extraordinarily competitive internships. It is very rare for newly graduating lawyers to begin work within the White House; it does occasionally happen, but generally only when they have been deeply involved in the presidential campaign. More typically, experienced lawyers move into these slots.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) counts the entire federal government as its client. DOJ includes both “Main Justice” in Washington, DC and the 94 United States Attorney’s Offices throughout the country. DOJ attorneys include both criminal prosecutors and civil lawyers (who handle both affirmative and defensive litigation). Lawyers with the DOJ often initiate or oversee complex litigation of national importance. Antitrust, Civil, Civil Rights, Environment and Natural Resources, Tax, and Criminal comprise DOJ's litigating components or “divisions.” The great majority of DOJ attorneys are litigators (both trial and appellate); however, some DOJ attorneys also work on legislation, policy development and other federal initiatives. DOJ’s Office of the Solicitor General supervises and conducts all federal government litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorneys in other offices of the DOJ, such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, support these components’ law enforcement functions.
DOJ hires new graduates or clerks through its honors program; while the DOJ honors program is very competitive, it has historically hired in relatively large numbers. However, the majority of DOJ attorneys are hired laterally, so it is also quite possible to start one’s career elsewhere and end up at DOJ. DOJ also hires summer interns through its Volunteer (open to 1Ls and 2Ls) and Summer Law Intern (open to 2Ls and some 3Ls) programs.
Most of the over fifty federal executive branch agencies have lawyers on staff serving as in-house counsel or in other capacities. Here, the work focuses less on litigation and more on the legal opinion, counseling or regulatory aspects of lawyering. Lawyers work closely with agency administrators, give advice on legal issues, provide meaningful input into the development and implementation of the agency's substantive programs and policies, draft legislation and regulations, review and investigate applications and complaints, and represent the agency in administrative proceedings. Although the Department of Justice generally represents federal agencies in litigation, some in-house agency attorneys may conduct specialized litigation. Other agencies may have been given independent litigating authority in their enabling statutes; these agencies typically have a team of litigators, often involved in enforcement work.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services are a few examples of federal agencies that depend heavily on lawyers, the vast majority of whom practice in the agency’s General or Chief Counsel’s Office. Many federal agencies also employ lawyers in positions outside of the General or Chief Counsel’s Office, in places like Civil Rights Offices (responsible for education, investigation and mediation of civil rights complaints within and against the agencies, although the lawyers within them typically do not take the cases to litigation themselves) and Inspector General’s Offices (responsible for investigating allegations of waste, corruption, fraud, abuse, and misconduct in the agency). In addition, each branch of the military has a Judge Advocate General's Office that employs enlisted attorneys. These attorneys engage in a wide range of law practice, from criminal prosecution and defense, to contracting and procurement, to issues of the law of war. They advise the military and litigate military, civilian and sometimes international issues at the trial and appellate levels.
A number of federal agencies focus in whole or in part on international issues. There are attorneys with international practices in the Department of State, USAID, the Department of Commerce, the Treasury Department, the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Beyond these agencies most often linked with international law, attorneys practice international law in the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the United States Postal Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The majority of federal agency positions are located in Washington, D.C., although many federal agencies also have regional offices nationwide. Each agency does its own hiring, and most regional offices also make their own hiring decisions. Many departments offer both summer placements for first and second-year law students and honors programs for new law school graduates and judicial law clerks. Because most agencies prefer to hire lawyers with several years of experience, agency honors programs represent the chief hiring vehicle for entry-level attorneys in the federal government.
For further information on federal internships and honors programs, see the University of Arizona College of Law Government Honors and Internship Handbook (email OPIA for the username and password).
One additional route into federal government for new graduates is the Presidential Management Fellowship. This program enables students in their final year of graduate school to apply to spend two years in a federal government agency and includes the option of one or more 6-month rotations into other federal offices. The PMF program is especially useful for graduates interested in policy work, as available PMF positions are focused primarily on policy and managerial issues. PMFs do not litigate, but may be able to rotate through agency general counsels’ offices.
Most attorney positions in the federal government start out at the General Schedule (GS) 11 level. Federal government salaries vary by region. Salaries increase based on level of experience and performance, and often rise relatively rapidly in the first few years. Graduates who have clerked for a judge prior to their government service start at a higher GS level. View the GS scale and regional salary schedules online.
There are many opportunities for attorneys to work on Capitol Hill. Lawyers work as legislative assistants or legislative counsel on individual members' personal staffs, and as staff attorneys for Senate and House committees. Attorneys may draft and research legislation, review and comment on proposed amendments, investigate matters pertinent to the legislator or committee, prepare legislators for upcoming hearings, interact with constituents or interest groups, and advise individual legislators.
Hiring on Capitol Hill is entirely de-centralized; each office and committee conducts its own hiring and sets its own salaries, employment conditions and job requirements. Previous relevant legal work or internship experience (ideally, on Capitol Hill, on a federal legislative campaign, or in a state legislature) is generally required for permanent staff attorney positions. A connection to the district served by the hiring member is always a plus. Most opportunities are discovered through networking. Many legislative offices and committees have summer openings, externships and volunteer opportunities that can help you get a foot in the door. There are also a few limited fellowship opportunities for post-graduate work on Capitol Hill.
Additional resources for legislative hiring include:
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