Home Uncategorized How to Start a Career in Government With a Law Degree | Education

How to Start a Career in Government With a Law Degree | Education

by Ünal Güler


Although working at a private law firm is a common path for students graduating from law school, many grads also enter a career in government.

“Something that law school students or folks considering law school don’t always appreciate is there’s an incredible breadth of opportunities in government positions for them,” says Carey Bertolet Grand, dean of career services at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law in New York.

Of the law school class of 2022 graduates, about 1 in 10 went into government work, according to the American Bar Association.

“That’s virtually unchanged over the past 10 years,” says Marc Davis, the association’s communications manager.

And that percentage may be higher when all categories of government work are included.

About 17% of the 2022 graduates of The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C., began a career in government.

“But if we add clerkships it’s 36%, and if you add public defenders, we’re up to 40%,” says Julie Dietrich, the law school’s assistant dean for career and professional development.

Public interest law, an umbrella term that encompasses legal work serving underrepresented people and causes, includes many government jobs. Public defenders and public assistance attorneys generally fall into this category.

Bertolet Grand says more than 25% of Cardozo’s graduates enter a job in public interest.

Potential Legal Jobs in Government 

“When students come in, the largest number of the jobs that they’re most likely to think of as being government-related are the ones that they see through TV and movies,” says Arturo Thompson, assistant dean at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. “So it’s typically criminal law, whether it’s being a prosecutor or a public defender, and that could be a county attorney, an attorney with the state attorney general or an attorney with the Department of Justice.”

Lawyers at all those levels are doing civil work, he says. They may be defending the county in civil matters or reviewing the county’s contracts and agreements.

Thompson says the geographical location of a graduate also dictates their interest.

“There have been waves of students deeply interested in immigration work, so we’ve seen some surges in those areas,” he says. “When students get to law school, for many of them, the universe opens up and they realize how many kinds of positions there are related to government work.”

Other options include serving on a state senate or house judiciary committee, he says.

“There’s a position pretty much in every state legislature where there’s an agency within the confines of that, that reviews all the legislation drafted to make it compatible and consistent with all the existing legislation of that state,” he says.

Terri L. Enns, a clinical professor of law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, tells her students that if they’re not sure about going into government work, they should start out doing standard legal practice.

“It’s hard to go the other direction,” Enns says. “Depending on the kind of government work you did, it might not look like traditional legal practice.”

Unless someone is absolutely certain they never want to work in the private sector, she recommends not immediately going to work in government. Those that do go into government can transition into working for an advocacy group, policy center or a think tank, she says.

Things to Consider in Government Work

Although law school graduates have many government opportunities, one thing to consider is the salary differences of working in the public sector versus working for a private law firm.

“When you go into government service, you’re going to make less money,” Thompson says. “Usually, that means income is not what’s motivated you. Rather, you’re being motivated by this sense of a cause and mission for the public.”

Large firms nationally often start brand new lawyers somewhere around $215,000 to $225,000 a year, he says.

A job in the government will pay less, he says. For example, Utah’s prosecutors and public defenders make just over $100,000.

“You may see your salary increase over time, but you’re not going to make up a $120,000 difference,” Thompson says. “The tradeoff for that is, in some cases, there’s a better work-life balance and less stress.”

There’s a lifestyle difference between those who work in the private sector versus those who work in the government, Thompson suggests. Government positions “can be less stressful because you believe in the mission and you’re not doing the billable hour,” he says.

Bertolet Grand points out that government work often qualifies for student loan forgiveness or tuition reimbursement, which can be a nice reward for law school graduates committed to the field. The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program typically requires a borrower to make 10 years of on-time monthly payments while working in a qualified job at a qualified employer, and then the balance of the debt is forgiven.

Employment that qualifies for such loan forgiveness can be a boon, considering that the median cumulative debt of law school graduates is about $130,000, most of which was to pay for law school, according to the American Bar Association.

“I would hate for any student or any graduate to miss out on the opportunities that government work presents towards them,” Bertolet Grand says, “because perhaps they haven’t explored all of those repayment options, and some of them are quite compelling.”


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