Government attorneys work at the local level for counties and municipalities (towns and cities), as well as for state governments and the federal government. Many government attorneys are involved in drafting, interpreting, implementing and enforcing regulations; writing policy; and advising and counseling other government employees. Government lawyers who help develop and pass legislation can be found in state legislative bodies and Congress. Individuals who want to work in public policy should look beyond jobs with “attorney” in the title to identify other positions that might match their interests and skill set.
While government attorneys at a wide variety of offices are involved in litigation, those with a focus on litigation include district attorneys, public defenders (both state and federal), state attorneys general, and federal prosecutors who work at U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country.
While many federal government attorneys work in a multitude of agencies in Washington, D.C., there are also agencies with regional offices across the country including the Social Security Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Securities and Exchange Commission, Patent and Trademark Office, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and Internal Revenue Service. Since they only handle federal issues, attorneys for the federal government can be licensed in any state or the District of Columbia— regardless of where they work. Lawyers in the federal government enjoy the ability to quickly take on significant responsibility and feel like they’re contributing to something important. Many of the great reasons to work as an attorney in the federal government include:
- wide range of legal specialties
- immediate responsibility and independence
- ability to work all over the country and world
- expected large number of openings as baby boomers retire
- loan repayment assistance programs
- high-end public interest pay, as compared to nonprofit organizations and other levels of government
Military (JAG Corps)
All branches of the United States Armed Forces – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard – include lawyers who serve in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG Corps). These lawyers work in diverse practice areas, including criminal law, employment, administrative law, environmental law, and government contracting. As one of our graduates in the Navy says, “We’re a law firm, essentially of 900 attorneys serving a client base of 325,00 people.” The JAG Corps provides an excellent opportunity to be exposed to the real-life practice of law, and those who ultimately choose not to remain in the service long-term have found it a great springboard to other opportunities, including private practice and federal government service.
All branches of the military hire 2Ls for summer positions, and some hire 1Ls. JAG Corps representatives come to campus for information sessions and participate in both spring and fall OCIs. There are Carolina Law alumni in all branches of the JAG Corps and the CDO is happy to connect you with them.
There are various options for work in the North Carolina state government. The Attorney General’s Office has several divisions, including legal services and consumer protection. There are attorneys who act as counsel to the governor. Many state agencies hire attorneys directly, in addition to the attorneys who are hired by the Attorney General’s Office to work in other state agencies. Attorneys work in the state courts as judges, clerks and administrators. Finally, the General Assembly hires attorneys to work in various positions, including bill drafting and research. District attorneys and public defenders are also state employees.
Attorneys work as both city and county attorneys, as well as in city council and mayoral offices. City and county attorney offices are like general counsel for large corporations: their sole client is the municipal government, and the attorneys work on issues ranging from public finance and real estate to tort claims and tax, contracts and employment. Because social services are often provided at the county level, county attorneys offices often work closely with family and social services and may even have a department or division focused solely on these issues.
In North Carolina, cities such as Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, and Greensboro have relatively large city attorney offices. The Town of Chapel Hill has a town attorney, while some smaller towns, such as Carrboro, use a private attorney for their municipal issues. If you are interested in practicing in municipal law, research the local governments you are interested in and contact the city or county attorney’s offices to inquire about summer and permanent opportunities. You may also want to seek opportunities in private law firms practicing municipal law.
The executive branch includes federal, state and local agencies that create and administer regulations and government cabinet departments. Generally, executive branch attorneys conduct investigations of possible violations of administrative regulations and write and interpret regulations and advisory opinions.
The legislative branch of government includes offices responsible for drafting and passing federal or state legislation. Attorneys working at the legislative level gain valuable experience working with the political process, dealing with policy-making and the drafting of bills, and advising elected officials.
Generally, attorneys will find four types of positions available in the judicial branch: judicial clerk, staff attorney, judge and federal public defender.
A judicial clerk assists the judge with legal research and writing. Clerkships are available at state trial and appellate courts, along with a range of federal and administrative courts.
In addition the judges’ individual clerks, the 11 federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, as well as state appellate-level courts (in North Carolina, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court), have staff attorneys who act as “clerks” to the whole panel of judges, offering assistance to the judges and their clerks on any matters before the court. Staff attorneys do the research and writing for all motions before the court and write the opinions. These positions are generally two years in length and can be renewed.
Eventually you may wish to seek judicial appointment or run for a judicial seat. At the federal level, most judges are appointed for life. Bankruptcy judges are appointed to 14-year terms. In North Carolina, judges are elected in non-partisan races at all levels (District, Superior, Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court). Outside N.C., a quick search for your state will help you understand the process in that state.
Federal Public Defenders
Federal Public Defenders (FPDs) are part of the federal judiciary through the Office of Defender Services (ODS) of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. FPDs represent people who are charged with violating federal criminal laws and who cannot afford legal representation.