Public Service Careers: How lawyers can work in government

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Published: 02nd June 2013
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If you're trying to figure out what to do with a law degree, you have many career options within the government. Lawyers often choose to go into law in order to have a positive impact on their community. One path that allows lawyers to affect change is to work for the government. Serving the public as a lawyer or in related government fields is a good alternative to big firm jobs, which can be hard to come by.

And though the high salary might look good after graduation, firm life does not fit everyone, especially if lawyers are interested in public service careers. Life is too short to stay in a job you don't love, and it's never too late to take a new path if you find yourself unfulfilled by your work. The options for lawyers within the government are great as well, including both legal and non-legal positions.

Government Legal careers
There are a lot of roles that require a law degree between the Justice Department and judicial branch. The most obvious include judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. While you'll find government lawyers in court, assistant attorney generals may not be in litigation. A lawyer following this career path in Oregon said that some also are in advisory roles. She makes sure non-profits comply with regulations.

Alternative careers for attorneys
Outside of the courthouse, the most obvious government job in which you will find lawyers is the role of elected officials. Whether you are working on a city level or national level, you can make a difference in your community, country and world.

But perhaps you want to make a difference without being such a public persona. A good alternative for you, then, would be to serve on the staff of an elected official. Law school taught you how to argue a case, and you can use this skill on a campaign. Campaign work can also help you secure a position after election season concludes.

Congressional staff positions
One of the most exciting places to work in government is on Capitol Hill, where lawyers may craft legislation or serve on investigations. While staffers for elected officials do not need to have graduated from law school, having a JD can help. Many lawyers on Capitol Hill work for a committee rather than for an individual member.

A lawyer's understanding of policy and politics can help them succeed as legislative advisors. Research and analytical skills also help lawyers to take on investigations, and investigations on Capitol Hill make national and international news. For instance, a lawyer I talked to made his move to Capitol Hill when legislators called for a major scandal in the 1980s. He told me that it was exciting to be making news.

Career paths for lawyers
Working on such an important investigation requires experience (he had been a federal prosecutor), but there are other opportunities for young lawyers who want to work in government. State and local governments have similar needs for lawyers.

Local government agencies are also great places to find alternative routes in which you can apply your legal skills. A non-practicing lawyer I talked to says he uses his skills everyday running city agencies in Chicago, including as head of the transit system.

Or lawyers can influence government from the outside by lobbying. Lobbyists advocate not only for corporations, but also for ordinary people and the poor. A lawyer in Portland found her path in public service in government relations for her city. She lobbies the state and national government for issues like public transportation.

Lawyers can have an impact on society in any number of government careers. Using your law skills and knowledge, you can find a fulfilling career in public service.

You can find out more about law careers in government at As the host of JD Careers Out There, I interview different types of lawyers to help you figure out what to do with a law degree and how to succeed. Guests both practice law and apply their legal skills to other careers from Hollywood to Capitol Hill.

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