The Responsibility and Accountability of Government Lawyers

Many students seek government work, particularly in the international arena, because of the greater likelihood that they will be given an enormous amount of responsibility early on in their careers. Even summer interns are amazed at the challenging cases and problems they are presented with and expected to resolve despite the lack of background in a particular substantive or procedural area. The reason for this is due to several factors, not the least of which is a great deal of trust and respect for young lawyers eager to work long hours with lower salaries to serve the public interest. In addition, resources and financing are often inadequate in light of the magnitude of the problems and issues addressed. Because the government cannot recruit as many new lawyers as law firms, they are extremely selective, seeking out the best and the brightest from law school graduating classes around the country. While the Department of Justice (DOJ) in Washington, D.C. may only hire 150- 200 new lawyers in one year, law firms are hiring tens of thousands of lawyers throughout the country. This also contributes to the competition among lawyers seeking to compete for the highest positions available within their departments and agencies.

Significantly, those who work in the government are often asked to manage an entire case or project from beginning to end, whereas, in private practice cases often come in pieces, first one motion in one case, and then another motion in a different case. Government lawyers generally have the opportunity to complete the entire puzzle, while law firm associates tend to work on small parts of the puzzle, and may never see the entire picture. Due to the need for high profits in law firms versus the focus on the public interest in government, law firms will quickly require young lawyers to specialize early in their careers. Specialization may mean doing the same thing over and over again to maximize the bottom line and to offer the best expertise to its clients. Government lawyers are not only given an incredible workload, but are also charged with administrative and managerial duties once they have proven themselves with their first assignments. It is not unusual for a government lawyer to not only be managing major legal cases and projects, but a huge budget and a large staff as well. Once you are identified as a problem solver, you can advance very quickly in the government rising to the top positions within a short time. Moreover, some agencies provide specialized training and access to experts. The DOJ provides excellent training through the Department's Advocacy Institute and the U.S. Department of State sponsors frequent educational and training programs with its top diplomats and deputies. Though law firms provide good skills training, they do not have access to the leading diplomats, negotiators, prosecutors, investigators, and specialists in the country and the world.

In the public international arena events often move more quickly than the domestic agenda. When dealing with war, terrorists, public safety, homeland security, international trade and corporate corruption around the globe, immediate responses are essential to the preservation of life and property. It is also important to instill public confidence in government and provide protection for its people. Crisis management is a way of life in public service and priorities and agendas cannot always be controlled. It is often a misconception that government lawyers work fewer hours than in the private sector and have much more time for leisure life and other interests. Though there may be some specialized areas of government where this is true, the legal positions available in many high profile government agencies require constant diligence, long hours and real dedication to the cause you represent. Government lawyers do often have more control over when the work than young law firm lawyers.

Last modified: December 13, 2011

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