Federal agencies are cutting honors programs -- and for lawyers, that means an even tougher path to a job in government
If Richard Feinstein, who heads the Bureau of Competition at the Federal Trade Commission, was applying for an entry-level position as a lawyer with the agency today, he said, "I probably couldn't get a job here."
He's joking as he says it, but it also might be true. Not that Feinstein is a slouch -- he earned his J.D. from prestigious Boston College Law School -- it's just that competition for legal jobs with the federal government has grown fiercer than ever.
With agencies across the board facing severe budget constraints, job-seeking lawyers these days have few options. One of the few ways in is at the bottom, through so-called honors programs for new law school graduates. But even that pipeline is narrowing.
The U.S. Justice Department -- by far the largest employer of lawyers in the nation -- has slashed hiring for its honors program in 2012. This year, the agency welcomed about 165 new honors lawyers (down from 211 in 2010). Next year, there are only 70 to 80 slots available.
Federal belt-tightening is to blame. "The reduction in the number of projected hires is based on DOJ budget projections for 2012, and reflects the budget constraints that are being felt government-wide," according to an agency statement.
The Internal Revenue Service, which in recent years boasted the second-biggest honors program, is scaling back as well. The Office of Chief Counsel hired 55 honors lawyers in 2011, but has limited hiring for next year's class to those who worked for the agency over the summer, shutting out other applicants. Meanwhile, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has put its honors program on hold due to an agency hiring freeze.
Still, it's not all bleak news. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is hiring three or four honors attorneys, and the Department of Energy has launched a small new honors program as well. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has reinstated its program after a three-year hiatus and plans to add several newly minted lawyers to the agency next year.
"We have a need for junior attorneys," said FCC Deputy General Counsel Julie Veach. "It's a great time to be in the legal market."
That's for sure. Agencies have routinely gotten dozens, even hundreds, of applications for each honors position. But during the past three years, as law firms have cut the size of their incoming associate classes, more new law school grads have looked to the federal government for work -- even as fewer positions are available.
Increased Student Interest
"There's been quite an upswing in interest in honors programs," said Christina Jackson, public interest specialist in the Office of Career and Professional Development at American University Washington College of Law. "Much of it is due to the constriction of the private-sector market."
Career counselors at other law schools have noticed it as well. Paula Nailon, assistant dean for professional development at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, wrote in an email that student interest in honors programs has "increased dramatically in the last two years."
Last year, 20 federal agencies hired about 340 honors lawyers, according to data from the University of Arizona's Government Honors and Internship Handbook. The programs are open to lawyers coming straight from law school or a clerkship and are virtually the only way that agencies hire entry-level attorneys. (Unlike law firms, where profitability is premised on leveraging the work of junior lawyers, agencies can afford to rely on experienced attorneys to handle most tasks. As a result, the government hires comparatively few new lawyers.)
Statistics from the Honors handbook give a sense of just how competitive the hiring process has become. In 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, hired six new lawyers out of 2,000 applicants; the Department of Housing and Urban Development selected 25 out of 1,100; and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission picked five out of 1,400.
So what does it take to get hired?
In many ways, it's more complicated -- and less predictable -- than landing a law firm job. The valedictorian of a top 10 law school might not even rate an interview, while someone from the same school with a lower GPA -- but who spent summers working on a public interest project in the practice area -- could be offered a job.
"We get extraordinary candidates year after year," said Feinstein of the FTC. "It's really remarkable the talent we have to choose from." The agency typically hires eight entry-level lawyers in the Bureau of Competition out of about 1,000 applications -- less than 1 percent of those who apply.
What makes someone stand out, Feinstein said, is "a demonstrated interest in antitrust or economics," as well as a commitment to public service. Such an interest, he said, is often shown by working for the FTC as a summer intern (1Ls are unpaid, 2Ls make about $25 an hour). "We look for strong academic credentials, strong interpersonal skills and strong writing ability," added Deputy Director Norm Armstrong.
What's not so important -- at least to the Justice Department -- are law school rankings. Lou DeFalaise, director of DOJ's Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management, said the agency contacts all 200-plus accredited law schools in the country and does on-campus presentations or interviews at about 90 of them each year. "We have a very broad spectrum of hiring," he said.
It shows. Recent honors attorneys went to law school at Yale and Harvard and Stanford, but they also earned J.D.s from schools including Faulkner University Thomas Goode Jones School of Law in Alabama, Florida Coastal School of Law and Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island.
"We look for enthusiasm and good academics," DeFalaise said. A foreign language is a plus, and so are internships or other experience in the area of law that's of interest -- DOJ applicants may apply for jobs in three of the agency's divisions or offices ("components," in DOJ-speak), such as criminal, national security or tax. A clerkship helps too -- on average, 30 percent to 35 percent of DOJ honors lawyers had one before joining the agency.
This fall, DOJ got 2,622 applications for next year's 70 to 80 openings, DeFalaise said. The largest contingent of jobs -- 31 -- are in the Executive Office for Immigration Review, but unlike other DOJ honors positions, these are one- to two-year "clerkships," not permanent posts.
The next-biggest group will go to the Antitrust Division, which plans to add 13 honors attorneys. Environment and Natural Resources will hire seven, and the Civil Division -- the largest component in the 10,000-lawyer agency -- is taking on just three. U.S. Attorneys' Offices in West Virginia, the Northern District of Ohio and the Central District of California are all adding one or two honors lawyers. The Civil Rights Division, faulted by the agency's inspector general during the prior administration for improperly using political considerations in hiring honors attorneys, will take none.
For new lawyers, the appeal of working for the feds isn't the money -- most of the jobs start at about $62,000 (the GS 11 pay grade), compared with $160,000 at top New York firms. Rather, it's about the experience.
"One great part of working for the government is that you get substantive work from day one," said Katy Mastman, a New York University School of Law grad who joined the Department of Labor (DOL) as an honors attorney two years ago.
DOL honors lawyers in Washington rotate through four or five divisions of the National Office of the Solicitor before deciding on a specialty. "The goal is to give each attorney at least some exposure to all the various kinds of work happening in the department," Mastman said. Assignments might include arguing a motion before a federal circuit; negotiating with outside corporate counsel to settle Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations or drafting final orders and regulatory guidance memos stating the agency's official decision or policy.
It's one of the most competitive programs around -- DOL hired just seven honors attorneys this year out of about 1,500 applicants. "I love this program," Mastman said. "It's a fantastic way to get recent law school graduates and clerks into the department and give us a chance to do great work."
Amy Bender, a Harvard Law School graduate who joined the FCC as an honors attorney in 2005, is equally enthusiastic about her agency's program. "It's an opportunity for new lawyers to get involved on important issues and interact with stakeholders and the public," she said. "At a law firm, you're often the low person on the totem pole, grinding away on research with no direct contact with the client."
Bender, who is now deputy chief in the Telecommunications Access Policy Division of the Wireline Competition Bureau, praised the mentoring and variety of opportunities she got as a junior attorney at the FCC. "The agency is as interested in you as you are in them. You're part of a family that's looking out for you and your professional development."
Fellow FCC honors lawyer David Goldman added that the program "let me dive into subject matter I'm interested in," and also gave "the flexibility to move around and explore" within the agency and beyond -- he's currently on a detail to the U.S. Senate.
For honors lawyers who decide to jump to private practice, opportunities abound, said legal recruiter Cynthia Sitcov of Washington's Sitcov Director. "Coming from an honors program, especially DOJ, is an excellent credential to have," she said. Firms appreciate "the insider perspective, the training and the fact that you have to be really good to get an honors program job in the first place."
Indeed, honors program veterans have gone on to become some of the best-known lawyers around. Attorney General Eric Holder started off as an honors attorney in DOJ's Public Integrity Section, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole began his career in the Criminal Division.
Top antitrust lawyers William Baer of Arnold & Porter, George Cary of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Steven Newborn of Weil, Gotshal & Manges were all FTC honors attorneys. Equally lauded, Jones Day's Joe Sims started as an honors lawyer in DOJ's Antitrust Division. So did telecom law giant Philip Verveer, who now holds an ambassador-level position at the State Department.
Tax expert James Bruton III of Williams & Connolly started off at the IRS, while Foley & Lardner sports law guru Irwin Raij was once an honors attorney at Housing and Urban Development.
Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman banking partner Joseph Lynyak III, who began his career as an honors lawyer at the Federal Deposit Insurance Co., recalled his first assignment: hopping a plane to Puerto Rico to help take over what was (at the time) the second-biggest bank to fail.
"The program gave me a specialty, an area of expertise, as a very junior lawyer," Lynyak said. "It was a wonderful experience."
By Jenna Greene
Source: The National Law Journal