Government Lawyer

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Duties: Provide legal services and advice to government agencies; perform duties as required

Alternate Title(s): A title that reflects a certain occupation, such as U.S. Attorney, Staff Attorney, City Attorney

Salary Range: $49,000 to $146,000

Employment Prospects: Good

Advancement Prospects: Good


Education or Training - A law (J.D.) degree; a specific undergraduate or graduate degree may be required

Experience - One or more years practicing law

Special Skills and Personality Traits - Legal research, writing, analytical, organizational, communication, interpersonal, and teamwork skills; be intelligent, responsible, creative, dedicated, flexible

Special Requirements - States require lawyers to be admitted to their state bar; federal courts registration for lawyers to practice


Senior or Supervising Attorney  >>  Attorney  >>  Attorney (Entry-level)

Position Description

In the United States, thousands of attorneys practice law as government employees. These lawyers serve only one client -  their employer - that may be the federal government or a state or local government. As public-service employees, Government Lawyers are charged with providing legal counsel and advocacy in the public interest.

Government Lawyers practice in all areas of law, including criminal, immigration, tax, intellectual property, consumer protection, environmental, labor, military, Indian, and worker’s compensation law, among others. They perform a number of legal tasks. For example, they may be involved in counseling government officials or employees about legal matters; developing governmental policies and procedures; drafting laws, regulations, or ordinances; or preparing for civil or criminal trials.

Government Lawyers serve in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Staff attorneys are employed in the wide range of government agencies - such as planning, tax, social services, transportation, and environmental departments - that are responsible for executing and enforcing governmental laws, regulations, and codes. Many attorneys specifically provide legal assistance to city councils, state officials, Congress members, or other executive and legislative leaders.

In the state and federal court systems, Government Lawyers work as staff attorneys and law clerks to provide legal support and advice to judges and court staff. Many Government Lawyers are hired as trial attorneys at the local, state, and federal levels. They might defend their employers in civil lawsuits or act as prosecutors in criminal cases. Some trial attorneys work as public defenders, who serve as criminal lawyers for impoverished defendants.

Like all attorneys, Government Lawyers perform the same general legal tasks. They review legal documents; conduct legal research; draft legal correspondence, documents, and other materials; and so on. They also perform various other duties that are specific to their positions.

Government Lawyers have a 40-hour work schedule; but many put in additional hours at night and on weekends to complete their assignments.


Salaries for Government Lawyers vary, depending on such factors as their experience, position, employer, and geographical location. According to the May 2005 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey, by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the estimated annual salary for most lawyers ranged between $49,180 and $145,600. The estimated annual mean wage for local Government Lawyers was $80,840; for state lawyers, $73,970; and for federal lawyers, $112,210.

Employment Prospects

The BLS reports in its May 2005 OES survey that an estimated 105,810 Government Lawyers were employed in the United States. About 46 percent worked at the local government level.

The largest employer of Government Lawyers is the U.S. Department of Justice. Other large federal employers are the military and the U.S. Department of Treasury. At the state level, Attorney Generals’ offices are typically the largest state government employers of attorneys. At the local level, most lawyer positions are found with the offices of the city attorney, district attorney, county counsel, and public defender.

In general, job opportunities for any government agency depend on staffing needs, turnover rates, and the agency’s budget. Most opportunities become available as attorneys retire, resign, or transfer to other positions. New positions may be created when funding is available.

Advancement Prospects

Government Lawyers can advance to supervisory and administrative positions, based on their experience, abilities, and job availability. Government Lawyers who seek leadership positions are usually appointed for limited terms by executive or legislative officials. In some state and local governments, they are elected for limited terms by voters.

Many former Government Lawyers have used their positions as stepping stones to careers as private lawyers, in-house counsel, and public interest lawyers.

Education and Training

Government Lawyers have juris doctor (J.D.) degrees. (Most employers prefer graduates from law schools accredited by the American Bar Association.) Government agencies that serve particular interests may require or strongly prefer candidates with specific undergraduate or graduate degrees. For example, an environmental regulatory agency usually prefers lawyers with science or engineering training.

Government agencies usually provide initial and ongoing training programs for their attorneys. In addition, Government Lawyers enroll in outside training and continuing education programs throughout their careers to develop and improve their legal skills and knowledge.

Special Requirements

Government Lawyers are required to be licensed attorneys. In addition, they must apply for admission to practice before a federal court.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Qualifications vary and depend on the position that is being offered. Many positions, including entry-level ones, require one or more years of experience practicing law.                             Like all attorneys, Government Lawyers need excellent legal research, writing, and analytical skills, as well as strong organizational and communication skills. Having effective interpersonal and teamwork skills is also important. Being intelligent, responsible, creative, dedicated, and flexible are a few personality traits that successful Government Lawyers share. Furthermore, they have a deep commitment to serve the best interests of the public welfare.

Unions and Associations

Government Lawyers join professional bar associations to take advantage of networking opportunities, training programs, and other professional services and resources. Most Government Lawyers are members of local and state bar associations. (In some states, membership in the state bar association is mandatory.) Many Attorneys belong to a national trade association such as the American Bar Association. In addition, many join special-interest organizations such as the National Association of Women Lawyers, the Federal Bar Association, the International Municipal Lawyers Association, or the National District Attorneys Association.

Tips for Entry

1. You can gain experience working in the government as a law student or undergraduate. Many agencies offer internship and student work experience programs.

2. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) posts jobs listings for all federal agencies. For information, visit its jobs Web site, USAJOBS, at http://

3. Contact each government agency, division, and bureau where you wish to work. Ask for information about job vacancies and hiring procedures.

4. Use the Internet to learn more about a particular government agency or a state or local government. To find relevant Web sites, enter the name of the agency (example: U.S. Department of Justice or the type of government (example: New York government, or Chicago government) in a search engine.

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