Are the jobs very competitive?
I currently work as a paralegal for the DOJ. Typical DOJ attorney jobs tend to be slightly less competitive than BigLaw jobs, depending on which agency you work for. I make this observation because in my section, the honors program attorneys hired in the last few years almost all come from Top50 schools, but rarely do we get the HYS people or even Columbia/NYU/Penn crowd that typically goes to BigLaw in NYC.
EDIT: Here's a sampling of the honors program people on my floor: Yale, Duke, U Michigan x2, U Virginia, Georgetown x2 (1 is LLM graduate), U Connecticut, Brigham Young, U of Iowa, U of North Dakota.
EDIT: If you look at people that were lateral hires (non- honors program attorneys with at least 2 years experience), the rankings matter even less, for example people on my floor: Southern Methodist, U of Houston, Brooklyn, Quinnipiac, U of Arizona, Rutgers, Loyola Chicago, Georgetown.
A lot of people from top schools also are hired as laterals. However, DOJ definitely seems to prefer hiring through the honors program.
Of course, you also should have great grades and some law review and/or moot court experience. Many people come here straight after one or two judicial clerkships. About 50% (if not more) of the honors program attorneys in my section have done clerkships.
Would any t14 school put me in a good postion to do this sort of work?
Yes, but you must also succeed there. Better to be top 10% of your class and law review at a Top50 than below the 50% mark at Georgetown/UCLA/Virginia/Michigan/etc.
They donít discriminate against T2 and T3 schools as much as firms do. For one, your name (and the name of your school) is not going to appear on a website or be advertised by your employer to attract high-paying clients. They donít care about prestige. They care about smarts. Now, most of the hiring attorneys will say that the ranking of a school is one measure of smarts. However, if you surpass the pack (top 10% at your T2/3, law review, clerkship, etc.), you will have a good chance at a DOJ job.
That being said, interviewers are sometimes (rarely) Top14 graduates who look down on lesser-ranked schools. Be prepared to have a good answer to the question ďWhy did you go to such-and-such school?Ē (Which you should Ė Hell, you chose that school above 200 other law schools!).
Also, are there drawbacks to working a job like this besides the salary cut? Please let me know if you've had experience with attorneys in this line of work, what their days are like, if they tend to like their jobs more than those in private practice, etc.
I think the pros outweigh the cons, and thatís why these jobs are sought-after. Iíve interned at a BigLaw firm, but Iím not claiming myself to be an expert in comparing DOJ attorney life to BigLaw attorney life. These are some general observations Iíve made and some things Iíve picked up from the lateral hires:
1) No billable hours. Usually pretty set 9:00 Ė 6:00 hours, plenty of vacation/sick leave (which you can actually USE, unlike BigLaw), decent benefits. These are some obvious pros. Obviously your hours will get screwy (12 hour days, etc.) when youíre doing a multi-day trial for an important case. Be prepared to not be "recognized," financially or otherwise, for extra time spent at the office. You're a humble civil servant, after all. That being said, if your work travel plans have you getting home at 10:00 p.m., don't worry about coming in a few hours late the next day. As long as you get your work done, your hours are very flexible.
2) More responsibility for new attorneys. You get to actually litigate cases, and with the least important cases, you virtually have complete control on how to run things. With larger cases, you typically work in a team with a more experienced attorney. Even then, youíre not just doing document review. An honors program attorney I know started briefing *substantive* motions on a case worth over $100,000,000 within 3 months of being hired. Not to mention, you will usually litigate your own cases in court within the first year. However, I know a lot of more-experienced attorneys that are running the larger cases complain about the immense amount of oversight. For important cases, itís not just having one or two partners breathing down your neck. Imagine having a complex hierarchy of six people above you watching every move, then having to coordinate your actions with three other US attorneys in charge of criminal matters (assuming youíre in a civil section) telling you who you can and canít depose because it will interfere with their case. There are a lot of government attorneys out there, and you have to ďplay niceĒ with all of them.
3) Your work has a ripple effect and needs to be coordinated. When youíre at a private firm, all you have to do is worry about winning for your client Ė you donít need to worry about the similarly-situated client at the other BigLaw firm. When youíre a DOJ attorney, you have to think about how an action in your case will affect Janeís case in the third circuit or Danís in the fifth. Similarly, you have to coordinate your work with the policy implications it will have on the administrative agency you represent. Working for Antitrust, maybe youíll have a case referred to you by the FCC, and an argument you might make to win your case could adversely affect how other things are handled at the FCC. This can be a pro or con, depending on how you like to litigate.
4) Lots of training. Since you donít have to hit a billable hours quota, you can take advantage of a copious amount of training. In fact, almost all new hires in our section have one month of half-day training right when they start. Soon thereafter, they take a two-week trial advocacy course at the National Advocacy Center in Columbia, SC. Thereafter, you can register for any of the multitude of courses offered at the NAC or courses offered in any of the DOJ buildings. In short, thereís plenty of training to go around.
5) Travel. DOJ attorneys travel a LOT. Within my agency, itís not uncommon for people to spend weeks out of the office at a time. Whereas many firms will hire local counsel to litigate cases in other jurisdictions, DOJ attorneys always travel wherever the case / other litigant is. Of course, this will depend on your agency/section. Non-litigation government agencies (non-DOJ agencies) or jurisdiction-specific agencies obviously travel much less. This can be a pro or a con, depending on how much you want to travel.
6) Less financial support and greater bureaucracy. We all know about the initial pay disparity between BigLaw and DOJ, but you also should consider the amount of financial support you have at the office. One of the reasons you have more responsibility is because the government is ALWAYS strapped for cash and canít afford as much support staff. BigLaw will usually have a much higher ratio of support staff to attorneys. You also need to wait longer (and pay less) for everything. You need those three boxes of documents copied in two days? Fat chance Ė the copy center will get around to it in about 10 days. What, you want to contract it out? Good luck getting your budget-minded boss to authorize a $1,000 bill for copies when youíre not billing at $400 an hour. Another thing: your stapler, fax machine, and phone will malfunction on a daily basis, and thereís nothing you can do about it. Itís very much ďOffice SpaceĒ to the 10th degree. Now, itís not all bad. You do get a lot of the other BigLaw basics (albeit, new technology lags the firms by a little bit) like Blackberry, laptop, Lexis/Westlaw, document database software, etc.
7) You get credentials (a badge). Now thatís just cool.
8. You probably wonít get a window office (for a few years). From my experience at BigLaw, all associates I knew had windows, I think.
9) You probably will work in DC. Who wouldnít want to work here?
If you have any other specific questions, Iíd be happy to answer.