Competition for government attorney positions is keener than ever

By Julie Chen Allen

There seems to be a lot of talk around the nation about rainy days. Unfortunately, that’s not in reference to the weather.

The month of February saw a 154 percent increase in job cuts, with the largest portion of employee layoffs from government and non-profit employers who announced 16,380 job cuts, according to a March report from consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. 

The legal sector lost 618 although the firm could not confirm how many of the government layoffs included attorneys.

Nonetheless, these numbers refresh for many government attorneys the bitter reality of a very tight legal employment market.

“Each state and the federal government, as well as the nation as a whole, quite obviously has been experiencing a fairly stagnant job market,” observes David Gipson, deputy general counsel for the Enforcement Division at the Texas Department of Agriculture.

“As a result, state and federal governments are hiring fewer new employees,” Gipson said. 

Thus, competition for attorney positions with the government remains strong.

For example, in his division alone, Gipson posted an Attorney III position in late 2010 that drew 17 applications. Many of those applying possessed qualifications and experience well beyond the minimum required for the posted position, Gipson said.

“Many of the applicants were currently or previously employed in positions equivalent to Attorney IV,” he said.

Clearly, law graduates and new attorneys who are interested in working for a government employer will need to develop a more competitive edge.

“Hiring managers have little time to interview more than a handful of candidates, so getting through the door is priority one,” Gipson said. “With such a competitive atmosphere and so many competent applicants, showing interest in the agency and position, along with an understanding of the agency’s role and the issues it faces, will be as important as showing the experience and training to do the job.” 

In other words, do the basic research. At least know who the agency head is, Gipson hints.

As far as preparing for a legal practice in governmental entities, Gipson suggests something very simple: “Learn the basics and learn them well: legal research and writing, procedural and evidentiary principles, the rules of statutory interpretation and case law analysis.”

The opportunities to gain employment as a government lawyer, while competitive, are still expansive. Government lawyers may practice with a local, state or federal entity either in a prosecutorial or defensive capacity. For instance, those considered to be government lawyers may work as city attorneys, district attorneys, state attorney generals, general counsels of utility commissions, attorneys of federal agencies, certification board attorneys who prosecute licensees or administrative law judges for administrative hearings.

Working as a governmental attorney can be challenging as well as rewarding.

Gipson concludes that the opportunity to work towards fair, just, efficient, and effective mechanisms for delivering governmental services to the public can be just as rewarding.

(The viewpoints and commentary expressed in this interview are those of Gipson and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employing agency or the Commissioner of Agriculture.)