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Be a Government Attorney: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Research the requirements to become a government attorney. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a government attorney. View article »

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Video Transcript

Should I Become a Government Attorney?

Attorneys advise clients about legal matters and represent clients before courts and in legal proceedings. Their job tasks may include drafting legal documents, researching legal issues, arguing before courts and negotiating. Government attorneys work for federal or state government agencies, and their job tasks include interpreting laws and writing up the rules to enforce laws. Many lawyers work very long hours on a regular basis, appearing in court can be very stressful.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Juris Doctor
Degree Field Law
Licensure/Certification Passing bar exam and admission to a state bar association; admission to practice in federal court may be required to work as a federal government attorney
Experience Some agencies hire directly out of law school; others require several years of experience
Key Skills Critical thinking, analytical reasoning, negotiation, research, and writing skills
Salary $138,860 (2015 mean for federal government lawyers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. District Court for Northern District of California, Job postings (September 2012)

Government attorneys need a law degree, known as a Juris Doctor. They must also pass a bar exam and admission to a state bar association is usually required. Admission to practice in federal court may be required to work as a federal government attorney. Experience requirements vary; some agencies will hire attorneys directly out of law school, while others require several years of experience.

Key skills include critical thinking, analytical reasoning, negotiation skills, research and writing. As of 2015 data gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, federal government lawyers earned a median wage of $138,860 annually.

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Steps to be a Government Attorney

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Most law schools require that applicants possess an undergraduate degree from an accredited school. There is no specific field of study required for aspiring lawyers. While degrees in English, history, government or a related field are common, a bachelor's degree in government provides instruction in public law and policy, political theory and American politics. Knowledge in these areas may impress government employers during job searches.

Step 2: Take the LSAT

Law schools require that applicants submit Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores. These tests, which many students take during their junior year of undergraduate study, cover areas such as critical thinking and analytical skills. The LSAT is a gauge to determine whether students have the aptitude to study law.

Prepare for the exam. Some companies offer prep classes for the LSAT. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), law school admission is highly competitive. Preparing for the test may result in a higher score, which may make being admitted to law school easier.

Step 3: Obtain a Law Degree

Law school consists of three years of study. During the first year, students complete courses in civil and criminal law, torts, property, contracts and civil procedure. During the second and third years of study, students are allowed to complete elective courses, as well as clinics and internships.

Students interested in working as government attorneys should:

Complete government law-related elective courses. Classes discussing U.S. import regulations, patent prosecutions and the clean-air act provide students with an introduction to the types of laws upon which government attorneys may work. Additionally, completing elective courses in these fields may make it easier to find employment as a government attorney after graduation.

Step 4: Take a State's Bar Exam

Most states require lawyers to pass the bar exam to legally practice law. Individual states set their own requirements for the practice of law, and these are established by the highest court in the jurisdiction. Although each state's bar exam format and content differ, most consist of multiple days of testing on general and state-specific laws. Passing the bar exam is the first step to being admitted to the bar and being able to practice law.

Apply to practice before a federal court. Some government attorneys work in the federal court system, which has different admission and practice procedures than state courts. Sometimes, lawyers must obtain permission to practice before a federal court. Many times, permission is obtained by demonstrating admission to the state's bar association.

Step 5: Work as a Government Attorney

After passing the bar, an attorney can practice any type of law for any employer. Government agencies and departments hire attorneys to represent them and assist them in interpreting laws. Some employers hire inexperienced attorneys (those just out of law school), while others require applicants to have 3-5 years of experience, sometimes in dealing with a particular subject.

Government attorneys must have a Juris Doctor degree and need to pass their state's bar exam. They should also apply to practice in federal court, where the median wage is $138,860 according to 2015 data, gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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