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While most new law school graduates are busy adjusting to the switch from student to lawyer, those with an eye on becoming a federal prosecutor or defender should also start thinking about the career moves necessary to get there. The jobs are coveted, and the competition is fierce. “It’s no secret that this is really considered one of the absolute best jobs that you can have as an attorney,” according to Laurie Magid, Deputy U.S. Attorney for policy and appeals in Philadelphia. But decision-makers in those offices say there are certain steps young attorneys can take to get one of those positions. Paul J. Brysh, chief counsel at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh, says it takes years before a new lawyer is considered competitive for a job with the agency. And, he points out, a lot of hiring decisions are dependent upon what the current U.S. Attorney is looking for in a lawyer. Leigh Skipper, supervisory assistant federal defender for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, says the best experience a young lawyer can get is in the “serious trenches” of the local public defender’s office. One thing both sides agree on is that a federal clerkship is an advantage if a young lawyer is headed toward a career as a federal prosecutor or defender. And while both federal prosecutors and defenders say litigation experience is key, they also say that law firm experience could be a steppingstone in certain circumstances. U.S. ATTORNEYS A federal judicial clerkship is a key step for those hoping to become U.S. Attorneys. “The experience is good, because you generally get to see a lot of good lawyers in action and you get to be exposed to a lot of good legal work,” Brysh says. Also, he says, dealing directly with the federal rules of criminal and civil procedure as a federal law clerk is good preparation for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Magid and Brysh agree that litigation experience enhances a resume. Brysh points out that many Assistant U.S. Attorneys are former assistant district attorneys. He says that district attorney experience is helpful because you learn how to work in a fast-paced courtroom environment. Magid says that although courtroom experience is a benefit, it is not required. Litigation experience at a large law firm is also a plus, Brysh says, because attorneys “learn to meet high standards.” Working with complex corporate matters at a law firm is also valuable for those who want to become federal prosecutors. By the book, a lawyer must have one year’s experience before even applying for a job in Pittsburgh, and in Philadelphia, young lawyers must have J.D. in hand at least two years before sending in a resume. But Magid and Brysh says most attorneys who are hired have more experience than is required. Brysh says because the rivalry is tough, many lawyers are not competitive without a minimum of three years of experience, but four or five is preferred. “We have literally dozens of applications for every opening that we have to fill,” Brysh says. Magid says what differentiates those who get hired from those who don’t is a history of handling work that requires judgment and a passion for being a federal prosecutor. Unlike law firms, district attorneys’ offices and other law fields, neither the Philadelphia nor the Pittsburgh U.S. Attorney’s offices have a particular hiring season. Rather, Magid and Brysh say the best plan for a lawyer wishing to apply is to send a resume so the offices can keep it on file. Brysh says it’s also a good practice to freshen up applications once a year. DEFENDERS If a new attorney wants to become a federal defender, experience working with the local public defender is important. Penn Hackney, acting federal public defender for the Western District of Pennsylvania, says lawyers need to demonstrate commitment to working for those who can’t afford a lawyer, be they poor or mentally ill. “Because the rewards are not going to come from big fees and headlines,” Hackney says. “They are going to come from inside.” Hackney says there are few openings at the Pittsburgh federal defender office, so hiring is done infrequently. He says it’s a good idea to send a resume that the office will keep on file. Skipper says competition for federal defender jobs in Philadelphia is “extremely fierce.” Those with at least four or five years of experience have a competitive edge. He says the office posts job openings, but interested attorneys should send resumes to be kept on file. Federal defender experience is gained from working for the local public defender, landing a federal clerkship or gaining litigation experience with firms, Skipper says. “It’s a rewarding career,” he says. “The few attorneys that we’ve had from the large-firm environment seldom return to that practice.”

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