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The federal government has been keeping lawyers gainfully employed for a long time. And now, given the economic downturn — and the new unsteady nature of some private sector legal jobs — a career working for the feds has never looked so good for many attorneys. Legal Times recently assembled a panel of current and former government lawyers, with differing levels of professional experience, to get an inside look at working for the federal bureaucracy. The panel was presented at a Federal Bar Association job fair Nov. 6 at the Marriott Wardman Hotel in Washington, D.C. It was moderated by Jenna Greene, news editor of Legal Times. Jenna Greene, news editor, Legal Times: For the past four years I’ve been writing, first, about law firms and, recently, about federal agencies, and one of the things that I’ve been struck by is that there has been a great deal of discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of working for a law firm, but relatively little has been said about what it’s actually like to be a lawyer with the federal government, and that is, in part, what prompted this panel discussion. I want to ask each of the panelists to introduce yourselves briefly — tell us a little bit about who you are, where you work, how long you’ve been there, and something about the job that you do. Jane Mago, general counsel, Federal Communications Commission: I’ve been a government lawyer my entire career. I started in 1978 at the FCC, and I’ve been a staff attorney, an appellate attorney, and an adviser to various commissioners, and I’ve had a number of management positions at the agency. I have found that it’s a wonderful place to work, which is why I have stayed there for all of this time. The work is extraordinarily interesting, particularly in the general counsel’s office. We run the gamut from being a regular law firm for the agency as a whole — doing contracting work, employment defenses and that type of work — to being administrative lawyers — knowing all there is to know about the Freedom of Information Act and the Sunshine laws, and advising our commissioners on what piece of their decisions they can expect to have appealed — to being a full litigation firm, where we do appellate litigation in defense of the agency’s rules. … I came to the FCC through their honors program. The agency had for a number of years a program of recruiting students straight out of law school to the agency and trying to train them right away to go through the administrative law program. We disbanded that program for a few years when we were under heavy hiring freezes, but I’m in the process of reinstituting it now because I think it’s very important to bring junior lawyers into the agency. I applied blind to the commission. I have a master’s degree in communications that I got at the same time I was going to law school, and so I thought: Where is it that I will be able to focus on the wonderful world of mass media, television and radio, and use my law degree? The logical answer was the Federal Communications Commission. So I applied. I was hired, and they immediately put me into the world of common carrier regulation, dealing with telephones, which I knew nothing about. It had no relationship whatsoever to my master’s degree, but it turned out to be one of the best things I’d ever done because it opened up an entirely new area of the law to me. It caused me to try to gain some understanding of something that I didn’t think I had an interest in — and found out that I did — and so that’s one of the good things about government. Nicholas Koberstein, staff attorney, Bureau of Competition, Federal Trade Commission: I’ve been working [at the FTC] since I graduated from law school about eight years ago. We investigate and litigate antitrust cases against mergers and acquisitions, and my area of focus is the defense industry. I serve as the liaison between the Department of Defense and the FTC. How I got to the FTC was the way that most people get into the government directly out of school: I knew somebody that was there, interned, and ultimately got a position. And that’s how we get most of our people. But when we’re reviewing applications from new attorneys or from recent laterals, somebody who’s been out for two or three years, we’re really looking for two different things. One is an understanding and an interest in economics or antitrust. The other is an interest in public service. It’s rare that a candidate will bring both to the table, so we’re really looking for one or the other. As we’re looking for laterals at higher levels — five, six, seven years out — the candidates we’re selecting have to demonstrate some exposure to antitrust and some exposure to economics. But for new attorneys and laterals just out a couple of years, if you can demonstrate that you’re interested in public service and articulate that, you’re likely to be considered. John Roth, chief, Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, Criminal Division, Department of Justice: It’s our job to develop law and policy in the areas of asset forfeiture and money laundering, to advise the attorney general to write legislation, and to engage in litigation in those areas of asset forfeiture and money laundering that are especially complex or on the cutting edge of new law. I started with the Department of Justice in 1987 as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit. I clerked for a judge, and the best lawyers I saw, the lawyers that were having the most fun, were the government lawyers who were representing the United States. And frankly, even after 15 years, I don’t think there’s a higher calling than to represent the United States in federal district court. The best advice I got was to apply early and often and in as many places as you possibly can. When I was in a clerkship, I applied to probably five or six different U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country. If you have that sort of geographic flexibility, that’s really a good thing to have. You want to pick offices that maybe aren’t exactly the garden spots of the world and some other places that are big, serious, high-volume offices that hire lawyers right out of law school. I didn’t get a job immediately. I had to go to a private law firm for a year. They wanted some seasoning, they wanted people that had some experience. I’m not sure that looking through documents in products liability cases gives you that kind of experience, but that’s what they wanted. I was in private practice for a year and then put out a series of r�sum�s to a bunch of different U.S. Attorney’s Offices. Ultimately, I got one in my hometown, with the requirement that I do nothing but appeals for two years, so it was sort of like indentured servitude. I would simply write appeal briefs — which for some people is fun, but I wanted to get into court and try cases. But the bottom line is, any job at a U.S. Attorney’s Office that ultimately will lead you to the courtroom is a good thing. Deana Timberlake-Wiley, trial attorney, Antitrust Division, Department of Justice: I’m with the Litigation I Section, where we do all the criminal work in the litigation section. We investigate and prosecute price fixing and bid rigging and customer allocation cases. I’ve been with the Antitrust Division for a little over four years now. I had been out for about three years when I applied. For our section, we’re really looking at personality because we work as teams on many of our investigations. And you’re working long hours sometimes, traveling with people, and you really want to like the people you’re working with. By the time you get through the screening process, we already know you have the grades, the writing skills. At that point, we’re really looking for, you know, can I work until 3:00 in the morning with this person without killing them? We investigate our own cases, so we’re out in the field, doing drop-ins with the FBI, showing up at the doors of corporate executives. So we need people who are going to be very good on their feet, have excellent writing skills, are very efficient. You don’t really have to have a strong antitrust background to be in our section because the antitrust statute that we process is about a paragraph and a half long, so you can pretty much get that down fairly quickly. But you do want to have good writing skills, good litigation skills, and a great personality. Scott Palmer, counsel, Nixon Peabody: Until January of this year, I served in the Clinton administration as deputy assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. The Office for Civil Rights is responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws in the context of schools, colleges, and universities — and receives more than 6,000 complaints of discrimination a year — as well as developing the policies and regulations related to the enforcement of civil rights laws in the education context. I entered the federal government as a political appointee, so [my experience] might be somewhat different. To some degree, certainly, who you know is a potential benefit, but I think more than that is taking advantage of opportunities that are presented to do the kind of work that makes people want to bring you into other things. I was finishing law and graduate school and wrote papers on an issue that was important to me — affirmative action and the value of diversity in education — and presented that material to a woman named Judy Winston, who was general counsel for the Department of Education, and then ended up presenting it to Justice and other places. I was finishing up law school, and Judy was asked by the president to come and run the president’s race initiative in the White House. And this led to the opportunity for me to go into the White House and work on education and civil rights issues. I was working on a number of policy issues and from that — though I left the White House and went into private practice for a time — I was ultimately asked back to take the appointment at the Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. So it is really a matter of who you know and taking advantage of opportunities, but you can also try to create those. It can be anything from writing papers in a way that really opens doors to you, or, if you’re already in an agency, trying to work in areas where there might be an interesting detail that opens up at the White House or Justice, or an interesting international issue that you can get exposure to. There’s a lot of opportunities, I think, to open doors both before government service and within government service, which is one of the reasons why it’s such a great place to work. LT: John touched on something I wanted to follow up on, which is the question of responsibility. Associates in a law firm could conceivably spend years basically reviewing documents and doing legal research before they get to do any of the fun stuff — conducting a deposition or speaking in court. How long did it take you to start being able to really assume responsibility for cases and get to do some interesting legal work? Timberlake-Wiley: That’s one of the things I’ve loved about working at the Antitrust Division. I’ve had tremendous opportunities there. Within a year I had already been in court multiple times. I was placed on a trial team the day I walked in the door, on a huge investigation — one of the biggest investigations we’ve had. And those two lead attorneys ended up leaving, and I became the lead attorney on that case. I’ve done a detail at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a six-month detail in the Eastern District of Virginia, where I handled multiple trials. I just did another trial in January, and I’m leading another investigation. So in four years, I’ve had multiple trials, argued multiple motions, traveled all over the country, worked with the FBI, worked with other agencies. I think I’ve had tremendous opportunities with the government, compared to private practice — and I was at a law firm that was a D.C. office of an Omaha firm, so we were in a smaller office. Although I did get into court a couple of times to argue a motion or two, I was mostly in the library reading, writing motions, and writing outlines for other people to take the motions that I had written and argue them in court. Mago: It’s been very easy to gain more and more responsibility in my agency. When I first started, I was initially taking on policy issues. Within about a year and a half, I was in the D.C. Circuit arguing cases. I thought that was the best part of the job — doing appellate litigation. But I was arguing against some of the senior partners in law firms, and the folks that I was in law school with were helping with the very lowest level of the research on those cases. I think that you get much more responsibility in the government. It’s sort of a sink-or-swim situation, certainly in an agency like mine where we don’t have a huge legal staff. We’re very much a trim organization, and you get a lot of responsibility very early on. Roth: We don’t have time to bring people along and have them second-chair cases or do depositions for years at a time. I mean, it’s pretty much, we give you enough responsibility to frighten you. We try to train you and bring you along, but face it, we don’t have a client who’s paying our bills who’s worried about what the results are going to be, especially in criminal litigation. We are completely understaffed and completely overwhelmed with the number of cases, so it’s basically eat what you kill — and it’s a great experience that way. Timberlake-Wiley: I’ve found there’s not the same hierarchy as there is at a private law firm, so if you want to do something and you let it be known and you’re competent to do it, you’re going to be able to do it. There are senior attorneys in our office, people who have been there 10 or 15 years, who have never been a lead attorney on an investigation. It’s not something that they’re interested in. Whereas there are more-junior attorneys who have been lead attorneys. There’s not that senior partner/junior partner/associate [hierarchy]. We’re all on one team, and if you want to do something, more than likely, eventually you’re going to be given the opportunity to do it. Koberstein: Unlike a firm, where your ability to manage people isn’t terribly relevant to the decision about whether you get promoted to partner and how large a practice group you get to lead, in the government people are promoted based on their ability to manage people. And so it goes to the point of playing well with others. It also gives you an advantage, coming in as a newer attorney, to be managed by people who’ve developed some management skills, not necessarily people who have just proven to their partners that they can bring in business. And that’s one of the advantages of working in the government and having the ability to move up in the government. LT: It’s really a structure that’s much more like a business, as opposed to a law firm, where you have this associate/partner division. Do any of you have any comments on the practical implications of this management? Roth: There is very much a sharing kind of a thing that goes on. That is sort of the standard joke, you know: The bad news is you’re never going to make partner here. So in that way, everybody is in the same boat, and, again, it’s as much responsibility as you want. Also, I think you get treated a lot better because people understand that you could make the jump into private practice at any time, usually for a lot more money. And I think they treat you better because they understand that, in essence, you’re a volunteer. You’re there because you want to be there. You’re there because of the quality of work and the quality of work life is good, and they try to make efforts to ensure that that continues. LT: I think everyone here is well aware that the pay difference between law firms and government is pretty sharp. A first-year associate at a big law firm earns $125,000 a year. A first-year attorney with the federal government, I think, comes in at GS-11, which is about $44,000 a year. How much does this bother you, knowing that attorneys of sort of comparable qualifications are earning at least twice as much as you’re making? How tempting is it, and why do you stay? Roth: I was sitting in a conference call with one of our staff attorneys who was talking to a congressional staffer who said, “Hey, let’s do this,” as far as some legislation, and the president [later] signed into law the terrorism and money laundering bill. His suggestion is now a law. It was just one of these things where he had a conference call with the staffer, thought this was a good idea, faxed over some proposed language, and somehow it made it through the process. You know, there isn’t a private attorney in the world who can say that — certainly not a private attorney with less than five or 10 years of experience. Palmer: The level of meaning that you can get from the job and the impact that you can have is tremendous. In the Office for Civil Rights context, there are attorneys all around the country whose job it is to ensure that children receive equal access to education, which has a huge meaning, not only for those individual kids, but for the future of our country. And to be able to get up and do that every day is just, I think, remarkable. I miss it. And so, I think, there is that trade-off. While there is obviously a smaller salary, you can earn a good living — not a great living. In other words, it’s not like you’re a pauper, especially after those first few years. After some time, you get to a point where you’re able to live comfortably. Timberlake-Wiley: I think it depends on where you’re working in the government. When I left my firm to come to the government, I took maybe a $3,000 pay cut, and within a year I was making more than what I made at the firm. And like Nick says, you get automatic pay raises. We get awards at the end of the year that are significant. So I think it depends on where you work. Pretty much every attorney in my office is a GS-15 right now, and the younger attorneys will take no more than a year and a half to get to a GS-15. LT: For people who don’t know the GS pay scale, what’s a GS-15? Timberlake-Wiley: I think a GS-15, Step 1, starts at $90-something thousand. So that’s great. Also, when you consider the hours that you’re working — yes, when you’re going to trial or something, you’re going to be putting in firm-type hours, but that’s not consistent — you can have a 9-to-5, 9-to-6 day. I have an 8-month-old son and one on the way, and it’s going to be harder for me to be at a private firm and still see my children and my husband, like I can now. So the standard of living, I think, is excellent. I get to be a litigator, a criminal litigator, get the court time, do some traveling, but I also still get to be a mom and a wife. And that was very important for me. So the trade-off, you know, making a whole bunch of money but being a slave to a senior partner and a paying client versus representing the people of the United States and still being able to have a family — it seems like I get the best of both worlds. Mago: I want to echo that one, too. I have three children, 13, 15 and 17, that I’ve been able to spend some time with. But I think there’s a different attitude toward trying to maintain a family life that comes from the government side. I’ve had a lot of friends in law firms who find that the firms can be almost resentful of the time that you try to spend with your family, whereas I have never felt that as part of my government career. And I think that’s something that’s an important trade-off, as well. Palmer: I actually think a lot of the trade-off, in terms of hours, is to some extent driven by the individual, both in private practice and in government. You can try to set some quality-of-life limits in each context. I know that I worked much harder in government than I do in private practice, and maybe that’s a manifestation of literally where you are. If you don’t want to work a lot of hours, do not do a detail at the White House or in the secretary’s office or whatever, because you basically might as well bring a cot with you. But you do that in order to be able to have that kind of experience and opportunity, and you know it’s going to be somewhat short-lived. So there’s certainly times and places where you will work harder than you ever thought in the government, but generally with that meaning and purpose that we talked about earlier. LT: What about you, John? I know you have a 2-year-old and another son, and a wife who’s also a lawyer at the DOJ. How does that work for you, balancing work and family? Roth: I really do think they treat you as a volunteer here. Because, I mean, that’s what you are, essentially. You’re giving up a significant amount of money to work here, and I think people make accommodations. I also think that people who choose to work in the government do so for the right kinds of reasons, and that sort of causes a ripple effect on the people that they deal with — so you’re not with people who are driven by money. You’re with people who are driven by what I consider larger values, including family and those kinds of issues.

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