Why NOT to Be a Government Lawyer

BY DAN ALBAN

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Traditionally, in this first-of-the-year career issue, Record columnists write to persuade idealistic 1Ls to avoid the temptation of working for an evil law firm, even as they themselves return from being wined, dined and paid obscene amounts of money all summer with a six-figure offer in their hands. However, this column has its sights set on an even more regrettable career choice: that of the government lawyer.

OPIA can certainly tell you the standard pros and cons of working as a government lawyer. But here are some less obvious — and perhaps more important — disadvantages to consider:

Private groups are often more effective at achieving social change

Don’t take a job as a government lawyer because of your idealistic notions about helping others or fighting for a cause you believe in. Private groups such as public interest law firms are often far more effective at actually improving the world. Social change such as the civil rights movement was primarily the product of activism by private groups such as the NAACP rather than governmental bodies. If you want to be most effective as an agent of change, government lawyering is rarely the place to look, unless youÕre really into rural electrification or mohair subsidies.

Moreover, as a government lawyer you may not actually end up serving the public interest. Many government agencies are ‘captured’ by the very interests they’re intended to regulate, so you may actually be doing the bidding of corporate interests rather than serving the public interest. And if you’re going to be a corporate shill, you might as well make the big firm bucks.

Government lawyers may be ensnarled in red tape and bureaucracy

One of the reasons government lawyers aren’t as effective is because of all the bureaucracy they face. Not only do laws and regulations restrict their actions, but they also face an uphill battle in achieving change in the stagnant bureaucratic atmosphere of a government agency. The red tape starts with the hiring process and will continue throughout your career. But if you don’t think a law firm environment is stifling enough, a government bureaucracy may be just the thing for you!

Government lawyers face strict pro bono restrictions

An example of the red tape is the strict limitations that government lawyers face on pro bono participation, including stricter conflict of interest restrictions, limitations on use of office equipment, and sometimes even statutory prohibitions that keep them from undertaking outside legal work. If you want to represent real clients in need, and not just a faceless government bureaucracy, a public interest law firm or a private law firm with a good pro bono policy may be a better option.

You may be obligated to take positions you find morally repugnant

Even worse than being ineffective, you may find yourself obligated to take positions that you find morally repugnant. Some government attorneys had to write the DOJ torture memos, represent the government side against civil rights and liberties in cases such as Brown v. Board, Miranda v. Arizona, and Lawrence v. Texas, and take the legal actions necessary to condemn the homes of the politically disenfranchised to be bulldozed and replaced with corporate parking lots in Poletown and Kelo. Let’s face it — you didn’t go through three years of law school so that you could end up being remembered as the bad guy by countless future law students and legal scholars.

Political tides may change

Even if you do like the work youÕre doing when you’re initially hired, government policies are often not constant. With the election cycle comes change, and not always for the better. Political tides shift the priorities of government agencies in a variety of ways. You may find that funding dries up or other projects are made a higher priority. You may also find yourself working for a new political appointee with whom you strongly disagree. The government is inherently coercive

But perhaps the most important reason not to work for the government is because it’s dangerous, not necessarily to you, but to others. The government violates human rights on a daily basis — if you’re working for them, you may be complicit in those human rights abuses. When you actually do manage to cut through all of the red tape and fill out all of the right forms with all the right boxes checked, the policy result is enforced through coercive force; the government agents carry out your decrees, at gunpoint if necessary. While this may be true of the practice of law in general, it is nowhere more real than in the field of government work. When government agencies pass even the most minor interpretative regulations, those regulations are coercively enforced against people whose lives may be changed forever.

Government lawyers rarely have the ability to grant freedom, but they frequently have the power to take it away. There is genuine danger in the power to drastically change people’s lives with the flick of a pin or a few taps on your keyboard. Don’t forget that power corrupts even those who begin with the best of intentions. Of course you have some great ideas about how to improve the world, and wouldn’t it be great if you could just use a bit of government muscle to make the world just a little better? Sure, until some poor schmucks are shot or thrown in jail for defending their rights against your paternalistic intrusion into their lives — but hey, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right?

A frequent objection to working at a law firm is that few people come to law school to help feed the maw of an oppressive corporate behemoth. But imagine working for a rights-violating corporate behemoth that also holds a monopoly on the use of violence to achieve its goals and frequently works to further the agendas of other corporate behemoths at the expense of its own shareholder-citizens — that, my friends, is the career of a government shill, errr…lawyer.

Dan Alban spent the summer of 2004 suing government bureaucrats with the Institute for Justice.

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