From my correspondence, it appears a significant number of potential law students still think of becoming a government lawyer as a kind of backup plan, if their aspirations to get a job with a large law firm don’t work out.
There are at least two big problems with this:
(1) Public law jobs have become far more competitive than they used to be, for three reasons. First, funding cutbacks have created hiring freezes and slowdowns at all levels of government hiring. Second, the severe contraction in the legal employment market means there are far more experienced attorneys now who are willing to consider taking what are advertised as entry-level jobs. Third, the combination of spiraling law graduate debt (the average law graduate now has around $150,000 of educational debt by the time he or she becomes licensed to practice) and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which forgives all federal educational debt after tens years of non-profit employment (and doesn’t treat the forgiven amount as taxable income) means that from a purely economic perspective, government legal jobs are far more valuable than they used to be to law graduates, despite usually featuring modest entry-level salaries.
(2) For those who are fortunate enough to get such jobs (getting one now generally requires a demonstrated commitment to government legal work, that pretty much disqualifies people who aim for big firm jobs and miss), holding onto them is now apparently much harder than it used to be, at least in places like New York City. A correspondent writes:
I do not know about anything outside of my own observations in NYC, but I have no doubt that there is similar trend in other big jurisdictions with an enormous glut of new lawyers.
Basically, it is like this:
In the olden days, i.e. 15 years ago and more, it was normal for the middle to lower portion of a law school class to search for jobs in small law and government. Prosecutors offices had slightly higher standards than PD offices. PD offices were often seen as enclaves of law students with low GPAs. Most of the lawyers who wanted to work for DA/PD offices could find a job within a year. If you wanted to stay in these jobs, you could. Even if you stayed working in a non-prestigious trial unit for 10 years, it was easy to stay under the radar, collect raises every few years, and perhaps wait for a higher position to open. Or you could go solo by joining the (now dwindling) assigned counsel programs.
Now, the PD offices in NYC all get thousands of applications a year. NYC has five or six PD offices, two per borough except in Staten Island. Also, there are other PD organizations like the Appellate Defenders. There are other family law organizations, civil Legal Aid, etc. It is very confusing, there are tons of government funded organizations and mini-firms.
All of them now follow a more-or-less standardized application timeline due to the enormous floods of applications. It is like applying to law school all over again. You submit in the fall and provide cover letters, resumes, answers to essay questions, writing samples, letters of recommendation, etc. They spend a few months going through the thousands of applications, grant a few hundred interviews, and then pick a few lucky winners.
Most of it is based on nepotism. As I mentioned, I won a felony trial from a case I took over from one of the top trial attorneys at the Bronx defenders, yet they would not even grant me an interview this year (although they are interviewing some 3Ls). This proves beyond any doubt that this organization and others choose candidates based on factors other than experience (such as connections and other behind the doors decisions that they never have to answer for).
But even if you get hired by one of these DA/PD organizations, it is not the end of the struggle. In the DA/PD organizations, you are assigned to misdemeanors for the first two years. Many organizations can get rid of you after the first two years for any reason, or they can promote you to low-level felonies, grand jury stuff, that sort of thing. Some people move between departments, like they go from vehicular crimes to sex crimes to narcotics, etc. But for the most part, the offices now look more like pyramids than they did in the olden days. If you get stuck doing low-level crimes for more than a few years without getting promoted to a higher level of responsibility or supervisory role, you will be booted eventually. Why would they keep you doing low level crimes for more than a few years, paying you raises every two years? Instead, they can replace you with a new desperate law student who can do the same work for the lowest possible pay grade.
Now, plenty of people voluntarily leave DA/PD offices for greener pastures after a few years — which has always happened. But the pastures are not so green on the other side, so there is less of this. Most people know that going solo is risky at best.
I feel lucky that I made close to what I would have as an entry level PD this year (without benefits). It makes me feel like I actually have more job security and a greater capacity to increase my income by continuing to figure out the best ways to market my niche services. And I may get onto some of the assigned counsel panels in the next few years, which would give me a steady income (the bar associations block new lawyers from these panels until they have a few years of experience). In some ways, I feel lucky to have started the solo journey now instead of ending up here after doing a few years with PD organizations and suddenly getting booted because I did not make friends with the right supervisor. It is better to get the foundation of the solo practice started sooner rather than later, I guess.
But that is also scary when you think about it. Again, the DA/PD organizations are a bit of a scam for the thousands of people who think that they can stay in government jobs to wait out the 10-year loan forgiveness…because many of them will not last that long.