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By Renee Schoof
July 25 — The Justice Department's environmental law section was a beacon of stability during the 2008 recession, growing even as the legal profession as a whole contracted.
But now that private firms are hiring again and law school graduates have a variety of other environmental law career paths before them, the DOJ Environment and Natural Resources Division is recruiting to attract top graduates.
The division sends its attorneys to law schools to recruit for its honors program, the next application period for which begins July 31. It created a recruitment video touting its main selling point: Those working at the DOJ will get experience quickly. The division also appeals to new attorneys who want to make a difference in the world, along with a reputation as a one of the best government offices to work for, and a program that forgives some law school debt.
“We are seeking lawyers who want real responsibilities and real challenges from day one,” Assistant Attorney General John Cruden, who leads the Environment and Natural Resources Division, told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail. “Our folks don’t spend their first years in the library writing memos.”
During the economic downturn that began in 2008, many legal jobs disappeared, but public service jobs in the Environment and Natural Resources Division didn't decrease.
The division grew during the Obama administration. It had 410 attorneys in the first pay period of fiscal year 2009 and 445 in the same period of FY 2016. Nearly half of these lawyers bring cases against alleged violators of pollution laws, while the others defend government programs when they are challenged in court and represent the U.S. in cases concerning natural resources, public lands and Indian claims.
The environmental division said people who are seeking the security of a federal job or a career in public service—or both—often apply for DOJ jobs.
The division ranks high year after year as one of the best places to work in government, according to annual surveys of federal workers, something that is noted in the recruitment video. In 2015, it ranked No. 4 out of 320 in the category of federal agency subcomponents.
The recruitment video the division released this year includes testimonials from young attorneys who talk about what they did in their first year or two on their jobs and the responsibilities they were handed.
Emily Polachek, an attorney in the appellate section, for example, says she argued before four circuit courts in her first two years in the department.
Cruden's office told Bloomberg BNA that its attorneys tend to get more experience in a shorter period of time when compared to their counterparts at big law firms. The division said it is able to bring on highly qualified new attorneys, even though it competes with private firms as well as other DOJ divisions, other federal agencies and non-profits.
The video also appeals to potential recruits' desire to make a difference in the world.
“For many of them it’s their dream job—the chance to do public service on national cutting-edge issues,” David Mears, professor and director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School, told Bloomberg BNA.
Joel Gross, who worked for 17 years in the division’s Environmental Enforcement Section in the 1980s and 1990s, including serving as chief of the section for five years, said a sense of common purpose exists at the division.
Many attorneys in the division have spent years working there and have gained respect and expertise. “That contributes to a culture where attorneys are valued, and it makes it possible to attract the best,” Gross, now a partner at Arnold & Porter in Washington, told Bloomberg BNA.
James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement Inc., said DOJ jobs are competitive, and law school graduates who land them are viewed as doing very well.
DOJ jobs, he said, “are prestigious because young lawyers in those settings get to really practice law and do things that in a large law firm setting might take them years to get to in terms of experiences. And even though the federal government doesn’t have the highest starting salaries, over the long arc of one’s career that experience is invaluable.”
Starting pay for a new graduate working in the division in Washington would be $64,650, the rate for General Schedule Grade 11, Step 1, according to DOJ salary and benefits information online. DOJ attorney jobs also have promotion potential to the rank of Grade 15, the highest grade in U.S. civil service. According to the federal government's official jobs website, USAJOBS.gov, a Grade 15 DOJ attorney would earn $128,000 to $160,300 per year, depending on experience.
The department also offers an opportunity for forgiveness of some law school debt through its Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program.
In 2015, the annual mean wage for federal executive branch attorneys was $134,400, compared to $175,930 for attorneys working for “companies and enterprises,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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