Just what we need — more government lawyers in Washington, D.C.
But in fact there is a need for dedicated attorneys who focus their careers on federal agencies, and Creighton University’s School of Law is starting an ambitious program to respond to that need.
Eleven second-year law students make up the inaugural class of the Government Organization and Leadership, or GOAL, program within the law school’s Werner Institute for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution. The students are considering public service careers in fields such as law enforcement, diplomacy, education, science and, of course, politics.
“There’s a lot of ills in society that need fixing, and I would love to be the person to do it,” said Kathryn Kirts, who has worked for a social justice legal group. “You would be surprised what people can do if you really believe in something.”
Jennifer Piatt speaks Spanish, is studying Arabic and has a husband from the Middle East. She said a career at the State Department would be a dream.
“I would love to be secretary of state,” she said.
For Brad Kinkade, whose high school debate coach was a state legislator, the lures are politics and an early jump on a career in a field teeming with competitors. Law schools graduate more than 40,000 students every year.
Many new graduates are having difficulty finding jobs in the private sector, making government work more attractive than perhaps it has been in the past.
“Anything that can give us a leg up while helping us get the experience is going to be huge for us,” Kinkade said.
The students will get hands-on experience in federal legal work during the fall semester of 2011, when they’ll go to Washington as unpaid interns at agencies matched to their interests.
During the last two of their three years of law school, the GOAL participants will cram additional government-oriented college classes into their already-intensive class load. If they succeed, they’ll receive master’s degrees along with their law degrees when they graduate in 2012.
“We are creating better civil servants,” said Arthur Pearlstein, director of the Werner Institute and a former attorney for a federal agency in Washington.
Although internships for law students at federal agencies in D.C. are common, the dual degrees and specialized course work makes the Creighton program unusually suited to federal work, Pearlstein said.
“We were looking for new things to offer that were geared to the job market,” Pearlstein said, calling Washington a boom town compared with many cities hard-hit by the recession.
“In the federal government, there are loads of jobs for lawyers. Government legal work is a true growth sector.”
Now that the program’s inaugural class is under way, he expects about 20 students a year to choose the program.
One member of the first class will have an internship in the fall of 2011 with the National Mediation Board, an independent agency that works on railroad and airline labor issues./
“This is very attractive for us,” said Daniel Rainey, the board’s chief of staff. “They’ll come to us with good experience in law school with an interest in public service careers.
“As corny as it sounds, I really do believe in public service and the inherent good that can be done by showing students what public service is like,” Rainey said. “What we offer is a slice of the federal legal environment, a taste of what it’s like to operate in the public sector.”
Hiring young lawyers doesn’t mean that an agency is expanding, Rainey said.
A wave of retirements under way among federal workers will reduce the number of experienced attorneys, he said.
“What we’re doing is looking to the future,” Rainey said, “to make sure when federal agencies are hiring that you’re getting somebody who’s coming in with good, solid knowledge of what it takes to be a federal lawyer.
“You won’t get rich being a public service lawyer. But the pay is adequate, and I think the rewards are quite significant.”
In recent years, many young lawyers took jobs with federal agencies with the intention of moving to private practice later, but the tight job market has, in many cases, kept them in government work.
Rainey hopes Creighton students will choose government careers, both for their sake and that of federal agencies.
“In any organization you tend to become reasonably staid,” he said. “You have a course, and you follow that course. Sometimes it takes fresh viewpoints from the outside to come in and question, ‘Why are you doing that?’”
The Creighton program costs approximately $21,000 in extra tuition and requires attendance at summer classes. Nearly all the students are funding their educations with student loans, Kinkade said, so the extra cost seems like a “drop in the bucket.”
The students also are aware of the student loan forgiveness program, which writes off loans after a period of work for a federal agency.
Practicing law for Uncle Sam has another advantage, Pearlman said. Some big-city law firms discriminate against graduates of law schools in the Midwest, he said, but government agencies go out of their way to hire attorneys from diverse backgrounds and regions.
“Law firm positions have become less stable and less secure, more high-stress and intense. These government jobs have become more desirable.”
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