Despite the media echo chamber saying that the economy is improving, it’s obviously still tough to find work. Especially for lawyers. Everyone says you’re supposed to have a can-do attitude, but we sometimes prefer to think about all the things that you can’t do as an attorney.

Included in that list is getting a paying job at the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ has had a hiring freeze in place for a year now. We’ve heard reports of some thawing — i.e., selected parts of the DOJ receiving authorization to fill a handful of priority positions — but, for the most part, there are hardly any paying lawyer jobs to be had in that division of government.

Instead, U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country have been posting unpaid Special Assistant United States Attorney positions for some time now. We covered them last May. My colleague (and former assistant U.S. attorney) David Lat defended the SAUSA gigs somewhat, arguing that the nonpaying jobs might not be as bad as they seem. It’s fun, exciting work, and it provides valuable experience and serious professional credibility.

There is a crucial, ominous difference between then and now, though. Previous SAUSA jobs were generally aimed at entry-level or fairly junior attorneys. Now we’ve got a recent opening that’s asking for more.…

The United States Attorney’s office in the Middle District of Pennsylvania is seeking a new attorney for the Asset Forfeiture / Financial Litigation Unit of its Criminal Division. They require three years of legal experience, but their preferred candidate is an attorney with at least five years of post-J.D. experience. They want this person to work for free.

Here’s a chunk of the posting for you to read (while I go gouge out my eyes):

Qualifications: Required qualifications: All applicants must be U.S. Citizens. Applicants must possess a J.D. degree from an accredited law school, be an active member in good standing of the bar of a State, Territory, or the District of Columbia, and have at least three years of post-J.D. legal experience.

Preferred qualifications: Successful candidates should possess at least five years of post-J.D. legal experience and/or have significant experience as a prosecutor, possess superior communication and courtroom skills, exhibit exceptional research and writing ability, and demonstrate strong interpersonal and professional skills. Successful applicants also will exhibit the ability to work with other attorneys, support staff and client agencies in a professional manner while being able to function in a highly demanding work environment.

Of course, the position offers no benefits. And hires would not be allowed to work anywhere else for the 12-month duration of the position.

There are so many things wrong with this, I’m not sure where to start. First, on principle: it’s insulting to think that anyone from any profession with five years of post-degree experience (or even the job’s technical minimum of three years) is worth zero financial value. If you’re fresh off the educational boat, okay, maybe you’re kind of worthless. But five years working in the field is significant, no matter how you slice it.

Also, what the hell kind of attorney would apply to this? Any attorney with ANY JOB AT ALL is going to laugh hard at this posting, then continue cashing his paychecks. By the time you’ve been working for five years, you shouldn’t need “credibility,” “prestige,” “experience,” or whatever intangibles unpaid jobs supposedly offer.

Five years out is also about the time that some Biglaw associates start burning out and ditching their firms for other legal jobs or even other professions. I wonder if the DOJ is aiming for these folks? Either way, I can’t see it working. No matter how badly a miserable associate wants change, going from making six figures to no figures will not fix the problem, as long as he is still in a law office.

If you have been working as an attorney for a while, and find yourself unemployed currently, this is still probably a poor career move. Debt is still likely hanging over your head, you might want to get married (or divorced), or you might want to move out of your crappy apartment. You need money, is what I’m getting at, and at this time in your life you’re probably past the “rich parents still taking care of you” stage.

But hey, maybe there’s a whole secret subculture of professionally successful lawyers who work for free and live in their parents’ basements. Will Ferrell did it in Wedding Crashers; why can’t everyone else?

SPECIAL ASSISTANT UNITED STATES ATTORNEY (SAUSA) (SERVES WITHOUT COMPENSATION)
[U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania]

Earlier: Would You Work as a Federal Prosecutor — for Free?


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