Most of the Eastern Seaboard is buried under a snowstorm today. Yet, a deeper, harder freeze is finally lifting.

For too long now, the federal government has been living with sequestration. Agencies have seen their budgets frozen or cut. At the same time that the private sector market for lawyers has contracted, getting a job as a lawyer in the federal government has been incredibly hard. It’s been winter in the federal employment world.

And, this week, the Department of Justice has announced that the DOJ hiring freeze is finally over.

This news was so important that the Attorney General himself made the announcement in a video message on the DOJ webpage. (And, by the way, check out the Attorney General’s tie. Very nice.)

The hiring freeze has lifted as a result of a two-year budget deal that President Obama signed in December.

What does this mean for the legal world? More after the jump…

Here are the most significant two things that DOJ lifting the hiring freeze will mean.

First, for the last three years, during the freeze, lawyers who want to move into the federal government for a few years have been stymied. That will change.

Generally speaking, the life cycle of a certain kind of Washington lawyer is to graduate from law school, clerk for a federal judge, go to a large firm, then, between the 3rd and 6th years at the firm, go to the federal government. After a few years at the Department of Justice, the lawyer can return to a large law firm and spend a happy career in private practice as a former federal prosecutor.

Yet, for the past three years, this door has been closed. Would-be AUSAs who waited to try to jump to DOJ have been stuck — iced in private practice. As the hiring freeze ends, expect these folks to start jockeying for federal prosecutor jobs.

It’ll be a junior varsity version of the jockeying that one sees in Washington when the presidency changes parties.

Second, the lifting of the hiring freeze means a change for the flow of white-collar cases. One of the biggest things that drives the business of white-collar defense work is what the federal government is doing. If the federal government is spending agent resources on fighting terrorism, there will be more terrorism cases brought. That’s generally bad for business for white-collar defense lawyers.

If the government is spending its agent resources prosecuting financial crimes, then that’s generally good for the business of white-collar criminal defense.

If there are fewer government resources to spend — or fewer agents to investigate and pursue cases — then that’s bad for business.

And, yes, astute reader, this is a little uncomfortable. It is odd to want the government to be more judicious in the use of its police power in individual cases, yet, at the same time, have a real business need for the government to be less judicious in the use of its police power as a general matter. The white-collar defense lawyer’s position is often that if what she thinks ought to happen to any particular client were to be generalized to every such client, she’d be out of business. There’s a bit of schizophrenia between what a lawyer wants to see happen in an individual case and in a broader policy level.

We’re in an odd profession.

In any event, the freeze has, generally, been bad for white-collar business. Components of the Department of Justice that used to be a reliable font of work have been staffed by specials — lawyers brought in from other parts of DOJ to do a job for a limited period. Sometimes a special really makes a mark in an office, but often someone brought in for a six month rotation won’t be able to see a big complex investigation all the way through. The temptation to not pursue the hard cases can be hard to resist.

But now that the freeze is lifted, DOJ should staff up and generate more work.


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