Government Lawyers

Some people go to law school not in the hope of making buckets of cash, but to bring justice to their communities. With long hours and low pay, being a government attorney is a noble pursuit. The catch is that some of these poor souls didn’t know just how poor they’d actually be.

To that end, they certainly didn’t expect that they’d be paid a lower salary than the courthouse custodian, and they had no clue that they’d be members of the working poor.

Which state is allowing entry-level government attorneys to live in squalor?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories, brought to you by Lateral Link. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.

Richard J. Morvillo, co-founder of Morvillo LLP, is a nationally-recognized expert in SEC enforcement matters. Over the past 35 years, he has been involved in over 200 SEC investigations, including some of the highest profile cases the SEC has handled. Rich was recently named by Best Lawyers in America as the “2013 Lawyer of the Year – Securities Litigation,” and Chambers USA has recognized Rich as “one of the deans of the securities enforcement bar.” He has served on the adjunct faculty of Georgetown University Law Center, teaching a course in “Professional Responsibility in Corporate and Securities Practice.” See his complete bio here.

1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?

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For those AUSAs taking the plunge into Biglaw because they orgasm over having a “former federal prosecutor” handling their “white collar” work, my advice is call me when you realize you’re merely reading compliance documents and walking corporate executives over to your old office to give proffers. For now, you can stop reading here.

Leaving government work to “open your own shop” is a unique proposition. If you’re leaving Biglaw, your main concern is not making what you’re making now. If you’re “going solo” right out of law school, you’re worried about making any money at all.

Leaving government service is leaving a guaranteed salary, the precious “benefits,” and if you’ve been there for a good amount of years, a level of comfort not found in small law firms (with the exception of the federal public defenders who have fallen victim to the sequester and deserve better). The main reason people leave government is the perception that there is more money in the private sector. That was mostly true before the economy tanked. Now it’s not so certain, and it’s something you need to consider before cashing out on your accrued vacation and sick time…

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Here at Above the Law, we try to pay attention to every sector of legal employment. We often find ourselves skewed rather heavily toward Biglaw, but as we all know, not everyone wants to work in Biglaw — including some of the people who are ensconced in high-paying Biglaw jobs themselves.

Imagine a place where you won’t be shackled to the billable hour. Imagine a place where you’ll get all government holidays off without having to worry about showing up just for the sake of appearances. Imagine a place where your clients are people, not corporate entities. If that seems nice to you, it’s because it is.

Today, we’re going to open the floodgates for the members of our audience, prospective law students in particular, who aspire to some day work in government and public interest jobs. Which law schools should you be considering if you’d like to have the best odds of reaching your goal?

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Your bonus is freedom.

Here at Above the Law, we spend a lot of time talking about bonuses to associates working in Biglaw firms. As you might have noticed from our bonus coverage over the past month or so, the size of these payouts is underwhelming to many who are receiving them.

But that coverage only deals with those few, those happy few, who are lucky enough to receive any type of bonus whatsoever. For many in and around Biglaw, their bonus this year will be $0. Their spring bonus will not exist. And they won’t even have Cravath to blame for it.

We’re talking about paralegals. We’re talking about secretaries. We’re talking about government lawyers and law clerks and a bunch of other people who worked really hard in 2011 and might get no bonus at all.

We feel your pain….

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Numerous applicants to law school claim that they want to become lawyers in order to serve the public interest — and some of them are telling the truth. Alas, after burdening themselves with six figures of law school debt, they find it difficult to follow through on their public-interest dreams. The path of least resistance, or at least the path to the fastest repayment of loans, is working for a large law firm.

Working for a prominent law firm is great — lucrative, prestigious, honorable work — provided that it’s actually what you want to be doing (as opposed to, say, public interest work in Nepal). Unfortunately, many who toil in Biglaw do so primarily for the debt-dispelling powers of the paycheck.

Well, if you go to the University of Chicago Law School, you might be able to have your cake and eat it too — i.e., obtain an amazing legal education, work in the public interest, and not find yourself trying to invoke the “undue hardship” exception in bankruptcy.

Let’s learn about some changes that Chicago Law just announced to its LRAP, or Loan Repayment Assistance Program (those wonky Chicago types love their acronyms)….

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There was a time in this country where the holiday season was a time to be rewarded for a good year of work. People received bonuses. People received pay raises, so their salaries could keep pace with their growing experience and maturity (or at least keep up with inflation).

The America where that kind of stuff happened now only exists in memory. In post-recession (or mid-double-dip-recession) America, the holidays are a time when the people at the top jealously guard their wealth, while everybody else tries to figure out how to make “sacrifices” for the greater good.

Usually, this type of thing can be seen most clearly in the private sector (click here for Above the Law’s coverage of bonus season). But today the Obama administration is getting into the holiday spirit by freezing salaries on federal employees for two years.

So, if you’re a J.D. holder who joined the Department of Justice or another federal agency to escape the Biglaw recession, the pay cut you thought you were signing up for just got bigger.

And it probably also means that a few federal attorneys will be trying to get back into the private sector — which will be great, because it’s not like the market for attorneys is oversaturated or anything….

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I’d love for Mark Cuban to own my basketball team. He’s a self-made billionaire who focuses on the fans and (for all the bluster) leaves the basketball decisions to basketball people. Compare that to current Knicks Owner James Dolan — a man living off of his daddy’s success, who thinks he’s smarter than he really is, who has run the once-proud Knicks franchise into the ground, and who may be in romantic love with Isiah Thomas. You’d take Cuban any day of the week over little Jimmy.

You’d probably take Cuban as a client as well. Stephen Best, the Dewey & LeBoeuf attorney currently representing Cuban in his SEC insider trading case, seems to be happy with his client. And we haven’t even seen his legal fees.

But if you are one of Cuban’s adversaries, it must be brutal. To paraphrase Rory Breaker, if the milk’s sour, Mark Cuban ain’t the kind of pussy to drink it. NBA referees know that. And SEC attorneys are about to learn the same lesson…

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