Although the first year salary for a federal government lawyer does not compare with that of the first year salary of a big law associate in New York City, $160,000, it is nothing to sneeze at. Government agencies are notorious for offering lower pay than employers in the private market, with the state governments having the lowest salaries, starting in the $30,000-$40,000 range. The federal government offers decent salaries for first year lawyers just starting out.
Attorney General Honor's Lawyers
The Attorney General Honor’s Program employs many first year lawyers with each law school graduating class. The criteria that hiring officials use when selecting lawyers for the honor’s program include academic achievement, participation in moot court and law review, leadership abilities, commitment to government service, clinical experience, extracurricular activities and past work experience relating to goal of achieving justice. Several agencies hire these attorneys each year. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, these lawyers begin their careers at GS-11, garnering them $50,287 per year as of 2013.
Federal Judicial Law Clerks
All federal judges hire new attorneys to serve as law clerks either every year or every two years. Judges rely on law school transcripts, writing samples and in-person interviews to decide who they want to work in their chamber. Law clerks conduct extensive legal research, draft legal memoranda, orders and opinions, assist judges in court and advise judges on legal matters. They also interact with lawyers who represent clients, pro se litigants and the public. These lawyers are known as elbow law clerks, because they work closely with judges. For this reason, most federal judges hire law clerks who graduated in the top 5, 10, 25 or 33 percent of their classes. According to US Courts, law clerks have first year salaries of $50,287 as of 2013.
New attorneys also may work in the federal government as attorney advisers. These attorneys conduct research, write briefs and memoranda and advise more senior lawyers and judges, depending on the agency in which they work. The criteria used to make hiring decisions for the attorney adviser position are less stringent than those used to make hiring decisions for law clerks and honor’s attorneys. These job announcements only require that applicants show proof of bar membership in good standing, law school transcripts and writing samples. As of 2012, the first year salary for attorney advisers stood at $47,448.
Attorney General Honor’s Program attorneys and attorney advisers draw incomes based on the federal government's general schedule, while federal judicial law clerks draw incomes based on the judicial salary plan. Pay rates for first year federal government attorneys may vary based on location. For example, the first year salary for an honor’s attorney in a low cost-of-living city would remain at $50,287, while that salary would rise to $62,467 in a high cost-of-living city such as Washington, D.C.