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What does a Government Lawyer do?

By C. Mitchell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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On the most basic level, a government lawyer is any lawyer who is employed by a government entity. Government lawyer jobs exist in almost every level of government. They work for states, cities, and national agencies; serving as defenders and prosecutors in court proceedings; and drafting legislation to shape laws. Being a government lawyer can mean different things in different contexts, but all government lawyers have one thing in common. Their main goal is always to defend, enforce, and execute the government’s laws and regulations.

All countries’ legal systems are systems of many moving parts, and they necessarily depend on the participation of a broad cast of characters. Governments set the laws that apply to their citizens and residents, and employ lawyers to defend those laws and interpret them for the public. These lawyers are known broadly as government lawyers.

Private lawyers — that is, lawyers who work in law firms or in corporations — are primarily concerned with what the laws say and how to apply those laws in everyday situations. They devote most of their practices to following and interpreting the law in disputes between private citizens or entities. A government lawyer, on the other hand, works as an instrument of the government to be sure that government rules and regulations are being appropriately implemented and enforced.

Because of the breadth of the work that government agencies do, there is no fixed government attorney job description. A government attorney always represents the interests of the government, but this takes different shapes in different contexts. In local government, lawyers are usually tasked with interpreting local codes and ordinances and investigating potential violations. They study legislation affecting their communities, and often seek to craft laws that will treat local businesses favorably. Local government lawyers usually work for elected officials like attorneys general; state and local legislatures; and local agencies like state and local taxation offices, local land management bureaus, and wildlife protection agencies, among others.

Most national governments also employ attorneys at a variety of levels. A national or federal government lawyer works to enforce and defend national laws and frameworks. If an entity sues the national government — which happens with some frequency — it is a government lawyer who takes on the defense. Similarly, when a national government charges a person or business with a crime, which happens when a federal law is believed to have been violated, a government lawyer handles the prosecution. In some cases, a government lawyer is also assigned to act as a defense lawyer for the accused, usually in circumstances where the accused cannot afford his own representation.

A government lawyer job is by no means restricted to the courtroom. Many government lawyers are research attorneys, providing expertise to lawmakers and government agency heads on a wide variety of topics. Others are analysts, advisers, and legal interpreters.

The primary role of any government lawyer is to defend and uphold national law. Government attorneys work in fields as diverse as taxation, criminal justice, consumer protection, international commerce, and education policy. Despite their different fields of expertise, they are all working for a common purpose and serving a common master. Many lawyers see working for the government as a way to hone skills and become fast experts in a certain legal field. Most of the time, government lawyers make less money than lawyers in private practice, but many believe that the experience and the opportunities opened through government work are well worth it.

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Discussion Comments
By Logicfest — On Dec 08, 2014

@Markerrag -- The only downside is that people stick with their private practices because they have the potential to make a whole lot more money on their own than they could with the government. Of course, they could wind up making less money but people like the potential to get that "one big case" and strike it rich.

By Markerrag — On Dec 08, 2014

There are a number of lawyers who want nothing more than to get a government job, keep it and then retire from it. Why? Because those jobs come with pretty good salaries, benefits and a 40-hour workweek.

The 40-hour workweek is appealing because few private attorneys can get away with working only 40 hours a week (60 is about average, I think).

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