First Job: Government Honors Attorney

First Job: Government Honors Attorney
Assembled and edited by Ashley Akers, co-editor-in-chief

The Government Honors Programs
For law students interested in working for the federal government, applying to a Government Honors Program should be a top consideration. Each year hundreds of lawyers are hired to represent the government in one of its many agencies.

Being hired as an Honors Attorney is a reputable and well-respected endeavor. The Department of Justice Honors Program identifies as "the most prestigious federal-entry level attorney hiring program of its kind."

The Honors Programs sound fascinating but the details of the programs remain a mystery to many law students. For those students interested in learning more about Government Honors Programs, The Lounge provides you with this overview of what it takes to become an Honors Attorney, as well as testimonials provided by former Honors Attorneys.
Length of Commitment Honors
Programs typically require a one to three-year commitment after which some participants convert to permanent federal employees. Permanent employment is often dependent upon proven work ability, availability of funds, and agency need. In some agencies, like the Department of Justice, Honors Attorneys become permanent employees after completion of the program and after passing the suitability and security clearance requirements.

Bar Requirement
Most programs require selected applicants to acquire bar membership in any state within 12-14 months of appointment. In some agencies, bar admission changes the Honors Attorney’s title. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission hires applicants as law clerks and promotes the law clerks to attorney positions after passing the bar. Of course, every program requires Honors Attorneys to be admitted to the bar before permanent employment is considered.

Honors Attorney positions are often located in Washington D.C. but positions in many agencies are available across the country. Many Honors Programs involve a geographical or interoffice rotation during the commitment. For example, during the Department of Homeland Security Program's two-year commitment, Honors Attorneys complete four six-month rotations between its divisions.

Necessary Qualifications
Requirements vary among the Honors Attorney Programs but most programs consider the following when reviewing applications:
  • 1. Law School Grade Point Average (GPA). Some programs require either a minimum GPA or academic distinction such as Order of the Coif. For example, the Central Intelligence Agency requires a minimum 3.0 GPA. The Federal Deposit Insurance Company requires an applicant to be in the top 1/3 of his or her law school class. On the other hand, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will substitute unusual compensating qualifications for its GPA requirement.
  • 2. Law School Activities. Most Honors Programs take into account whether an applicant participated in law review or law journal, moot court or clinical activities. Some programs also consider the extracurricular activities the applicant participated in or the law school courses the applicant has taken.
  • 3. Skills. Every Honors Program requires applicants to demonstrate excellent oral, written and analytical skills. Some programs also require specialized knowledge or interest in its particular field.
  • 4. Experience. Many programs consider whether an applicant has completed a judicial clerkship or fellowship. Although Honors Program eligibility is limited to recent law school graduates, applicants that have prior work experience are highly valued and in some cases, prior work experience is necessary. The Postal Service Program, for example, requires applicants to have completed a federal clerkship or state supreme court clerkship prior to appointment.

Many Honors Programs conduct interviews on a rolling basis so applying early allows students to have the best chance at landing an interview. Applications are generally due between September and October of the year before the appointment would begin. Most interviews take place in October through December.

Some agencies, like the Federal Deposit Insurance Company, will pay for traveling costs associated with interviewing, but many do not. The Department of Justice provides applicants some costs associated with interview travel, but reimbursements for lodging or other expenses are made on a case-by-case basis.

More Information
Eligibility for Honors Attorney positions is limited to new law school graduates, judicial law clerks and law students coming from a select number of fellowship programs.

For some agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service, the Honors Attorney Program is the sole means of hiring entry-level attorneys. For other agencies, the Honors Attorney Program is the easiest way to gain permanent employment in the agency.

Offers for these positions are contingent upon passing a background test, some of which include top-secret level security clearance. Many offers are also contingent upon passing a drug test.

The most comprehensive resource detailing Honors Attorney Programs is a handbook compiled by the University of Arizona. The handbook is updated annually and requires a subscription. Many law schools offer subscriptions and can be obtained through the law school's career services center.

To provide students with a more in-depth view on Honors Attorney Programs, The Lounge asked former Honors Attorneys to provide a brief overview of their experiences as Honors Attorneys and how it guided them to their job today.

William Warwick
Honors Attorney for: National Labor Relations Board
Current Employment: Trial Attorney in the National Labor Relations Board’s Contempt, Compliance, and Special Litigation Branch

I am a trial attorney with the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) Contempt, Compliance, and Special Litigation Branch. My work includes handling constitutional or other legal challenges to the agency’s jurisdiction, litigating violations of appellate court orders that enforce our regulatory opinions, and everything in between. The work is varied, the office personnel are amazing, the subject matter is always changing, and I get to travel and be in federal court on a near-monthly basis.

I arrived here after being fortunate enough to be hired into the NLRB’s General Counsel Honors program, where I spent two years rotating through the four major branches of the general counsel’s office. It was a very enlightening experience, as I got a chance to do everything from give general agency guidance through the Advice Branch, read and review administrative appeals through the Office of Appeals, participate in brief writing and appellate advocacy in the Appellate Court Branch, and handle a varied and myriad amount of jurisdictional challenges, bankruptcy hearings, and contempt investigations and trials in the Contempt, Compliance, and Special Litigation Branch. In a lot of ways it was an accelerated training process for nearly any type of work an attorney working for the federal government will ever do.

For an incoming Honors Attorney, the best advice I can give is the same that I received from my mentors along the way: try anything and try everything. The truly remarkable thing about the NLRB’s Honors Program is that the work is varied. Honors Attorneys have the opportunity, risk free, to try many different types of work and experiment to find an area of practice that is truly enjoyable and is a great fit for each individual’s skill set, personality and long-term personal and career goals.

When I left law school, I was convinced that I wanted to be an appellate advocate, and that nothing else would satisfy me. That was, of course, until I had a chance to be a part of a trial and conduct my first deposition. I was hooked, and I had had no idea why I never previously wanted to be a litigator. Had it not been for the encouragement of my mentors here at the agency, and my willingness to branch out and try new things, I may never have realized where I was meant to be or what I was meant to do. So please, for the love of all that you hold dear, apply for a position as an Honors Attorney. Then, when you get the opportunity as an Honors Attorney to try something new– DO IT. Even if you hate it, you will not regret having learned, firsthand, that something is not for you.

For those interested, or even curious, the positions for the NLRB Honors Program are posted the last week of August on USA Jobs, and a link to the listing will be posted on the NLRB’s website. If you have even the slightest interest in labor law, or federal agency litigation, I highly encourage you to apply. Becoming an Honors Attorney was a life-changing experience!

William Warwick graduated in 2012 from the University of Richmond School of Law.

David Sahli
Honors Attorney for:
Housing and Urban Development
Current Employment: Attorney Advisor for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Office of Litigation

I was a Legal Honors Attorney in the Office of General Counsel for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) working at Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Specifically, I worked in the Office of Litigation as a defense attorney handling the most consequential and precedential lawsuits brought against the Department. As a HUD Legal Honors Attorney in the Office of Litigation, I drafted, reviewed, and edited varying motions and briefs, as well as assisted the Department of Justice in preparation for litigation and appellate advocacy. I have assisted on cases at every level of the federal judicial system, and currently have cases pending in Federal District Court, Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Federal Court of Claims.

Every Legal Honors Attorney’s experience is considerably different. In the Department of HUD, the interview process begins by asking each individual to rank their preference in location and the area of law they would like to practice. HUD then aligns candidates’ qualifications and preferences with the Office of General Counsel’s needs. The Legal Honors Attorney will either be hired to work at Headquarters, or at one of the ten Regional Offices of HUD. Some of the areas of practice include Litigation, Program Enforcement, Legislation and Regulation, Ethics, Personnel, Program Counsel and Procurement.

Additionally, HUD provides unique opportunities to help Legal Honors Attorneys efficiently adjust to working for the Department. Each Legal Honors Attorney is assigned a mentor to provide guidance to Legal Honors Attorneys on projects and to answer any question the Legal Honors Attorney may have. Legal Honors Attorneys are given the opportunity to do a 30-day rotation with another office or agency that is affiliated with the mission of furthering affordable housing. The rotation is designed to help Legal Honors Attorneys understand the broader picture of the Department and housing, and to grow the Legal Honors Attorney’s network of resources.

For incoming Legal Honors Attorneys, the best advice is never hesitate to ask questions. This will expedite the learning curve and help build a rapport with the people in your office. It is helpful to ask for previous examples of projects you are assigned so you can adjust your writing style to the office’s preference. Generally, be friendly and take the time to converse with everyone in your office because you will likely need their help at some point. Building friendships with other Legal Honors Attorneys is key–there are a lot of things that superiors assume that you have been told, and the closer you are with other Legal Honors Attorneys the faster you can resolve administerial complications.

Additional information may be found at:

Applications may be downloaded at:

David Sahli graduated in 2014 from the University of South Dakota School of Law.


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