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Government Interviews

Preparation And Experience Are Key

Your number-one research assignment is to determine when to begin preparing to apply for a government position. An entry-level position in a small government office in a rural location may not require that much preparation; meanwhile, becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles or New York may, depending on your level of experience, require years of preparation. Such preparation may include clerking, obtaining trial experience, and doing public service work, in addition to conducting thorough research of what the position entails. Likewise, if your goal is to become a staff attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it would behoove you to have at least a couple of years of experience practicing in the areas of securities and corporate law.

According to one high-ranking government attorney, preparation is key for government interviews. By the time the candidate is sitting in her office for an interview, the candidate should “know precisely what we do here, know the agency's purpose and mission, and know what the staff attorneys do.” A number of high-level federal prosecutors echoed the same sentiment. To convince them to hire you, you must demonstrate that you know what your future job will entail. It is not enough to come in an interview with a general understanding of the job requirements. You must indicate that you know and understand what you will be doing on a daily basis, either from your conversations with people who currently work there, or from independent research, or, ideally, both. If you do not know anyone who holds a similar government position, letting your interviewers know that you would like to meet people who can tell you more about the job will help convey your strong interest. In short, the more you know about the job, the more confident your interviewers will be that you can master it.

Chuck, a lawyer from Alaska, interviewed for a position with a U.S. attorney's office in Texas. When the interviewer asked him why he wanted the job, he mumbled something about liking warm weather. Then, when the interviewers tried to explain to him that 90 percent of the cases they prosecuted were border-related crimes, he exclaimed, “I had no idea you are so close to the border!” The interviewers were not impressed with his failure to do his homework. Despite stellar credentials, Chuck did not get an offer.

Begin your research by looking at the agency's Website and literature for a description of what they do. In addition, look at the agency's press releases. For instance, if you are applying to a U.S. attorney's office, look at press releases about recent victories, trials, convictions, and indictments. One or more of your interviewers could have worked on those cases, and would likely be very impressed if you brought them up.

Finally, do not be afraid to network and request informational interviews. Government lawyers are people, too. You can meet them at local bar association dinners or civic events. You can ask them about their jobs, take them out to lunch, explain that you are considering a career in their office, and ask them for more information. Consider asking them “What do you think I need to be the most aware of in holding this position?” “What have you found most rewarding about it?” or “What's the toughest thing about your job?”

Ask people who hold positions similar to the one you seek for informational interviews (we recommend calling in this case, because e-mails are more likely to be ignored). For example, leave the following message: “Hello Ms./Mr.____. My name is____ and I'm calling because I'm interviewing in another city for the position you currently hold. I'd greatly appreciate 10 minutes of your time for a few questions so I can soak up your knowledge about the job. If you'd be so kind as to lend your time for that, it would help me gain a deeper knowledge of what this position entails. You can reach me at the following number.”

By gathering as much information as possible, you will impress your interviewers with your commitment, thoroughness, and motivation. During your interviews, do not forget to mention that you conducted research and contacted people in similar positions to learn more about the job. This will demonstrate your future commitment to the job.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLaw Job InterviewsGovernment Interviews - Preparation And Experience Are Key, Answering The “why” Question, Exhibit Realistic Expectations, Interview Logistics