The federal government has changed administrations since the beginning of our nation. However, this change in administration is unique in many ways, and is causing questions and concerns among those who seek a career in government or are currently in federal service. The most prevalent question I’ve been asked in the past month is, given my ideological beliefs or views on certain issues, should I enter federal service, or should I remain if I’m already there?
What should you do if you’re contemplating these questions? First, there is no “right” answer. What you do is dependent on many personal factors and whether you’re deciding on an internship or a permanent position. In talking with individuals who have made these decisions during a political transition, one thing is clear – no matter what administration is in office, there will always be a need for reasoned and principled attorneys in the federal government. Another point often raised is that the government is like a large ship – it changes course slowly. So, for instance, if you’re considering an internship, you might not see any significant difference in your agency of choice in the short-term. A third item to consider is the difference between ideology and government service at its most basic level. There are frequently ideological differences between administrations, but you will find career federal government attorneys continue to serve across administrations. One reason is the idea that giving back to the community is the duty of every lawyer, and federal service is a way to fulfill that duty. If you plan to make federal service a career choice, you may decide that you don’t want to wait to begin. If you’re already a government attorney, you may take the long view, and decide to stay in order to “have a say” in actions this administration takes. It is sometimes the career employee, and not the political appointee, who can have the most affect on policy implementation.
There are resources to help you sort out the factors that will guide your decision. Your best resource is always your Career Development Office. The experts there can help you talk through the factors that will influence your decision-making. They also have the expertise to counsel and support you throughout the process. Faculty and staff, particularly adjunct faculty, can also have great insight and on the ground experience with political transitions. Alumni who are or have been government attorneys are also a great resource. They have been there during a political transition, know what to expect, and can illustrate some of the advantages and pitfalls. Your career development or alumni office can put you in touch with an alum who can help you navigate these questions. For example, Harvard Law School Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising has kindly shared some of their alumni reflections on political transitions.
And seek out opinions from experts from the entirety of the political spectrum. Below are some of the discussions on what it might mean to serve or not to serve in a Trump administration.
Just Security, an online forum for the rigorous analysis of U.S. national security law and policy, has a series of posts on the “ethical and legal dilemmas of serving in the Trump administration.” (Just Security)
“Who Will Serve in the Trump Administration?” by Amy Davidson, November 21, 2016 (The New Yorker)
“The Dilemma of Serving in a Trump Administration” by Daniel W. Drezner, November 14, 2016 (Washington Post)
“The Chess Clock Debates: Is There a Duty to Serve In Trump’s America?” by Clara Hendrickson, November 21, 2016 (Lawfare)
Ultimately, whether you stay or go will depend on your individual moral and ethical compass. Lawyers are critically important at this time, and whether inside or outside the government, public sector lawyers may be the most critical need of all.