Government Honors Programs: Gray’s Guide

by Gray

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If you want to work for the government, you’ve probably already read all about the terrible odds, hiring freezes, slow interviewing process and other sources of misery that come with applying to the honors programs. But if you have a real passion for public service (or a passion for not being in the office at 10pm), the effort is definitely worth it.

This guide is for anyone who is currently working on Honors applications, but also for 1Ls and 2Ls thinking about what they should be doing earlier on. I’ll go over what agencies are looking for, what to put in your cover letter, the interview process, the selection timelines, and security clearances. This is based mostly on my own experiences (I got to the final round at 3 agencies + DOJ), but also from conversations with friends about theirs.

Honors programs are 2 or 3 year entry level appointments at federal agencies. Honors programs are typically only open to graduating 3Ls, current clerks, or those currently in a qualifying fellowship (which apparently includes other 2-year honors programs, at least at DOJ). You also need to be a U.S. citizen.

The programs usually involve rotations through different practice areas within the agency, and the attorney usually has some say about which ones. Honors programs are known to be quite competitive—most of the non-DOJ agencies hire only 2-5 people per year, if that. DOJ’s is obviously the biggest, but you apply to specific components which individually accept very few people. DOJ’s is also the most competitive, AFAIK. I’m not going to try to list them all, because there are a lot. But if you google [agency] + “honors attorney” you should be able to figure out if they have an active program.

Before Applications Open
If you’re a 1L or 2L, the time to start thinking about applications is now--because now is the time to load up your resume with a range of relevant gold stars. Fed gov agencies don’t necessarily care about ~prestige~ extracurriculars (DOJ does love moot court and main journal though). What they want to see is someone who is involved in their community, and can juggle multiple competing priorities. Why? My guess is that, because working for the government will sometimes mean doing some boring tasks that are not in your job description and handling requests from a bunch of different people at the same time, they want to find people who willingly sacrifice their time to be part of something they care about.

Be ~involved~
Unlike big law or clerkships, where one or two gold stars (moot court and journal, usually) are the key, I think more is more with respect to extracurriculars in government hiring. Obviously don’t overextend to the detriment of your grades, but take on as many opportunities as you can--particularly leadership positions and things related to writing (like publishing a paper, short form writing, or legal writing TA). No matter where you end up, good teamwork skills and good legal research and writing skills will be important, so you can’t go wrong.

Get decent grades
Grades are less important to government than for clerking, but many still have a desired grade minimum (I think DHS has a 3.5 cutoff).Obviously they will look at grades, but my point is that they will probably take a 3.4 with a really well rounded resume over a 3.9 with next to no relevant experiences. LinkedIn stalking might be informative for specific agency questions, but unless they publish a cutoff, there’s no reason not to apply.

Have a life (but say no to drugs)
This goes for every job, but you need to have something that you do for fun to talk about when you get asked “what are your hobbies” in an interview. I got this question every time. If your answer is “dicking around a law student forum in the cold dark corners of the library” then you need to reevaluate your life. It can be cooking or walking your dog, but just have something non-creepy to say.

Obviously you wouldn’t mention it in an interview, but also avoid hobbies that include doing drugs (including prescription drugs that aren’t prescribed to you, or pot, even if it is legal in your state). Many programs have some security clearance requirement, and you don’t want to get all the way to the end of it and find out that you are ineligible.

Make Professor Friends
You will need 3 references, and in some cases letters of recommendation. Get a head start on this by becoming best friends with a few of the profs you liked the most. Go to their office hours with (genuine) questions about law things. Ask about their kids, or the conference they spoke at, or whatever. Find some other people who like them and take them out for lunch. Whatever you do, try to make a connection that goes beyond “this student did a very good job in my class.” You want a couple of people who be excited to pick up the phone to talk about how great you are—people who will be able to talk about how you are personable and easy to work with, engaged in what is going on around you, and how badly you want to work for the government. If the person happens to have worked at an agency (or the DOJ division) you are interested in, so much the better—but don’t try to force a connection with someone you don’t actually like. It will come across as obviously phony.

Internships and summer jobs
First of all, you can definitely do a big law summer if you want to. It probably won’t make it harder to get into an honors program. I did this, and while I declined my big law offer right away (it was extremely not for me), for most people it’s a great safety net (NALP makes the firm hold jobs open until like the end of March). That said, it will help to try to intern or extern at a related agency at some point before honors hiring starts. It gives you the opportunity to work on relevant issues, and it gives you a point of reference in interviews/cover letters (i.e. “I worked at the DOX and I enjoyed A, B, and C about that experience.”)

Deciding Where to Apply
For some, like me, this was the easy part. I had a relatively narrow area of interest, and there were several agencies with HPs that fit into my area. I was interested in government broadly, but not so broadly that I was about to apply to every HP out there. If your only goal is ‘cushy fedgov gig,’ it might be tempting to blanket every honors program with applications, but I would caution against doing that. Unless you can point to a compelling reason that you care about the agency’s mission, and have demonstrated interest through your experiences, your chances are slim--even with really strong credentials from a top school.

Keeping in mind that each honors program requires a tailored cover letter (more on that below), you should apply to every agency that you can plausibly claim to have a deep and abiding desire to work for.

Before you start firing off applications, read the instructions and deadlines VERY CAREFULLY. Fucking up at this stage could end your application. Do not forget to attach something they ask for. Do not give them a cover letter when they ask for a personal statement. Do not send them the wrong resume. Do not send a writing sample that is too long. Do not send your application late.

Update your Resume

There’s really not much to say about resumes that hasn’t been said elsewhere. Include everything relevant, shamelessly highlight your accomplishments, and don’t have any typos. IME, dates and punctuation are the easiest thing to mess up.

Cover Letters/Personal Statements
There’s a lot that could be said about this, but the most important part of the cover letter or personal statement is demonstrating that you understand what the agency is all about, and that you have a genuine interest in working there.

There are a ton of ways to do this, but the most important thing is carefully tailoring the letter to the stated mission of the agency. This means that you are unlikely to be successful by recycling the same cover letter and switching out key phrases. Structuring your letter around the mission of the agency, or the key qualities listed in their job description will go a long way towards showing that you are detail oriented, thoughtful, and genuinely want to work for them.

You also need to demonstrate a commitment to public service. The easiest way to do this is talking about a public interest or government internship. Using keywords like “mission-driven environment” and “working in a team to accomplish the [insert agency mission]” or even “serving my country”signal that you are really interested in being a civil servant.

Finally, you need to use your cover letter to showcase your writing. You might need to submit a writing sample as well, but your cover letter is probably the first exposure to your writing that the hiring committee will get. Perfect the ever loving fuck out of it. I don’t just mean avoiding typos or weird phrasing. It should be a clean, well structured argument for why they should hire you. You should have a roadmap, strong transitions, and, to the extent possible, you should support assertions with examples. If you aren’t sure where to start, ask your career services office if they have examples of successful letters.

Full disclosure, I almost didn’t apply to DOJ. I submitted an app at like 11:45pm the night it was due (they do not have rolling apps). There were a total of 3 open positions (not components, positions) that I was interested in, and had basically 0 chance at one of them. So I didn’t dedicate the time to the app that I should have, and this really shouldn’t be your only source of information. That said, I did get an interview, so I’m not totally useless.

Anyway the DOJ app is weird. You enter a ton of information manually (like grades for every class you have taken at law school), need to enter extracurriculars and honors, and it takes like 50 years to finish navigating through their system (which sometimes just craps out and deletes everything you hadn’t saved). You also have to select the components you are applying to and rank them. There is a whole thing about rankings (like if you don’t rank some divisions first, you have 0 chance) but IDK that much about that. Someone should really just do a DOJ honors guide, tbh.

Anyway, the main difference though is that DOJ asks the same two questions every year: [list=](1) If you could tell the selecting official one thing about yourself, what would it be?
(2) Why do you want to work for the Department of Justice and what attracts you to the components you selected? [/list]
Both have short character limits. The second one can almost be treated as a regular cover letter. The first one is hard. Most people don’t have like ONE THING that makes them more employable. I struggled to think of something and eventually wrote about how being a legal writing TA had improved my research and writing a lot. As I mentioned though, apps are NOT rolling for DOJ, so there is no incentive to apply ASAP. Take your time with the essays, and try to think of something interesting for question (1).

Writing Sample
Again, there is not much I can say that hasn’t already been said. Try to pick a writing sample that is relevant, but it’s better to have a more recent, better edited sample than something that happens to be related to the work of the agency. Mine was an excerpt from a bench memo that had NOTHING do to with the agencies I was applying to. But it was the most recent, most advanced legal writing I had, and I had edited it really thoroughly. Pay attention to page limits, and include a cover page that explains what you have cut from the original. If your school has a writing center or someone in the careers office who can look at your writing sample, take advantage of that.

Once you have submitted your application, you will probably not hear anything for a month or more. I applied really early for the job that I eventually got, and I actually received an automated email telling me I was no longer under consideration more than a month after I applied. I got a screener 2 weeks later. It’s a slow process.

Some agencies have screeners and in person interviews, some have phone interviews before in person, and some jump right into the in person. The formats vary a bit, but the screeners are usually one or 2 people, and the in person interviews are usually a panel of 3-5 people in a small conference room.

A lot of the questions are about why you want to work there, but you should also expect behavioural questions (what would you do if you had 3 people all asking you to do something different by the end of the day?) and experiential questions (tell me about a time that you resolved a conflict.) It’s helpful to write down a few note about anecdotes that make you look good. Have something prepared for leadership, multitasking, resolving conflicts, a time that you failed, a time you handled stress, etc. It’s also good to have prepared answers to the predictable softballs, like what’s your biggest weakness (I had a good spin on this one once—“what would your subordinates criticize about your leadership style.”) Above all, you should have a solid, prepared answer for the “why do you want to work here” question. It should touch on the agency’s mission, and on the structure of the particular honors program.

You should also prepare questions. You can ask about training, the structure of rotations (if this isn’t clear from the public info), whether honors attorneys typically continue after their initial appointment, whether there is a lot of inter or intra agency collaboration, what the interviewers’ favorite thing about working there is—the usual stuff.

If you make it to the next round, your interviewers will almost definitely be different people, but it’s probably better not to spew the same thing word for word to the callback interviewers, since they’ve probably read the notes from the first round. This goes for your answers as well as your questions for them.

Offers start trickling in starting early November, and continue until March or so. Most of the time they are made by phone call, but some agencies do it by email, and occasionally offers are made in the final interview. Unlike biglaw, you will not have a month to make up your mind. I had two weeks to decide, and I think that is pretty common. Don’t be afraid to ask for more time if you are also waiting for another offer, but don’t expect to get it.

If you don’t hear back when other people start hearing back, don’t fall into a pit of despair! Although some agencies do offers in batches, some just do it on a rolling basis, so timing might have to do with when you were interviewed. DOJ, for example makes some offers in mid november, but some people designated “finalists” don’t hear back until February. The bottom line is not to lose hope until you are rejected.

Security Clearances
Last but not least, you might have to go through a security clearance process. My only advice here is to be thorough and to do it as fast as you can, and BE HONEST. Why be honest if they’ll never find out, you ask? Because one of the most common reasons a clearance is denied is lying on your forms. If you haven’t smoked pot in 5 years, but the forms are asking about drug use, just admit to it. I know people who smoked a lot of pot in high school who have TS-SCIs. I know more than one person who admitted to having done acid and got a TS-SCI. I also know people who had offers rescinded because they failed to disclose very minor drug use. As long as there is some distance, it’s not going to be a problem for you. And if there is a polygraph involved, you’ll be glad you didn’t lie on your forms.

Why do it as fast as you can? Because the process is really fucking slow, and the sooner they get your forms, the sooner you get cleared. Make sure to follow up if you haven’t heard anything in a while. Paperwork sometimes gets lost in the vast bureaucracy, and if they forget about you for six months, the entire process is delayed.


I hope that helps! Feel free to post here or PM me if you have any questions about any of this.


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