Washington, DC Legal Market
Start by considering two facts about Washington, DC: 1) it is home to the federal government, meaning that many of its departments, agencies, and contractors are based here as well; 2) DC has nine times more lawyers per capita than New York City – about 80,000 total in the DC region. These two facts, as you may surmise, are closely related. Legal practice in the region is defined by its relationship to government work: DC litigation often has a government-facing component to it, “regulatory” practices draw attorneys interested in become specialists in a particular field, and even corporate work may have more of a regulatory overlay when being done in a DC office. As you’ll see below, many of DC’s major practices call on lawyers to work within the regulatory regime created by the federal government. This often means a heightened emphasis on administrative law and a deeper dive into a specific field. A boutique law firm may handle, for instance, only transportation issues; another may focus on food and drug matters. Large firms will employ lawyers to guide clients through the regulatory maze as clients try to start, expand, and operate businesses. Government attorneys might litigate or engage in rulemaking at an agency that focuses on a particular area of law (e.g., Environmental Protection Agency; Health and Human Services; Housing and Urban Development).
A recent trend in the area is the expansion of the market in terms of law firms entering the picture. Many firms based outside DC are establishing or enlarging their DC footprint. As competition for business among law firms increases, it has become increasingly important to have attorneys inside the firm who can offer clients regulatory services;therefore, more players are entering the market. With law practice becoming increasingly international at the same time as more firms build up DC offices, the market is undergoing change and expansion.
Practice Area Overview
- Litigation: Growth in this practice area is flat in many places, but it’s a big practice in DC. Don’t expect trial work unless you are working for the government or a public defender office.
- Government investigations: DC is a hub for this work, as many of the regulators are located here.
- Intellectual property
- Antitrust: In demand on the litigation side and the merger clearance side.
- International trade: Antidumping continues to be active.
- Project Finance
- Real Estate
- Capital Markets: Practices have taken a step back.
- Environmental: Some transactional activity, but regulatory has been quiet.
- Government contracts
- Bankruptcy: Rarely found in DC.
- Labor and employment
While appellate law is favored by many 1Ls who enjoyed the first-year curriculum, it is far less ubiquitous in practice than it is in casebooks. Often the practice is not highly profitable for firms, so departments are kept relatively small. Hiring tends to happen at the lateral level or with those coming off judicial clerkships (often at the federal circuit and/or Supreme Court level). Those with a strong interest should take advantage of externships, summers, and clinical opportunities to build relevant skills and experience; additionally, a premium will be placed on grades, journal membership, and clerkship(s).
Outside of Large Law Firms
The Hill has long been a place where young attorneys begin their careers, diving into major policy and legal issues across a range of practice areas, managing major responsibilities at a junior level, and creating a network of contacts in the private and public sectors. Hill positions tend not to look like traditional “legal” positions – e.g., there is often no litigation or transactional work involved – but lawyers may be called on to spot issues, understand the impact of regulation on different sectors, or conduct investigations. Networking is key in thinking about breaking into this world: establish relationships early in law school and expect to have lots of coffee as you search for an opening on a committee or personal staff.
Adjacent to the vast universe of the federal government is the world of lobbying and government relations. Many lobbyists – though not all – are attorneys. However, hiring into this field tends to happen at the lateral stage, not at the entry-level point. (This includes large law firms with lobbying shops: these firms usually do not hire into the lobbying practice as part of OCI.) Hill experience is highly valued for those attorneys seeking to break into the business.
Public interest/plaintiff law firms
Along with New York and San Francisco, DC is a center for law firms that litigate on behalf of plaintiffs and/or in the public interest. Often these firms favor lateral or post-clerkship candidates; but they are usually happy to take on summer or term-time interns.
Despite the large number of lawyers and the market expansion, DC is not considered an easy market to break into on the private sector side. The lure of sophisticated work, the presence of many local law schools, the relatively more relaxed pace of work (compared to NYC), and the proximity to government for those interested in leaving a firm to work for Uncle Sam all make DC an attractive place for young attorneys. Additionally, although it is the second-largest legal market in the country, its summer class sizes (avg. = 10) pale in comparison to NYC (avg. = 31). Highlighting local ties as well as interest/background in government-related issues can set candidates apart. For this reason, using externships and summer positions wisely is important for those interested in entering this market. On the bright side, about 90% of 2018 summer associates in DC received an offer for post-grad employment.
DC Market Resources
Check out the links below for more information regarding the Washington legal market, networking opportunities, and job listings.