Newly announced openings at the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey could provide valuable experience and serve as a resume booster, but there's one thing they won't provide: a paycheck.
The office on Wednesday posted the job openings in Newark and Camden for uncompensated "Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys," following the recent example of other offices across the country.
The program is one way of compensating for the Justice Department's hiring freeze, announced in January and still in effect, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman says. Fishman adds that he learned of the program from his counterparts in other districts and was intrigued.
"In a time of potentially diminished resources, we're trying to be as creative as we can," Fishman says. "This is a project that has been tried with great success in other U.S. Attorneys' Offices around the country."
The posting lists special assistant positions in the General Crimes Unit of the Criminal Division in Newark and in the Criminal Division in Camden. But there are no set openings: Fishman will decide how many, if any, applicants to hire.
"We could take none, or 50," he says. "The number we hire will be determined by what our prosecutorial needs are" and the quality of the candidates, he adds.
The full-time positions -- for which the office requests a one-year commitment -- are open to newly minted lawyers and those wrapping up judicial clerkships, though the posting notes a preference for attorneys with litigation experience and those who otherwise are "highly qualified."
Ineligible are attorneys who were deferred by but received a payment from a law firm, as well as those who will be receiving any sort of compensation from a firm during the unpaid employment period.
But those who have received a severance, or who have an unpaid future commitment to a firm, are eligible for consideration.
Once hired, special assistants would be precluded from performing outside, paid legal work. As for nonlegal work, they would be subject to the same guidelines as regular assistants and other staff, who must get approval for any peripheral employment.
The job description is much the same as that of a paid assistant. It entails doing legal research; drafting pleadings, briefs and other documents; conducting hearings and trials; and attending court proceedings.
However, Fishman points out that the one-year employment term could limit the special assistants' ability to take on highly involved, long-running matters.
Still, Fishman says he expects special assistants to be able to handle the broad range of cases that regular assistants handle.
The openings come at an especially tough time for job applicants. Not only did fewer recent graduates land law firm jobs, as the National Association for Law Placement reported in June, but they also are earning less than their predecessors.
And that is on top of several years of layoffs and deferred hiring by law firms. Even some law schools are under fire from graduates who say the schools were not candid about the percentage of their graduates who could land jobs.
Notwithstanding the valuable experience offered by the special assistant positions, hires will not necessarily have an advantage in seeking a job with the office. In fact, they are prohibited from applying for any position in the office that might arise during the unpaid employment term.
That restriction was put in place so that candidates who can financially afford to take on the unpaid position "don't necessarily get an immediate advantage" over outside candidates, Fishman says.
Fishman hesitates to comment on whether his office might favor former special assistants for future paid openings, though he acknowledges that the year of experience likely would benefit the candidate in seeking a paid assistant position in another office.
As of Thursday, the Department of Justice website had job postings for special assistants in 21 other U.S. Attorneys' Offices nationwide, including in Connecticut and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Sixteen of those were posted in the past two months.
While the Fair Labor Standards Act restricts unpaid employment at private-sector, for-profit entities, government agencies are permitted to bring on volunteers.
Fishman says selling points of the position include the opportunity to perform a public service, contacts made within the office and the sort of hands-on litigation experience that lawyers might not get in other settings.
"This is an opportunity to see firsthand and do firsthand what we do," he says.
Sonia Cunha, career services director at Seton Hall University School of Law, sees two sides to the concept of unpaid jobs.
She says it is "problematic," practically and ideologically, for some law graduates to consider volunteer legal work.
Many graduates -- who are saddled with student-loan debt, facing living expenses or simply averse to the idea of working for free -- recoil at counselors' suggestions that they take an unpaid position, even part time, she says.
Still, Cunha calls the special assistant program "a wonderful idea" and "a great opportunity."
"When you're employed, you're more marketable to the next employer," Cunha says. "I always say, validate the J.D., or try to validate the J.D." by working in law, rather than in an outside field, she adds.
David LaBahn, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, says prosecutors' offices have used volunteer lawyers for decades, though perhaps not to the level U.S. Attorneys are doing now.
"It is an opportunity to see that the courts are properly staffed," he says, adding that it generally is "good for the profession" for attorneys to get courtroom experience.
LaBahn, who does not currently practice, spent a portion of his legal career as a prosecutor in California state courts, getting his start as a volunteer lawyer for the Orange County District Attorney's Office.
When push comes to shove, working for free is "a hardship," LaBahn says, adding that prospective employees are limited to those who can be financially supported for a year, by a spouse or by family.
New Jersey State Bar Association President Susan Feeney declines to comment on the special assistant positions, saying, "we don't consider it something" the organization should comment on.