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Prof. Nick Bagley (blue jeans not pictured) 

Bagley's Blue Jeans Lecture:
A government job is a great fit for a new lawyer

By Clarissa Sansone
Nov. 9, 2012

Prof. Nick Bagley, the most recent recipient of the L. Hart Wright Award for Excellence in Teaching, was visiting New York, aware that his Blue Jeans Lecture was coming up and he was due for a new pair of denim. What he found was stylish, yet not impractically so—tailored, but with just the right amount of stretch for comfort. The jeans hit a happy medium, a sartorial sweet spot.

At the lecture, Bagley spoke about his legal employment before becoming a professor at "one of the greatest law schools in the world," as he put it. That work, not unlike his attire, hit a sweet spot, too: between the long hours of Big Law and the tight salaries of nonprofits, between careers that sacrifice quality of life and careers lacking in quality of work.

"You hear the least about working for the government," said Bagley, who was an attorney in the Civil Division at the Department of Justice. Bagley started at the DOJ fresh out of a clerkship. One notoriously stern judge asked, "Are you a law student?!"

"No, Your Honor," Bagley replied.

"Well, you look like you could be!"

Bagley said that he took the point. "That early in my career, I knew basically nothing. I felt like I was 10 years old and my parents gave me the keys to the car."

But being thrown into the thick of things is exactly what Bagley found most scintillating and most valuable about his DOJ work. "They know you know nothing," he said of being a fledgling government attorney, but, since government offices tend to be thinly staffed, new hires get assigned interesting cases right away, and have substantial autonomy and responsibility "right out of the gate." "I think you learn the most by doing," Bagley said, and his work in the Civil Division enabled him to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible.

In addition, "The work I had a chance to be involved in was extraordinary," said Bagley. He rattled off a list of memorable cases, which combined phrases like "Peruvian government's head of secret police" and "$5 million reward"; "first amendment" and "tobacco companies"; and "private anti-trust suit" and "OPEC countries."

But it was the least glamorous cases that were often the most rewarding, said Bagley, because "they were mine." A case involving one's "constitutional right to gamble at home in your underwear" isn’t exactly ripped-from-the-headlines material, but, "Boy, that is just sex on wheels for learning the law," he said.

"The federal government isn't the only game in town. There are 50 states out there and they all hire attorneys," Bagley told the audience of students. He added, "If you do the hard work to line up a government job, you won't regret it.... You'll probably even love your work."

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