All about COA staff attorney positions

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istan

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All about COA staff attorney positions

Post by istan » Tue Aug 11, 2020 10:32 pm

I've seen scattered comments on here about staff attorney jobs at federal courts of appeals, some negative and some positive. I'm wondering what the "consensus" on these jobs is, regarding:
    How competitive are they? (If you look at courts' websites, they say law review and prior clerkship experience are preferred--but do many people with those credentials really pursue these jobs?)
      How valued are they, in terms of exit options? Would firms look highly upon someone who did this for a few years at the beginning of their career? Are there certain other jobs it prepares you well for?
        Is the work substantive and interesting? Or is it more like reviewing routine cases and writing up similar memos over and over?

        I assume answers might vary by circuit--any inside info would be appreciated. I want to believe this is a good option for someone genuinely interested in research and in working in the judiciary (and more attainable than a COA clerkship), but I wouldn't want to pursue it if it provides few long-term benefits.

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        Re: All about COA staff attorney positions

        Post by Anonymous User » Wed Aug 12, 2020 10:26 am

        Former CA3 staff attorney here. Short answer: competitiveness and QOL varies by Circuit and time of application (i.e., as with most things, when the economy is tough and people are getting squeezed out of other jobs, things get more competitive).

        Longer answer: during my time as a staff attorney, we did indeed have several former clerks, including several who were clearly angling for permanent positions. But it was hardly a prerequisite.

        Exit options: it really varies. For most positions, it's probably neutral; although you learn a lot, many firms, etc., don't know what staff attorneys do. For future clerkships, it's a plus so long as you can leverage your experience and networking. It prepares you extremely well for being a self-starter and confers great legal research and writing skills. On substantive law, it gives you a little taste of everything, although the marquee experience will be in 1983/civil rights litigation and crim/imm areas.

        Work being substantive and interesting: this is really Circuit-and-office dependent. It's easy to look down on the docket, but if you're in an office that takes pride in what it does, and has the support of the Court as a whole, the position can be great fun. You learn a ton of procedure, and while prisoner cases are the bread and butter of pro se suits, you get a cross-section of everything except for direct criminal appeals. There's a lot of problem solving, and the requirement to construe pro se cases liberally means that you're doing a lot of research yourself, instilling some great habits for recent graduates.

        CA3 was wonderful on this front. The office treated its docket seriously, and had the support of the Court. If we saw something meriting remand, the Court more often than not agreed--there wasn't an attitude of "get rid of this by any means possible." (In fact, Posner's critique of the SAOs seemed completely unrelated to reality. We worked really hard to get stuff right, under challenging conditions.)

        However, one of our attorneys jumped from CA3 to a different office. He reported that, while the docket was almost exactly the same, the atmosphere was "get rid of as many of these as possible in the shortest amount of time." He found that to be depressing and oppressive, and the work was far less interesting as a result.

        Anyway, to sum up, the position was great for me, I eventually leveraged it into a series of positions I wanted, and the job itself was great fun. 100% of the people I came in with eventually ended up in great gigs, some after a lot of elbow grease. But most people won't know what it is, or will have the "eww, pro se and habeas" reaction. You need to sell it; unlike a clerkship, it doesn't sell itself.

        decimalsanddollars

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        Re: All about COA staff attorney positions

        Post by decimalsanddollars » Wed Aug 12, 2020 11:04 am

        I'll add a few secondhand data points (non-anon bc talking about others).

        1) I've known COA staff attorneys who got it without law review or from lower-ranked schools. These people generally had resumes that would otherwise be competitive for D.Ct. clerkships, at least for flyover districts. I also know some COA staff attorneys who did an elbow clerkship first or started one immediately after. It varies, but each clerkship/SA position makes your app to the next thing stronger, according to everyone I've known to do both in either order.

        2) Some firms care and others don't. Many firms have a clerkship policy that explicitly does not reward SA positions with class credit or a bonus. Very few biglaw attorneys have done these positions, but some who clerked for COA judges more recently (or who clerked for a district or mag judge) will understand and appreciate the nature and quality of your experience. Some former SAs told me that smaller firms (think local shops, not boutiques) valued the experience just like an elbow clerkship.

        3) I've seen more success going from SA to fedgov than biglaw.

        4) The above poster is awesome, and everything they said tracks with my secondhand knowledge.

        istan

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        Re: All about COA staff attorney positions

        Post by istan » Wed Aug 12, 2020 2:17 pm

        Both of the above responses are very helpful, thanks!

        More specific questions: Are staff attorneys expected to be admitted to a state’s bar, or is it like a clerkship in that you can take the bar afterwards? And would ties to the area (like being barred and having worked in a state within the circuit) be relevant for hiring, or is it more based on academic credentials?

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        Re: All about COA staff attorney positions

        Post by Anonymous User » Wed Aug 12, 2020 5:23 pm

        I can speak to the Ninth Circuit because I know several people who were/are staff attorneys in their SF office.

        Getting a SA position is competitive, but not nearly as competitive as getting a standard CA9 clerkship. They generally, though not exclusively, hire attorneys with several years of experience.

        They let you stay for 5 years max, so it's often a transition job for people. I don't know enough about exit options to have an opinion either way. I assume it's similar to SAs in other circuits--it's a plus/neutral/negative, depending on the job and the applicant.

        The docket is pretty much all 1983/pro se/prisoner, immigration, and basic criminal and civil cases.

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        SamuelDanforth

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        Re: All about COA staff attorney positions

        Post by SamuelDanforth » Wed Aug 12, 2020 5:41 pm

        I also don't believe that you need to be barred in the state in which you work to be a staff attorney on the Ninth Circuit. I don't think you technically need to be barred at all, but I imagine everyone hired is barred somewhere.

        decimalsanddollars

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        Re: All about COA staff attorney positions

        Post by decimalsanddollars » Wed Aug 12, 2020 6:05 pm

        At least in the circuits I know about, you didn't need to be licensed when you started, but you did to keep working there and get raises. I know several people who started in August or Sept following law school and the July bar (back in the day when the July bar existed) and it was normal/fine.

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