One often overlooked lawyering career track is a staff attorney, which despite its key role as a member of organizations and corporations, does not get the attention it deserves. In law firms, for instance, staff attorneys do not receive competitive compensation as compared to traditional associates.
Furthermore, they do not receive the same professional development opportunities and career support that traditional associates get. To counter this status quo, staff attorneys should be incorporated into the social and professional fabric of companies for the important work that they do. Some organizations have already taken the lead in this area, such as National Housing Law Project employing staff attorneys for their policy work and legal aid delivery system.
To understand the importance of their work, we’ll dive into the role of a staff attorney, their profile, and job outlook:
Who are staff attorneys?
Staff attorneys are critical members of a specific organization. They dedicate their services to a single corporation, government entity, academic institution, or nonprofit. Law firm attorneys differ from staff attorneys in that they serve a variety of clients whose cases are episodic or specialized.
Their duties and responsibilities vary differently depending on the nature of the organization they are serving, but across the board, they perform a range of desk tasks. Generally, drafting contracts, advising executives on organizational policies, and doing legal research are some of the key roles of staff attorneys highlighted by LHH. While some research and prepare motions and briefs, they could also be responsible for managing junior staff attorneys and paralegals.
Their specific duties depend on the direction of the organization they are part of. For instance, a staff attorney employed by a local legislative body attends legislative committee meetings or drafts legislation for their principal lawmaker. On the other hand, a staff attorney employed by the human resources department of a corporation reviews its employment handbook and makes sure all processes are compliant with current labor laws.
What is the required background to become a staff attorney?
Just like any other lawyer in the legal profession, becoming a staff attorney requires obtaining a Juris Doctor degree, a state bar admission, and a few years of prior experience in a particular area of expertise.
A candidate for this position must demonstrate exceptional skills in negotiation and interpersonal communication, a detail-oriented approach to work matters, and an ability to communicate effectively and persuasively. In our previous blog post entitled “How to Select Your Legal Specialty?” we emphasized the importance of evaluating your interest or expertise in certain legal areas. If you’re able to demonstrate both the soft and hard skills required for this job, you can consider this career trajectory in the legal profession.
What is the job outlook for a staff attorney?
A staff attorney can expect an average annual salary of $96,816. But, financial compensation alone is not the driving force behind this position. Staff attorneys with decades of experience behind their belts will tell you that this position has rewards that go beyond the paycheck.
Compared to traditional law firm associates, staff attorneys tend to enjoy more regular work hours. Whereas the former need to clock “on-the-job” hours and billable hours for the client, staff attorneys often have fixed 9-5 schedules. This makes the position attractive for lawyers who prefer a stable work-life balance, or those raising children or caring for elderly parents.
One exciting aspect of a staff attorney job is the potential to participate in an organization with broad causes. One key example is CalEPA’s Attorney Yana Garcia, who served as a staff attorney at Communities for a Better Environment, focusing on environmental justice issues and toxins and chemical disclosure. As Attorney Garcia’s professional history demonstrates, having this kind of experience paves the way for larger opportunities to support certain legal campaigns and advocacies.
All in all, staff attorneys use their legal expertise to deal with the day-to-day legal issues of their organization. By performing a variety of tasks related to case preparation and management, they play an important role in the operations of their firms, agencies, or corporations.