Careers in administrative law
Administrative law is a practice area concerned with the interactions of law and government. Administrative lawyers focus on standardizing and improving the way government agencies operate. They assess, and occasionally oppose the implementation of statutory provisions adopted by Congress, or state or local legislative bodies. Administrative lawyers write regulations, make adjudication decisions, and prosecute violations of regulations.
From the safety standards governing the manufacture of breakfast cereals to guaranteed student loans for college, administrative law touches on almost all areas of daily life.
The field of administrative law is extremely broad and thus directly or indirectly affects the lives of ordinary citizens much more than other areas of law. Unlike the type of law we usually see in flamboyant courtroom dramas, administrative law is the quieter, detailed work that keeps the U.S. democracy running. From the safety standards governing the manufacture of breakfast cereals to guaranteed student loans for college, administrative law touches on almost all areas of daily life. Getting involved in administrative law offers the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of developments that create practical, long-term social changes.
One of the most notable aspects of administrative law is that it’s not tied to any single substantive area, and is applied to any and all fields by way of its overarching characteristics. While most people are familiar with the conventional court system in the United States, many binding legal decisions, regulations, and laws come from administrative agencies at both the state and federal levels.
What are the sources of administrative law?
A number of sources work together to create administrative law, including the quasi-legislative activities that produce rules and regulations. Other sources of administrative law are proclamations, executive orders, and quasi-judicial activities, such as the decisions that are made in cases brought to the tribunals of various agencies.
Why choose administrative law?
One of the best reasons to choose administrative law over another type of law practice is because the skills administrative lawyers use can be easily transferred. The advising, litigating, and writing that these attorneys engage in allows them to easily move between agencies, and between legislative and executive branches of government, expanding upon and further developing their work.
Working for the government vs working for private clients
Most administrative lawyers begin their careers as government attorneys, counseling government agencies and administrative officials. They may take on policy or legal work—that is, crafting or adjudicating administrative law.
Working with private clients usually means being employed by a private law firm or corporate agency, or in some cases a non-governmental organization (NGO), working to maintain a relationship between the employing entity and the relevant regulatory body.
There are approximately 18 administrative rules created for every law that’s actually on the books. That means that between 1995 and 2016, around 90,000 rules were issued—and that’s just at the federal level. With that number of rules, the ratio works out to be 27 rules for every law. In 2019, the Congressional Research Service estimated that there are about 3,000 to 4,500 new rules passed each year. This is an increase of 1,000 per year compared to 2017.
Administrative law practice areas
Administrative lawyers work in a broad area of law, but can pursue particular areas of interest within the larger category, such as one of the options described below.
Adjudication is the process of making a formal judgment in a dispute. Administrative lawyers may adjudicate by examining paperwork and granting, denying, or revoking requested benefits, licenses, or other types of permission. They are also sometimes granted the powers of arbiters or judges, and can decide the obligations, rights, or even punishments of the parties involved in a dispute.
Understanding the workings of Congress and what, if anything, should be changed or adjusted to allow for smoother working and better lawmaking is important. By researching congressional issues, an administrative lawyer can help find loopholes, problems, and related concerns.
Elections have to be carried out properly to ensure they are lawful and truly reflect the will of the people. An administrative lawyer may look at the election laws and practices of a state or municipality for evidence of improper handling or other kinds of issues. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) are the 2 primary federal agencies regulating political and election law.
The environment is both a hot topic and an area where many companies try to skirt the law so that environmental controls and regulations have less impact on their bottom line. An administrative lawyer may work on both sides—defending a company, or creating laws to protect the environment.
Perhaps one of the most important areas of administrative laws as it covers the rules and regulations designed to protect U.S. citizens. Homeland security laws must be fair, but they must also keep people safe and be correctly enforced.
Immigration laws are set up to ensure individuals can immigrate to the U.S. through specific channels and under certain guidelines. These individuals may be experts in their field seeking better employment opportunities in the U.S., citizens of a war-torn country seeking asylum, or corporate employees being relocated by their employers, to name just a few examples. Immigration lawyers may work on the side of the clients resolving immigration issues, or they may represent government interests. Administrative immigration lawyers also work on the policies that govern immigration.
How the United States interacts with other countries can be affected by any number of issues. Lawyers who work in international law are focused on creating and improving laws that are designed to keep international relations smooth and secure.
State laws sometimes conflict with federal laws, and when they do, federal laws come first. This is referred to as preemption, and it is possible to specialize in this field. Whenever a higher level of government reduces the authority of a lower level over a given matter, preemption is at work. Lower levels of government can include “preemption clauses” in their laws to prevent preemption, entailing another potential area of expertise for an administrative lawyer specializing in this field.
Companies and industries are highly regulated to keep the American people safe, and to help protect the planet from additional harm. Administrative lawyers often work on administrative policy, seeking balance between protecting the interests of individuals and corporations.
Executive and independent agencies create regulations through a complex process that involves input from experts (e.g., scientific, economic, industry) as well as the public, often based on laws and statutes enacted by Congress. Rulemaking serves a legislative function and creates regulations that are applicable in a broad range of cases. An administrative lawyer practicing any of the areas listed here may be involved in rulemaking within that domain (e.g., environmental law).
While the federal government is the biggest governing and lawmaking body in the U.S., states and local municipalities also make rules and create laws for governance, and administrative lawyers can work with these governments to create and enforce laws. Examples of state and local issues include licensing, interpretations of federal rules, zoning, and health restrictions.
U.S. tax laws are extremely complex. Administrative tax lawyers may work with tax law legislative and regulatory drafting at the federal, state, and local government levels. They can work as in-house taxation lawyers for non-profit and for-profit entities, or as thinktank experts in academic and policy centers.
The agreements that the U.S. has with other countries when it comes to trade are very important for the economy, and need to be followed carefully. These agreements also need to be examined by attorneys, to ensure they’re fair to everyone involved before they’re signed and committed to.
The laws surrounding transportation encompass everything from the speed of Amtrak trains to the seatbelt requirements for passenger cars. Working in this particular area of administrative law can help keep people moving and improve their safety and comfort.
The main tasks of an administrative lawyer
The following are some of the most common tasks administrative lawyers engage in on a daily basis.
Counseling agency personnel
If agency personnel don’t understand the laws and rules clearly, or if they’re concerned about others who may be breaking those rules, counseling them on these matters may be a significant part of an administrative lawyer’s tasks.
The drafting of regulations is major area for an administrative attorney, since regulations play a significant role in most companies, agencies, institutions, and governments.
Defending or prosecuting government agencies
When a government agency has been accused of a violation, there will generally be lawyers working on both sides—as part of the defense, or the prosecution.
Participating in administrative hearings
Administrative hearings are ways to address disputes between government agencies and citizens without strict court procedures. Citizens often represent themselves, but in some cases are represented by an attorney.
The pathway to becoming an administrative lawyer is essentially the same as for other areas of law.
Degree 1: Bachelor’s degree
Getting into law school doesn’t require a B.A. in any particular field, but taking classes in law and related subjects, or classes in government or politics, can be helpful for an aspiring administrative lawyer. Some people also choose a bachelor’s degree in pre-law.
Degree 2: Juris Doctor (J.D.)
A J.D. is the degree most people earn before taking the bar exam to become licensed attorneys. The J.D. covers all the main points of being an attorney, and provides a thorough understanding of the law and legal procedures. This can help propel you toward the legal career you want, and prepare you for a position as an administrative lawyer.
Attending an accredited university is essential for a career in administrative law. Without an education through an accredited university, you likely won’t be able to take the bar exam. Before attending any university, online or in person, make sure to look at their credentials and the accrediting body they are affiliated with.
Careers in administrative law
There are a number of different kinds of careers you can focus on in administrative law, including the following.
In-house agency counselMedian salary: $117K
In this role, you would be hired by a federal agency’s legal department, and would handle a number of issues that could affect that agency. These issues could include everything from defending the agency to handling matters of tax, policy, regulation, and employment. You may also play a somewhat managerial role, which could include outsourcing work to other attorneys who work under you, or who work at independent firms.
Department of justice attorneyMedian salary: $142K
The Department of Justice is headed by the Attorney General. There are more than 100,000 attorneys on the AG’s staff, along with special agents, and others. In this capacity, you would be part of a team that represents the United States in litigation for both criminal and civil matters. Attorneys in this role also provide legal advice to the Cabinet and to the President, to help advise them on various matters with legal considerations.
Regulatory counselMedian salary: $109K
Working as a regulatory counsel, whether for a government agency or a corporation, involves being responsible for advising the employing entity about licensing and other types of regulations. Making sure your clients are following industry regulations is a vital part of the job. A regulatory counsel is generally an independent legal counsel, not tied to a single agency or company.
Attorney with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG)Median salary: $113K
The OIG has a very important role, in that it investigates alleged wrongdoing by the Department of Justice (DOJ) or any of its employees. As an attorney with the OIG, you may also be tasked with inspecting and auditing the programs the DOJ is creating and operating, to ensure that all laws and regulations are being followed. This is an important line of work that can impact the way the government operates.
Administrative law judgeMedian salary: $118K
Administrative law judges preside over trials and also have the power to resolve disputes by adjudicating the claims made in these cases. Administrative law judges are asked to take testimony, administer oaths, receive evidence, consider all aspects of a dispute, and find a resolution that adheres to the laws and regulations in question. These types of judges preside over formal hearings for adjudication. They can also preside over more informal hearings. Becoming an administrative law judge requires 7 years of trial experience, recommendations from fellow lawyers or judges, and the completion of special written and oral examinations.
American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice
The Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory practice is the ABA’s in-person and online gathering place for all lawyers who interact with, study, or work within government agencies.
National Association of Administrative Law Judiciary (NAALJ)
NAALJ is the largest nonprofit professional organization devoted exclusively to administrative adjudication within the executive branch of government.
Careers in Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice (PDF)
A book-length collection of essays published by the American Bar Association, extensively covering practice areas and careers within administrative law.
Administrative Law Review (ALR)
ALR is an online and print journal published 4 times per year by the ABA Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice and the students of the Washington College of Law.