How I Got My Job—Internships in the Federal Government

This week, PDO begins a series featuring students who got jobs as interns within the federal government.   Federal experience is viewed as very valuable highly by many employers—including government agencies, public interest groups, or private firms.  Understanding federal laws and regulations and getting real legal experience are part of this value.  Featured this week are M’Leah Woodard (SJQ 2012), intern with the EPA, and Melanie Grayson (SJQ 2013), intern with the USDOJ-Environment and Natural Resources Division.  Both students spent the past summer in Washington, DC.

Melanie Grayson (SJQ 2013), Intern, USDOJ-Environment and Natural Resources Division


1. For whom did you work and what did you do over the summer?  I worked for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division in Washington, D.C. Specifically, I worked for the Natural Resources Section of ENRD, one of about a half dozen sections within the division. My section was largely defensive, representing the United States when certain agencies or departments were sued by citizens, environmental groups, Native Americans, etc. There were about 70 trial attorneys in my section. ENRD is one of the oldest divisions at DOJ and was a superb place to work.

2. What was the application process like and what was the interview like?  I applied for the DOJ summer internship in early December. I heard from the intern coordinators around final exams and had an interview two hours after my last final! The interview was a phone interview, with three attorneys. They asked me typical interview questions, including why I would want to leave the mountains of Utah for DC. They also asked about potential internal conflict since I used to work for an environmental group.

3. What do you think helped you in terms of their decision to hire you (experience, grades, personality)?  I think that my past experience in the environmental world was the biggest single factor that helped me secure the summer internship. I knew a lot about the major environmental statutes, without having taken Environmental Law, Natural Resources Law or Admin Law as of yet. I also tried to show my personality during the phone interview. After I received my grades for the fall semester, I forwarded them to the intern coordinators and tried to keep in touch until I heard word of whether I would be offered the internship. I do not know how much grades factored into the decision-making process.  

4. What did you do day to day?  I did a variety of work at DOJ. I wrote part or all of 4 motions, including a motion for summary judgment and a motion to dismiss for lack of standing. I was able to communicate with defendant intervenor’s counsel in preparing the motion for summary judgment. Turned out that Parsons Behle & Latimer (a large local law firm) represented the defendant intervenor! I also did extensive research in order to write internal memorandums. Finally, I attended two court hearings in DC District Court. One was a scheduling conference for the Cape Wind Project lawsuit and the other was oral argument in a case involving pesticide use and endangered species.

5. Best (and worst, if you want) parts of the job?  I loved my time at DOJ! I felt that the attorneys were very smart, motivated and hardworking. Yet, they also knew how to have a good time! ENRD offered a robust intern program and I was able to learn about the other sections, and even the other divisions at DOJ. Most of the attorneys in my section juggled many cases at once, so sometimes it was difficult to get immediate feedback on my work. However, I could almost always track an attorney down when they had more time and they were happy to offer constructive criticism 

6. What advice do you have for those who are looking at the federal government?  About law school in general—especially for the 1L’s?  Apply! I never thought I would even receive an interview at DOJ, much less have an opportunity to intern there for a summer. You never know who is on the interviewing/hiring committee — we had a Utah alum in my section! Also, pursue what interests you. Either what interested you before you started law school, or interests that have evolved once you’ve gained exposure to new issues/areas of law.   

M’Leah Woodard (SJQ 2012), Intern, Environmental Protection Agency


1. For whom did you work and what did you do over the summer?  I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C. I was one of 70 interns from all over the country. I worked in enforcement, specifically with the Clean Air Act.

2. What was the application process like and what was the interview like?  I applied through the Government Honors Program.  Anneliese sent an email out on August 3 (ie: a week ago) telling us the new password and offering a link. Check it out. The website is organized by due date of the application. After you get your documents together, applications can be done in about 1/2 hour each. Make sure to proof read. I spent about two hours a week last August, September, and October applying for summer internships. I got a solid handful of rejection letters. Then…

3. The EPA attorney who hired me sent a short email asking for a phone interview. It took awhile to schedule, but the interview lasted 20-25 minutes. I was asked pointed questions and had to “sell myself” in experience and skills. I recommend mock interviews … You’re helping yourself if you have pre-thought the language in your answers.  I received an email a few days later offering me the position.

3. What do you think helped you in terms of their decision to hire you (experience, grades, personality)?  I’m officially a “nontraditional student” these days. I thus have years of relevant work experience. I also am from Utah –a novelty in D.C. The hiring attorney was looking to diversify the intern pool. I’d say 80% of the interns I worked with this summer were from DC- area law schools.  

4. What did you do day to day?

Short answer: research and writing.

Longer answer: I took a very crowded Metro to work (45 minutes). I worked with a variety of EPA staff throughout the summer—most were engineers. That was interesting, because we speak different languages. Communication proved to be unexpectedly important.

I also really “worked’ my contacts. I reached out to people who expressed an interest in being a resource to me in any way: by nature of their work or their department, by offering to have lunch together, etc. In the end, it was these random contacts that helped me be more effective and efficient in my work.

5. Best (and worst, if you want) parts of the job?

Best: It’s DC! Tons of exposure to new things – law related and not!

Worst: It’s DC – over-crowded, hot, expensive housing, no mountains to get your bearings…no space.

6.  What advice do you have for those who are looking at the federal government?  About law school in general—especially for the 1L’s?

It was made very clear from the get-go that a permanent job offer would not be the result of this

summer’s work. The intent of this program was to offer me an opportunity to apply my academic experience to the work setting within a government agency.

I’d say the advice is three-fold:

1. Get a variety of agency experience. Don’t think “I want to work for the National Park Service” and stay there. Broaden your horizons. Think about non-attorney positions, too.

2. Apply early for both internships and permanent work.

3. Remember government-specific student hiring programs and fellowships. That is likely the best way in the door.