Symposium, the Government Attorney

Posted: 7 Sep 1998

Date Written: April 1998


This symposium uses recollections and analyses by many authors to explore the many faces (and special challenges) of service as a government attorney. For example, in "The Internal Relations of Government: Cautionary Tales from Inside the Black Box," a former general counsel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Prof. Peter L. Strauss of Columbia Law School) draws on his experiences to explore such questions as what it means for a government agency to be the "client" of lawyers in the quasi-independent offices of a United States Attorney's office; the nature of an independent commission's relationship with the President and his lawyers (in the Office of Legal Counsel and the Office of the Solicitor General); and the relationship between litigation and policy. Who is the government lawyer's client, he concludes, is a complex question indeed. The adage inscribed on the Justice Department, that the government wins its case in court whenever justice is done, reflects an ambiguity about client loyalty that infects even the most direct of representations. It is, at the same time, a check on public power; no "good soldier" defense will be recognized here, and an invitation to the exercise of personal will. These difficulties are enlarged, he suggests, by the unsettled character of structural issues within the executive branch. Limited domains of hierarchy, limited capacities to secure uniformity, limited settings in which it is even sought all conjoin to produce an ambiguity about obligation, within which the individual government lawyer may find considerable room for maneuver. And finally, as perhaps in any very large organization, specialization of lawyerly function can produce its own distortions. The litigator's imagined client may be quite other than the planner/counsellor's. The two cannot be brought together; it will be rare that a single voice will be heard.

Suggested Citation

Devins, Neal, Symposium, the Government Attorney (April 1998). Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 61, No. 2, 1998.. Available at SSRN:

Neal Devins (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States
757-221-3845 (Phone)
757-221-3261 (Fax)

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