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Leaving the Legal Grind: Land a Plum Job as an Administration Law Judge

Leaving the Legal Grind: Land a Plum Job as an Administration Law Judge

Elizabeth Juge |

Do I have to have prior judicial experience? In a word, no. Most selected as ALJs have never been judges, although former state and local judges do fare well in the process. To debunk another myth, no political connections are required. ALJs are the only U.S. judges that are appointed solely based on merit. They are rated and ranked based on the information provided in the exam process. The minimum requirement is completion of a Juris Doctor, being a member in good standing of a state bar association in the U.S. (or one of a few territories) and 7 or more years experience as a practicing attorney. The best candidates have both litigation and administrative law experience. Other excellent attributes to feature are your ability to maintain a composed judicial demeanor and your knowledge of how a courtroom is run. Typically candidates with varied career experience fare well.

What is the deadline for applying? Is the exam timed? When the announcement for the exam gets posted (which is rumored to be mid November 2009), the application will be open for a designated period of time (historically 2 weeks) OR until a maximum number of applicants is received. In 2008, 600 applications were allowed and that number was reached on the second day the announcement was posted. Plan ahead and get your materials in shape well before the announcement comes out. It is very unlikely you will have more than 2-3 days to apply.

You will submit your materials online at OPM’s website. The process of inputting your application is not timed. It is recommended that you do your writing in a word processing program and copy/paste into the online system to avoid errors or technological glitches.

What is the total application like? The full application and “examination” requires answers to multiple choice questions (self-assessment questionnaire), a federal resume (which is typically 4-6 pages long), answers to the 6 narratives in the Accomplishment Record and 2 additional narratives that respectively detail your administrative law and litigation experience.

What does the Federal Resume look like for an ALJ Application? The Federal resume is more detailed than your private practice resume. Most private practice resumes are two pages and do not include a great amount of detail describing your legal skills. The federal resume should contain more information in the Work Experience section of the resume. Your current position, and the past two positions should be described in detail. I would recommend that the current position be written in 1/2 to 2/3 of one full page. This is the most important position. The second and third positions can be somewhat shorter. But the Human Resources specialists will be looking for content and descriptions of your work as an attorney. Study OPM’s qualifications when writing your federal resume. They will be most interested in the last 10 years of your professional career. The biggest differences between private practice and federal resume will be in the Work Experience section with more details about the last 10 years of experience.

What comprises the ALJ Accomplishment Record? The Accomplishment Record is made up of several competencies relevant to the job in which you will detail examples from your experience that demonstrate your competence in each area. Not all of your examples need to be from your legal experience. Other parts of your community and life experience can be effective too. Have you ever served on a board or commission? Made critical decisions as part of a review panel? Written a published work that was persuasive and well received? It’s all fair game for your accomplishments.

What’s the best way to write the “2 additional narratives”? Detail your administrative law and litigation experience.

What are key words and do I really need to worry about them? Key words are the buzz words and phrases that pertain to the top skills and most relevant qualifications for the job. They can be found right in the announcement and assessment questions. Because the applications are rated by Human Resources professionals and not fellow attorneys (nor ALJs), use of these key words points a lay person to how your qualifications match up to critical criteria. This is an area where many applications go astray. The use of legal jargon and complicated language can hurt your application. Understanding how to use the key words is vital. This process may make the application seem duplicative, especially because you will use the same key words in the resume and the narratives, but is effective and proven to yield good results.

Do you have to be an agency insider to have a real shot at this job? No. Because of the merit-based principles, each applicant is rated solely on merit. In fact, being an agency insider can be a detriment if your agency work is viewed as less than stellar.

Will I get my veteran’s preference? Yes. All the consideration of veteran’s preference apply, including the 5 or 10 points.

What happens after I submit my initial application? If you are among the highest scoring applicants on the initial Accomplishment Record, you will be invited to OPM headquarters for the Written Demonstration and a Structured Interview. The Written Demonstration has been described as similar to a bar exam and each candidate will write a mock decision. The Structured Interview is just that—an interview where each candidate is asked the same set of identical questions. The combined score of all three steps in the process makes up your final score. A score of 40 or higher will land you on the register.

What does it mean to be on the register? Those candidates whose applications have scored highly enough will be placed on the ALJ register – simply a list of high-scoring candidates — until an agency requests names of candidates who can be interviewed by the agency and hired. This second list is called a “certificate,” and it contains three candidates for every one position to be filled. You could be on the register for a few weeks or many months before being called by an agency for an interview. The current register will expire in October 2010. The timeline for the new register will be detailed in the upcoming announcement.

Why are so many ALJs being hired? Because they employ so many judges, the Social Security Administration largely drives the process. SSA needs to decrease the backlog of pending disability claims from some 800,000 cases and also reduce the processing time for the almost 500,000 new cases annually.

How can I find a list of the agencies that hire ALJs? Visit the website for the Federal Administrative Law Judges Conference at . There you can find a list of agencies that hire ALJs, a copy of the 2008 application questions and other basic information about the application process.

What is the salary structure? Starting salary ranges from $116,000 to $129,000, depending on locality. Full performance level is $162,000 and is reached in 7 years. Current or former federal employees who are earning more than the starting salary do not take a pay cut and may start with a small increase over their previous salary.

What areas of the country have these jobs available? There are ALJs all over the United States and in Puerto Rico. When you apply for the job, you will be asked to select from 80-120 cities where jobs are available. You can preference as many as you like. Later in the process, you are allowed to reduce the number of areas you will consider. Once you submit your final geographic availability list, you may be offered a job in any of those locations.

1. START NOW! The announcement may only be open 1 to 5 days, depending on how many applications they have set as their goal.

2. Use PLAIN LANGUAGE and the KEY WORDS from the application. Avoid complicated legal jargon. Remember that your application will be rated by a non-attorney.

3. Make sure your RESUME supports your Accomplishment Record. The resume should feature your DUTIES that speak to the required skills as well as your unique career ACCOMPLISHMENTS.

4. Apply the CCAR (context-challenge-actions-results) method to your Accomplishment Record NARRATIVES.

5. Feature areas of ADMINISTRATIVE LAW in which you have experience that might be of benefit to the regulatory and enforcement agencies. Examples are employment, immigration, disability, energy, etc.

Elizbeth’s links:

Elizabeth Juge

Elizabeth is trained in Federal Human Resources recruitment and selection. She has written professionally for 15 years and joined The Resume Place as a full time writer and career consultant in 2005. She consults with jobseekers to match their qualifications to targeted jobs and develops strategies for the job search and application materials. As a professional trainer working alongside Kathryn Troutman, Elizabeth has taught Ten Steps to a Federal Job and writing classes to numerous job seekers, military counselors and federal human resources professionals.

A specialist in federal legal applications and Senior Executive Service writing, Elizabeth was a contributing editor on Kathryn Troutman’s 4th edition Federal Resume Guidebook, editing chapters on resume writing and career development. She recently wrote the chapter on KSA writing and edited other chapters in Ten Steps to a Federal Job, 2nd edition. Her application writing work has helped numerous RP clients earn best-qualified rankings in their Federal Job applications.

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