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Office of General Counsel

CIA's OGC has been recognized
as one of
the greatest places to work
with a law degree.


"This tape will self-destruct in five seconds."

"The name is Bond. James Bond."

If the theme music from Mission Impossible runs through your head, or you get the urge to order a martini "shaken, not stirred," at the mention of the letters "CIA," then visiting the CIA’s Web page won’t disappoint. The Employment section features a stylized human eye against a stark black background, with the words "Innovation & Intrigue" silhouetted alone on the page. Oh, boy!

As you probably know without having to be told, the CIA’s mission centers around intelligence activities. It gathers and analyzes information on foreign adversaries, conducts counterintelligence operations abroad to frustrate foreign espionage, and undertakes covert action abroad at the direction of the President.

Lawyers at the CIA work in the Office of General Counsel (OGC). So put aside your Captain Crunch secret decoder ring for the moment, while we talk about working for the OGC. It’s a highly coveted and terrific job.


How many attorneys work there? Approximately 100 (36 women, 7 minorities).


The OGC handles a wide variety of legal issues, including, among other things, both civil and criminal litigation, foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities, counterterrorism, counternarcotics, nonproliferation and arms control, covert action, personnel and security matters, contracting, finance and budget matters, tax, immigration, international financial transactions, corporate law, copyright, intellectual property, foreign and international law, and legislation. The OGC’s practice gives lawyers the opportunity to interact with a wide variety of U.S. government agencies, the Congress, federal and state courts, and the private sector. OGC lawyers have regular contact with the White House, National Security Counsel, Defense, State, Justice, Treasury, Commerce, and other Intelligence Community agencies.

The OGC is divided into five divisions: The Administrative Law and Ethics Division, Litigation Division, Intelligence Division, Logistics and Procurement Law Division, and Operations Division.

Many OGC attorneys get the opportunity to rotate frequently throughout the different divisions. However, some attorneys specialize in esoteric specialties that require considerable experience, and,

in some instances, advanced degrees.


The OGC hires experienced attorneys and new law school graduates (between two and four each year), and law students as summer clerks (they have between five and eight of those every year).

Experienced Attorneys: The CIA posts job openings on its Web site ( and also advertises them in newspapers.

New Law School Graduates: The direct route to the CIA is through the CIA Legal Honors Program (or through the summer program, which results in a lot of permanent hires you’ll find information about the summer program directly below). The Honors Program, as is true for every federal Honors Program, takes law students with exceptional paper credentials. It’s a plum job and it’s very competitive. The Program lasts for two years and gives you broad exposure to the practice of national security law. In the Honors Program, you can spend both years at the OGC, assigned to one or more Divisions, depending on the needs of the Office. Alternatively, the OGC might arrange for you to spend your second year at another agency in the D.C. area with national security responsibilities, such as the Department of Justice or the National Security Agency.


Hours: CIA attorneys typically work 40 to 60 hours per week. You get to travel all over the world as your caseload requires, but as an attorney, you’re not posted overseas.

Starting salary: $$ ($35 - 50,000)


You can apply to the CIA directly or interview on campus if they come to your school. The CIA interviews on campus at UVA, Michigan, Georgetown, Howard, Harvard, William & Mary, Yale, and Duke. The Agency also hires from law schools where it doesn’t interview on campus. Send a resume, transcript, and writing sample (the writing sample is very important) to the OGC at the following address: Office of General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C. 20505.

Ideally, it is not going to surprise you that working at the CIA requires you to get a Top Secret security clearance. You also have to be a U.S. citizen. You have to successfully complete the CIA’s personnel screening process (which includes medical and polygraph exams and a background investigation). You have to graduate from an ABA-accredited law school, and you have to pass the bar in any state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands within 14 months of joining the Agency (until you pass, you are called a "law clerk," which is common to pretty much all federal agencies). The whole personnel process takes between six and nine months.


Every year, the OGC aims to hire five to eight summer clerks (all 2Ls; they don’t allow 1Ls into the program, not because they don’t want to, but because, as a practical matter, 1Ls can’t apply before the spring semester, and the CIA screening process can take up to nine months). The weekly salary for summer clerks is around $700, and you have to be able to work for at least ten weeks. The clerkship gives you a broad exposure to the practice of intelligence law.

While the summer clerkship doesn’t guarantee you’ll get an offer for permanent employment with the CIA, it’s a great way to get your foot in the door, and historically a good number of summer clerks have received permanent offers; last year, out of six summer clerks, four were invited back.

Even as a summer clerk, you need to have a Top Security clearance to work at the CIA, and you need to be a U.S. citizen. Because the personnel screening process (which includes a medical and polygraph exam, and a background investigation) generally takes between six and nine months to complete, you should apply for the program by the end of September.

To apply, send your resume, a law school transcript, legal writing sample, and legal references to:

Summer Legal Clerkship Program
Office of General Counsel
Central Intelligence Agency
Washington, D.C. 20505


While it’s impossible not to be attracted by the mystique of the CIA, they’re looking for serious lawyers. Don’t get too carried away with the shoe-phone and lapel-camera stuff!

While great grades and Law Review don’t hurt you, they aren’t mandatory. The CIA likes to see great paper credentials, but they stress that they hire the "whole person." As CIA lawyers point out, many law students have done other stuff before law school, and an interesting background helps. And that can mean all kinds of things. A summer or two with the Department of Justice or the Department of Defense doing comparable work is a plus. Having worked as a judicial clerk, or having been a summer or permanent associate in a big corporate practice doesn’t hurt. Many people from the military apply to the CIA, and that background helps, as well as does any experience living overseas. But none of these things are requirements. The thing we really like to see is interesting and productive work of any kind.


"It’s a very exciting practice, starting right away. We don’t have the luxury of putting you in the library for a year when you start. Even very junior lawyers get out and do the work, dealing with senior government officials in all agencies, members of Congress at all levels, and foreign government leaders as well. The interesting work is definitely not reserved for senior people. We have a saying at OGC that the younger you are, the more fun you have!

"There are a few things that stand out about what we do. Most importantly is the variety of the work. We get to do some very enjoyable stuff. As is true of every law job, the work ranges from the mundane to the sublime, but a lot of what we do is very cutting-edge, in a whole range of specialties.

"For instance, take our First Amendment work. We have obligations to do prepublication reviews of things written by current or former CIA employees. Exactly what can they publish? We’ve been a major player in developing the law of national security vs. the First Amendment.

"Or the Fourth Amendment, search and seizure issues. When CIA personnel operate overseas and Americans come across on our screen, they’ve got constitutional rights we’ve got to think about. We’re often confronted with issues that you just don’t find anywhere else. For instance, when you have Americans spying against the United States—what rights do they have? They still do have rights, but how do you determine what they are? Or electronic surveillance, there are obvious Fourth Amendment issues involved with it. In areas like that, we’re helping to create the law, and that’s a real rush.

"Even everyday specialties have fascinating aspects here. For instance, let’s say a CIA employee is going through a messy divorce. In discovery, typically you’ll have the spouse asking salary questions, like ‘where do you work? How long have you worked there?’ Well, if you’re working undercover for the CIA, you can’t answer those questions. So we have to come up with ways to handle those questions and protect secrets at the same time. In fact, in a whole range of areas we work very closely with the Department of Justice to allow intelligence to be used while protecting secrets.

"We also deal with international law issues because obviously we operate internationally in support of foreign policy pursuits, and that means we have to abide by treaties.

"There are separation of powers issues as well, because of the congressional oversight elements that we have to deal with. When Congress wants something from us, they get it, but sometimes there’s a test due to national secrets or executive privilege. At OGC, we’re the ones who decide how that gets handled. In fact, with Congress, we deal with legislative issues all the time. We have to be on the alert in looking at legislative matters to make sure that the CIA’s interests aren’t hurt. Not that it’s done intentionally—many times there will be Congress people proposing legislation that hurts us, but they don’t realize it. We’ve got to alert them to those issues, and that means we’ve got to be aware of what’s going on legislatively all the time.

"We have to do nitty-gritty, ‘roll-up-your-sleeves’ corporate stuff as well. A lot of people don’t realize the CIA supports operations that involves setting up businesses and corporate practices. Remember Air America? The CIA created that business, and it creates others, all in support of collecting intelligence, or counterterrorism, or counternarcotics. But when you’re setting up a business, no matter what it’s for, you’ve got to be aware of corporate issues, and we handle that.

"There are many, many others. We have an aggressive EEO practice. We have lawyers who handle copyright issues. We also do a bit of patent work, since we have CIA people who invent things. I guess you could say that if you can name it, we probably do it.

"What’s especially nice about the variety you get at OGC is that almost everybody gets to be a generalist. We like to say that over the course of your career at the CIA, you can change jobs without quitting your job. You can go outside the CIA altogether to do lawyer jobs elsewhere in the federal government. For instance, over the years the CIA has sent lawyers to other agencies for a year or two—the White House, the DoJ, the FBI, places like that. It broadens your experience, and that’s always fun.

"The other aspect that makes working at the CIA very enjoyable is that we feel we’re working for a worthy cause, without being zealots. The fact of the matter is that we aren’t ‘hired guns.’ We provide a service to our clients—the taxpayers—and that makes us feel good. We aren’t here for the money. It’s a combination of the variety and the importance of the work that keeps people here.

"And, of course, the very idea of working at the CIA is pretty exciting. You can move into being James Bond-ish. You can travel discreetly. You don’t identify who you are. So, there’s some excitement with the travel. But the legal practice itself is very interesting, very exciting."


"There are many, many misconceptions people have about working for the CIA. Actually, people are surprised when they hear that the CIA has a General Counsel’s Office at all!

"And people are also surprised to hear that when you work for OGC, you’re never coerced to come out a certain way on issues. I’ve never had any pressure to come up with an answer that is what I thought they wanted me to say. They appreciate and respect straight-shooters.

"Another misconception is that the CIA is extraordinarily conservative. That’s totally not the case. I’d say that most people here would consider themselves very liberal.

"One thing that used to be true, but isn’t any more, is the problem with leaving the CIA. Twenty years ago, there was a stigma that made it more difficult to go from the OGC into some other kind of work. That’s not an issue any more. We have people leave to work in the U.S. Attorney’s office, as corporate counsel, to the Hill as legal counsel, it runs the gamut. The fact is, we’re usually generalists, and that translates well into a lot of other jobs.

"Another big misconception has to do with who gets into the CIA. There’s a totally wrong-headed picture in people’s minds that if you’ve ever smoked a joint, you can’t get into the CIA. That’s not true. Maybe you’d say, ‘Oh, when I was a freshman in college, I’d light up a doobie, I drank a lot, but when I got to law school, I grew up, and I don’t do that anymore.’ That’s not going to remove you from consideration. Obviously, the CIA isn’t going to hire a dopehead or an abuser. And if you’re a tax cheat, forget it. Serious things will kick you out of the process. But casual drug use that took place years ago and is over now, that won’t remove anybody from consideration by itself. What is a source of surprise to us is that there are a lot of people who self-select out, thinking that because of some old, casual drug use they won’t get in. That’s a shame. And on the other end of the spectrum, you have people who’ve done really bad things who keep applying, and applying, and applying, and they’re just never going to get in, and they should know better!

"Maybe the biggest misconception about the CIA is the idea that it’s a no-holds-barred kind of place, that we feel as though there’s a different set of rules that applies to the CIA. That’s not true. The Constitution applies to us. We have huge concerns for the rights of Americans. There are a strong set of controls that we support concerning Americans.

"I think people are surprised to find that the CIA has evolved over the years. It’s a lot more open than it used to be. When I tell people what I do, they’ll say, ‘Gee, that’s neat.’ And I’ve got to say yes, it is!"

Reprinted with permission from America's Greatest Places to Work With A Law Degree. ISBN 0-15-900180-3. Copyright 1999 Harcourt Brace.