Why President Obama’s clemency effort is struggling, Episode 21.

 The Office of the Pardon Attorney is advertising for nine experienced criminal defense attorneys who will work for free and can earn no money in private practice. Recent law school graduates are excluded as well. 

Acting Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff, a former Nightline producer

Acting Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff, a former Nightline producer

Other than a retired attorney, it’s hard to imagine many lawyers meeting Justice’s ridiculously stringent requirements for a job that a decent paralegal could handle. “Uncompensated Special Attorneys” are prohibited from earning any money from their legal talent and experience, in government or out. Perhaps this is what makes them special.

Even a retired attorneys would have to maintain a license for no apparent reason beyond charitable work for the government.

The sad thing is the Justice Department is surely following its own rules, proof beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  1. government lawyers are skilled at building linguistic prisons from which even they cannot escape.
  2. government lawyers, no matter how well-intentioned, produce slightly less value than the afternoon shift at a McDonald’s. (Admittedly, McDonald’s workers may earn more.)

The Office of Pardon Attorney’s irony-free help-wanted advertisement (emphasis added) reads:


OPA ATY 15-001
About the Office: 

The Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA), United States Department of Justice, is seeking uncompensated Special Attorneys to work in Washington, DC. The Office of the Pardon Attorney, in consultation with the Attorney General or his designee, assists the President in the exercise of executive clemency as authorized under Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution. OPA receives petitions for executive clemency, initiates the necessary investigations, and prepares the recommendations to the President in connection with the consideration of all forms of executive clemency, including commutation of sentence, pardon, remission of fine and reprieve.

In 2014, the Justice Department announced a new clemency initiative to encourage appropriate candidates to petition for executive clemency in order to have their sentences commuted by the President. The Initiative invites petitions for commutation of sentence from non-violent inmates who are serving a federal sentence, who by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today, and who would not pose a threat to public safety if released. Thousands of inmates have already filed petitions for commutation of sentence, and more are likely to do so. Evaluating these petitions for recommendations to the President is a high priority for the Justice Department.

Job Description: 

Uncompensated Special Attorneys will focus heavily on the clemency initiative. Knowledge of and experience with federal criminal law (from either the prosecution or defense perspective, or both), sentencing policy and guidelines, re-entry, and related issues are all helpful for this position. Applicants must demonstrate exceptional legal, analytical, policy, and writing skills, as well as the ability to manage and prioritize a sizable and growing workload and to meet deadlines under pressure. Uncompensated Special Attorneys responsibilities include the performance of challenging and varied legal assignments in the interpretation and proper application of executive orders, federal statutes, precedents, and agency practices related to executive clemency. Among other responsibilities, uncompensated Special Attorneys will be assigned to review and evaluate petitions submitted by applicants for executive clemency, to confer with officials of the Department of Justice and external agencies regarding the evaluation of clemency petitions, and to advise the Pardon Attorney on the results of the investigative and evaluative process and suggest appropriate disposition of petitions.

Note: Employees of the Department of Justice, including uncompensated Special Attorneys, may not engage in the compensated practice of law outside the office. Attorneys are not eligible to serve as Special Attorneys if they have had an employment offer deferred by a law firm and received a payment for the period of their deferral with the expectation of future employment with the law firm, or if they will receive any payment from a law firm during their unpaid employment with the Department of Justice. In addition, contractors, including employees of contractors who do business with the Department of Justice, and who also are attorneys, are not eligible to serve as uncompensated Special Attorneys.


Applicants must possess a J.D. degree, be an active member of the bar (any jurisdiction), and have a minimum of three years of post-J.D. experience.

None: This is an uncompensated position. Employee benefits for this position will be limited to transit subsidy and workers compensation.
No travel required.
Application Process: 

Applicants must submit a cover letter (highlighting relevant experience), resume, and a list of professional references. Please reference this announcement, OPA ATY 15-001, in your cover letter as well as in the subject line of your email submission.

Applicants are encouraged to email applications to USPardon.Attorney@usdoj.gov

Email links icon

or fax to 202-616-6069 rather than mail them. No telephone calls please.

U.S. Department of Justice
Office of the Pardon Attorney (Attn: Deborah Leff, Acting Pardon Attorney)
1425 New York Ave., N.W., Room 11000
Washington, D.C. 20530


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