Kelly Hayes knew from the time she was in middle school that she wanted to be a lawyer, and she crafted the choices she made as a teenager to set her up to become a federal prosecutor.
"The joke around my family is that I started practicing my arguments at 13," Hayes said.
Hayes, 29, landed her dream job as an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland last May and has already worked on a range of cases, including alleged bribery schemes, drug deals and immigration violations.
For years, young attorneys hoping to land a job with the Department of Justice's headquarters or in the U.S. attorney's offices around the country ran into a prolonged hiring freeze. Budget cuts meant that openings for highly coveted assistant U.S. attorney positions have been rare, leaving lawyers to fire off applications at the merest whiff of an opportunity.
But after the budget deal approved by Congress restored funding to the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in early February that the three-year freeze had been lifted.
"After years of doing more with less, we will begin to fill critical vacancies and we will resume the normal hiring process for federal agents, prosecutors, for analysts and for the other staff that we need to fulfill our mission," Holder said in a video announcement.
Maryland's U.S attorney, Rod J. Rosenstein, had warned that were the freeze to continue any longer, it would affect his office's ability to prosecute violent criminals, because it can only take on as many cases as it has attorneys to handle.
Had the deep budget cuts under the sequester not been reversed, Rosenstein was preparing to lose as many as 15 of his 81 assistants.
Now the U.S. attorney's office is planning to go on a hiring spree to fill the vacancies left by staff members who have left and were not replaced.
The new round of hiring should provide a boost to crime fighting, and for young lawyers such as Hayes it will also mean new opportunities to make the leap to working for the federal government. It's a move that can be a savvy long-term career move and a chance to tackle exciting cases in the courtroom.
Young lawyers in the Maryland U.S. attorney's office say the autonomy and range of cases they get to handle is one of the best features of the job, especially compared to the experience of junior associates with the large law firms where many work out of law school.
"The jobs are definitely sought after and with good reason," said Peter J. Martinez, who started at the office shortly before Hayes. "You get into court, you get to try cases, you get to run cases."
Drawn by the chance to do that kind of work, Matthew G. Kaiser, a Washington-based attorney and legal blogger, wrote in a recent post that the new job openings will likely produce "a junior varsity version of the jockeying that one sees in Washington when the presidency changes parties."
Ambitious young lawyers in Washington, he wrote, typically head from law school to a clerkship with a judge then a large law firm, aiming a few years down the line to get into the Justice Department. But in recent years that third step has been almost impossible, leading to a lot of bottled-up talent.
While Justice Department jobs have always been competitive, getting in during the freeze has been especially difficult. Prosecutors' offices had to ask special permission to fill empty spots, according to Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for Rosenstein, leading to infrequent bouts of hiring.
Jakarra Jones, who works in the civil branch of the U.S. attorney's office, said she spent about a year firing off resumes to all corners of the country before she landed her position.
"It took a very long time," said Jones, 31. "I probably sent out 30 applications ... before I got this opportunity."
Many law students in Baltimore get a taste of federal work while they're still in school, according to D. Jill Green, an assistant dean at the University of Baltimore Law School. The city's proximity to Washington means her students can take advantage of internships that offer opportunities to work closely with staff lawyers.
And while most attorneys build their experience clerking and working in the private sector first, Green said the end of the freeze could shake loose new opportunities for recent alumni.
"Really the struggle for law grads now is the entry level," Green said. But if the Justice Department begins soaking up people in the middle of their careers, Green said, that should mean more work for the most junior lawyers.
"We are certainly optimistic that more jobs will be created for our students and graduates," she said.