I retired from law practice this year after a decade representing federal employees and contractors in the security clearance process. Before riding off into the sunset, my team and I had the opportunity to help thousands – 1,840, to be exact – of good people across the federal government navigate this opaque and sometimes counter-intuitive process.

Top 3 Lessons for Clearance Holders

Here are some of the lessons I learned.

1. Clearances are Like Tinder

Most of us are (hopefully) self-aware enough to know that certain careers just aren’t a good fit for our personalities, interests, abilities, or phobias. For example, as much as I admire people in the medical profession, math and science are not my strengths; hence why I went to law school instead of medical school.

Similarly, if you don’t enjoy getting your hands dirty, working as a mechanic probably isn’t for you. If you have a fear of heights, I wouldn’t recommend window-cleaning as an occupation.

Security clearances require the same thinking. Yes, that job or that agency might sound cool, but applying to the DEA with a history of drug offenses may result in a clearance denial that follows you and forecloses other opportunities – just like applying to the CIA when your father is a general in a hostile foreign military is a recipe for problems.

I saw this dynamic most often arise in cases of people who had an existing collateral clearance – which gave them a good career and income – but overshot the mark by applying for a higher-level clearance (usually with a polygraph) that they had no business pursuing. Whether because of anxiety that caused false or misconstrued polygraph confessions, discoveries of previously unknown derogatory information, or related surprises, these folks learned the hard way that sometimes you should listen to your instincts and just swipe left on that job opportunity.

2. Your Finances Really are That Big of a Deal

 We’ve said it time and time again here at ClearanceJobs, but security clearance denial and revocation statistics, coupled with my own personal experience, suggest that people aren’t listening: financial problems are the number one way to tank your prospects.

A lot of this similarly goes back to self-awareness. Would you trust your reliability, judgement, and integrity after objectively looking at your financial history? Obviously, life happens, and financial problems aren’t always indicators of poor character; but if you’re being chased by creditors and not complying with your obligations, that may not reflect well on your willingness and ability to comply with the rules for safeguarding sensitive information. It also arguably raises questions about whether you are at a heightened risk of succumbing to bribery by foreign or other hostile actors.

Some of the more recent trends I saw in this area involved online gambling (a problem which is reaching epidemic proportions and was significantly exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns); people who put all their eggs in one basket with cryptocurrencies; and people who made other risky investments on margin or in things like NFT’s that they didn’t fully understand. This, of course, is to say nothing of tax problems, bankruptcy abuses, and garden variety live-beyond-their-means cases, which a quick perusal of the DOHA website will demonstrate are abundant.

The lesson here is applicable to everyone, not just cleared workers: if a reasonable, prudent person wouldn’t buy it, invest in it, or do whatever it is you’re thinking of doing financially, you’re taking a risk that your actions will be imputed as character defects. It may be hard to know where the line is at times, but that’s why I’m a big fan of financial education (incidentally, a mitigating factor where your finances are a borderline security issue) and vanilla things like index funds and budgets over fads and ostentatious displays of wealth.

3. Lawyers Exist for a Reason

You can take my word on this one, because I have nothing left to gain: lawyer up. No, it doesn’t make you look guilty of wrongdoing – it makes you smart. And when it comes to security clearance applications, no one even has to know you hired a lawyer.

During my career, I reviewed countless mock and pre-submission SF-86’s for individuals thinking of applying for a clearance, reapplying, or seeking an upgrade. I had plenty more conversations with folks concerned about issues that weren’t on the SF-86 but might come out during a polygraph examination. Some of those engagements resulted in a clean bill of health or minor tweaks to help ease anxiety and smooth out the process. But others resulted in an “I wouldn’t touch that clearance with a 30-foot pole” recommendation due to a high risk of denial – sometimes avoidable with something as simple as the passage of time – or even a likelihood of criminal charges.

Those folks were invariably disappointed in the news, but they were also some of my smartest clients. By dodging a bullet now, they lived to fight another day.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 


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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://www.berrylegal.com/practice-areas/security-clearance/.