Law School · Legal Practice

Pick your Passion: Big Law or Public Interest?

I have noticed a trend that I want to help stop. Recently, I have met with multiple people interested in public interest jobs, but have no public interest background. The thing with public interest is that we really like seeing people “committed” to the cause. As in, experience, and rightfully so because this work isn’t easy. Yes, all lawyering is difficult, but in PI you are dealing with the most vulnerable, marginalized groups and we need to know you’re capable and have an interest in advocating for these groups.  So when I ask people with no PI background why they’re interested in legal aid–imagine my anger when they tell me they always wanted to do PI, but their schools really don’t promote it.

Argh!! These schools! Look I get it–big law is king. Unless you’re school is hyper-committed to public interest, they push corporate/private firms like no other. It used to happen at my school before my mentor took over the public service programs. It happens in schools in all rankings. Big law means more money, more security, and probably bigger donations. Big law is also still seen as more prestigious and gets more attention. I get why schools would push for that.

But, the truth is that many students go into law school hoping to work in public interest, OR they have no solid understanding of the difference between public interest and big law so they follow the guidance their school gives them (logical). And if your school only pushes you to do a clerkship, followed by OCI, followed by nothing but private practice, it is NOT preparing you for public interest. And even if you’re not sure you want to do public interest because, oh I don’t know, you want to no longer struggle financially?, it is still closing a door–an opportunity for you–for no good reason.

How can you beat this system? How can you best prepare yourself so that when it’s time to apply for positions you are able to apply where you truly feel called?

One. No limits. Unless you are 100% certain, don’t limit yourself in where you apply for internships. Participate in the things your school pushes like OCI and clerkships, but if you realize that they’re not promoting public interest sector jobs, make it a point to go out and see what are your options. Does your school have a clinic you could do in lieu of an externship; where do alumni work in poverty law jobs; what fellowships are available for you to plan for, if that’s what you want to do?

The real risk is that you assume (too naively) that your school will prepare you for any position, but the reality is that all practice areas are specialties and if you don’t have some history/experience it will be hard to get your foot through the door. Especially in public interest where there’s a need for commitment to the mission. Speaking of mission..

Two. It’s ok to want to make a living. I can sit here and tell you to spend your summer doing public interest to better your bets on getting a full-time job in PI when you graduate. However, that advice ignores that reality that you will likely struggle financially during the summer because those PI positions don’t pay shit. They pay nothing compared to big law clerkships. Most students doing a summer in poverty law will likely pay rent through a small stipend or because their school has an endowment–but you won’t earn money like someone doing a stint at a firm. It can feel like a difficult choice–do I go where I can earn a living or do I go somewhere that I’m making a direct impact? It sucks to have to choose. We all want to make a difference. But once you start working, those that can afford the jobs that “make a difference” will likely be people from families with means and/or stability that allows them to intern for free (or for very little money).

So, say you realize you can’t do a summer living off a $3000 stipend (hello my 2L summer), don’t feel guilty! It is totally ok to pick a position that puts you on a higher financial level. We don’t come to law school to be martyrs. You can have a job in the private sector and still make a difference. You have to be a little more proactive, but it’s possible.

Three. What if I’m sure? If you are certain about the area of law you want to do, then yes, focus on that. But, I would still encourage everyone to do at least one semester doing some form of legal aid. The experience is so different from big law; the clientele, the office culture, the types of cases and problems you face. It is really worth it to experience. So even if you’re sure, try to squeeze something in–it will diversify your resume, give you a connection to a legal community that you may want to be a part of, eventually, and will let you know for sure that your decision to go big law is right for you.

 

Overall, I want to gently make you aware (if you’re not already) that your school has resources you should use, but don’t depend on those resources exclusively. Following the guidance your school gives you may lead to a job, but it may not be the start of the career you want. So don’t forget that you are the one in charge of your career and you are the one that has to figure out the steps you need to take to reach your goal. It is not easy, but you are capable of getting it done.

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