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What Can You Do with a Law Degree?

published November 19, 2003

Legal Authority
( 56 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
You can read about:
  1. Working at a Law Firm
  2. Judicial Clerkships
  3. Academic Positions
  4. Working In House
  5. Working for the Military
  6. Non-Profits: Public Interest
  7. Working for the Government

Working at a Law Firm

A law firm is an excellent place to begin your legal career. Most corporations don't hire members of their legal team until they have had a few years of seasoning at a law firm. Why? Well, because a law firm is viewed as a type of "finishing school" for a young lawyer. Of course, a lawyer's "finishing" will depend on the type of firm where he or she works.

At a small firm, the environment may be much different than at a large, big-city firm. The practice may be more general overall and the firm may not have a formal training program. Instead, new associates are likely to have more client contact and more hands-on experience from the start. While you may not work the long hours that are required in a large firm, you may have to bring in your own business. In addition, small firms don't have the same resources as larger firms, so you may find yourself handling your own paperwork rather than relying on a legal secretary.

Finally, small firms typically don't offer the high starting salaries of mega-firms. But, if you are eager to jump in and control your own destiny, a small firm can provide excellent training. Not all small firms are the same, though. Some small firms are actually "boutiques" and focus only on one specific type of law, which means you won't get exposure to a wide variety of practice areas.

At a mid-size firm, new associates are likely to make more money than they would at a small firm. Also, the practice may be less generalized-a mid-sized firm will probably have at least a few different departments or practice groups. Medium firms will, of course, have more resources than very small firms, but they still won't be able to match the vast law libraries and administrative support that big firms offer. Still, if you are afraid you might get lost in the crowd or weeded out of a highly competitive large firm, a mid-size firm may be the way to go. A mid-size firm can offer a combination of solid training in a variety of legal specialties, a good salary, and hands-on experience.

Many large firms have training programs, either formal or informal, that guide a young attorney's professional development. For example, an associate may be rotated through several different departments before he or she chooses to focus on a specific practice area. That way, associates get a broad overview of the firm and of the legal system as a whole. This day-to-day variety can keep you from getting bored; however, working at a large firm may mean you'll spend more time paying your dues by writing boring briefs and memos.

Working at a law firm also provides young lawyers with a sort of safety net. Yes, all new associates have to start out doing the scut work, but eventually, you'll have the chance to work on important deals or cases. No matter what your responsibilities, a more senior member of the firm will always be watching over you and monitoring your work. You'll make mistakes, but your supervisor won't allow you to screw up too badly.

Working at a law firm, no matter what size, also means that you'll get experience servicing clients. Law firms are part of the service industry. Although they offer a very professional service, at the heart of it, the client is still king-after all, the clients pay the bills! Therefore, young attorneys must learn how to meet clients' needs and keep them happy. This is a valuable skill, but it means that your needs often have to take a backseat. According to a former law firm associate, "If a client calls at 6:30 on a Friday night and needs something by Monday, you had better cancel the plans you made for the weekend, or else ask for a huge favor from a fellow associate." Still, for anyone wishing to move up the ranks or strike out on his or her own, knowing how to tend to a client's needs is an important skill.

Firms stay financially successful largely based on how much they bill the client. Charging by the hour used to be the norm, but more and more often, firms (especially large ones) are charging by tenths of an hour (every six minutes). Every minute that associates and partners aren't billing is "lost" time that could otherwise be generating revenue. From a firm's perspective, the more time an associate bills, the better. And, since clients are so important to a firm's livelihood, associates will eventually be responsible for bringing in new business, or "rainmaking."

The potential to earn big bucks is what lures many young lawyers to big firm life. Even in an economic downturn, top recruits at big firms may find themselves earning six figures right out of school. The dollars come at a price, though. New associates often report working 60 to 80 hour weeks. This is partly because the learning curve is very steep during the first few years, but it is also because the client is king. If the client needs you there on Saturday and Sunday, you'll be there.

Law Firms at a Glance
Firm Size
Small Medium Large
Hours May be shorter than at large firms Definitely a full-time job Long hours are expected
Salary On the low end Average Usually quite high
Training Do-it-yourself Some training A well-developed system
Resources Expect to do your own paperwork Usually some support staff Paralegals, word processors, a law library-every thing you need
Practice Type Mostly general Some specialization Lots of different specialty departments

Now that you have an idea of what awaits you in a small, medium or large firm setting, your task is to decide which is best for you. But remember. If you start out at a small or medium-sized firm, the chances of ever joining a large firm are considerably reduced. On the other hand, if you find certain aspects of large firms (e.g., their tendencies to fix each attorney forever in a specific practice area) unfavorable, then you would be wise to avoid them. The choice is yours.


Many lawyers describe the year they spent clerking as the most interesting year of their lives. And this is really the essence of a clerkship. It allows you to see the inner workings of the legal system, work closely with a judge, and gain a level of illumination about the legal system itself that you can carry with you throughout your legal career. A clerkship is one of the highest honors in the legal profession and there are many places you can clerk. Almost every law clerk has lots of positive things to say about his clerkship experience. Some of the advantages of taking a clerkship include:

Knowledge: Clerking provides an opportunity to see how the legal system operates from the inside out. By understanding how the system works, you may arguably be a more effective litigator once you start practicing law because you will understand how your work will be evaluated by the court.

Training: You are likely to receive close training and supervision from your judge. Most clerks discuss legal issues with their judge daily and are therefore exposed to the judge's thought process on an ongoing basis. In addition, clerks have their work critiqued by judges day-to-day, which far surpasses the level of training most attorneys receive in most other legal environments. Due to the close supervision and training most clerks receive during their clerkship, your legal skills are likely to develop significantly while clerking.

Contacts: If you plan on practicing in the area of the country where you clerk, you will have an excellent opportunity to evaluate the skills and abilities of the attorneys practicing in your court. In addition, since you will be interacting with many of these attorneys on an ongoing basis, these same attorneys will also be evaluating your skills and abilities and will be potential contacts for employment once you begin practicing. A little known fact is that you can be a clerk at any point in your career. Clerkships are not just for recent graduates-they are also for people who have been practicing for quite a while and seek the opportunity to give something back to the legal system. The skills and level of insight you acquire during your clerkship will help you throughout your career regardless of what practice area you choose.

Different Types of Clerkships
In evaluating whether or not a clerkship will make you marketable, it is important to understand the differences between various types of clerkships: namely, federal and state clerkships. The distinction between federal and state clerkships is examined below.

Federal Court Clerkships
Federal court clerkships are typically considered the most prestigious. At the Federal level, the order of prestige of clerkships is typically considered: (1) Supreme Court clerkships, (2) circuit (appellate) clerkships, (3) federal district court (trial court) clerkships, and (4) clerkships with United States magistrates. There are also several specialized courts (such as Federal Tax Court) that are on approximately the same level as federal district court clerkships; however, they are not quite as prestigious.

The most prestigious clerkship you can have is with the United States Supreme Court. Here, you will typically be working closely with a judge and evaluating the decisions made by lower courts. While some cases can go immediately before the Supreme Court, most cases on which the Supreme Court rules were originally before another federal appellate court. Accordingly, as a Supreme Court clerk, you will most often be making rulings on cases which have already been evaluated at the appellate stage.

The work you do as a clerk for the Supreme Court is extremely important, and the issues you work on are often in the papers and involve profoundly important national issues. Virtually all attorneys who clerk for the United States Supreme Court can literally "write their own ticket" in terms of the firms they join following the clerkship. Many Supreme Court clerks end up going into academia, however. Most Supreme Court clerks are coming from the best law schools and were the top students of their respective law school classes. A high proportion of Supreme Court clerks are graduates of Harvard and Yale Law Schools, for example.
Get advice from law students, prelaw students and others at: Top Law Schools

Next in prestige comes a clerkship with a federal circuit court (i.e., appellate court) judge. The attorneys who get appellate court clerkships are also typically the top students of their respective law schools. As an appellate court clerk you are often responsible for reviewing the opinions of a federal district court (i.e., a trial court). Many attorneys do an appellate court clerkship before applying to be a clerk for the United States Supreme Court.

As an appellate court clerk (which you will be if you clerk for the Supreme Court or a circuit court), most of your work will be heavily research based. You will be working on evaluating opposing appellate briefs as well as the trial record of the district court and formulating opinions regarding the proper interpretation of the law. Very little of the work you do will involve going to court; however, you will attend oral arguments from time to time. Most appellate court clerks describe the work they do as quite "academic." While many appellate court clerks end up practicing in law firms, a high number also go on to hold government positions or to teach.

Considered beneath a circuit court clerkship is a clerkship with a federal district court. Here, you will be working closely with a federal district judge. Most of the work a federal district judge does involves ruling on matters leading up to and during a trial. Accordingly, you will be exposed to discovery disputes, numerous oral arguments on issues such as summary judgment motions and also federal criminal trials. There are far more federal district judges than there are circuit court judges.

One of the advantages of a district court clerkship is that you are exposed to actual trials. The work also tends to be much more fast-paced than the work done by circuit court judges. You are likely to get to know many attorneys practicing in the area. Most clerks for federal district judges end up becoming litigators inside law firms once their clerkships are completed, so these connections can be valuable.

Beneath these federal clerkships is a clerkship with a United States Magistrate Judge. Unlike other federal clerkships, federal magistrates are not appointed by the President of the United States and are not appointed for life. A United States Magistrate typically works on procedural and other matters for which the Federal District Judge does not have time. Thus, for example, the Magistrate may work with attorneys on discovery matters until a trial occurs, or may be the first person to arraign a defendant in a criminal matter.

In addition to Magistrate Judges, there are also clerkships available with Federal Tax Judges and Federal Bankruptcy judges, in addition to other specialized federal courts. These clerkships are often the best clerkships a future bankruptcy attorney or tax attorney could hope for. While these clerkships do not carry the same level of prestige as some other federal clerkships, they do offer the type of specialized training that can be of enormous benefit to clerks wishing to spend their career in a particular practice area.

State Court Clerkships
Clerking for a state court will give you important and meaningful local roots and contacts. There are generally the same distinctions at the state level as there are at the federal level for clerks. Thus, for example, there will be a supreme court, an appellate court and a trial court. Within this spectrum, there will also be further distinctions. A clerkship with a state court does not consistently carry the same level of prestige as a clerkship with a federal court. Some state court judges are elected by a popular ballot, for example. Accordingly, the quality of judges tends to vary widely.

In addition, a clerkship with a state court judge is often not the wisest choice for attorneys wishing to practice in other areas of the country following their clerkship. While a clerkship with a federal district judge can potentially make you marketable anywhere in the United States, clerking with a state court judge may not necessarily have the same result.

While some of the above may not sound all that positive, the fact of the matter is that most of the clerkships available throughout the United States are at the state level. Plus, the contact between clerks and attorneys in a given area tends to be much more profound at the state level than at the federal level. Thus, if you are quite sure you want to practice law in a given area of the United States, you may in some cases be better served clerking at the state as opposed to the federal level. At the state level, you are also more likely to be exposed to a much busier docket and a wider array of litigation.

In addition, most cases that attorneys work on are in state and not federal court. Thus, you are likely to receive exposure to the types of cases and the law that you will actually be dealing with once you commence practice. At the federal level, the cases decided are those involving diversity jurisdiction or federal law. Such cases comprise a small portion of the types of cases most attorneys work on in day-to-day practice with a law firm. Therefore, in many respects a clerkship with a state court will make you better suited to law firm practice.

Getting a Clerkship
There are a few myths that surround getting a position as a law clerk. Some of the more common ones are addressed below. The biggest misconception is that clerkships are only available to the very best students. This is simply not true (but don't feel that you have to tell anyone about this after you have clerked-let them think what they will).

Myth: Only People Who Were On Law Review at Harvard Law School Can Get a Clerkship.

There are thousands of clerkships. Certainly, the more prestigious clerkships can be more difficult to get. Nevertheless, there are numerous opportunities to clerk across the nation. You just need to know where to look. For example, every state in the country has federal clerkships as well as state clerkships available. How many people do you think are applying to be federal law clerks in South Dakota? One of the secrets to landing a clerkship at the federal (and state) level is bringing sufficient depth to your search by not limiting yourself geographically.

Myth: Getting a Clerkship is Next to Impossible Because There Are Hundreds of Applicants for Each Position.

Think again. With the salary increases that began in law firms in 2000, the number of people applying for clerkships declined drastically. In some cases, federal district judges received less than 15 applications per position.

At the state level this problem is even more pronounced. While salaries in the private sector have increased fairly dramatically over the past several years, they have not increased at nearly the same pace in the federal and state governments. Accordingly, throughout much of the United States, applications for clerkships have declined significantly. In addition, many judges must make numerous offers to fill each clerkship position.

Myth: You Can Only Get a Clerkship In the Area of the Country You Are From. Not true. You can get a clerkship in any area of the country. While some state court judges are more receptive to local attorneys, the fact is that judges are seeking the best applicants for the positions they have available.

If you are going to relocate for a clerkship, however, you should be fairly certain that you want to remain in that area to practice law upon completion of the clerkship. The experience you gain with local attorneys and local laws won't be as beneficial if you move to another state.

Final Thoughts About Clerking
Choosing a clerkship requires a similar thought process as choosing a particular law school. For example, attending a law school like Yale is going to give you a serious advantage when you are applying to law firm positions throughout the United States. A law school like Yale might be compared to clerking on the Supreme Court. Conversely, a smaller, more local law school like the University of Toledo is not going to give you as great an advantage throughout the United States. This school will, however, probably give you good options in Toledo, Ohio.

Accordingly, before you accept a clerkship, you need to have a good understanding of whether or not you want to work in the area where you will be clerking. The clerkship is most likely going to make you marketable if you are seeking to work in the state where you are clerking. You should also do some research into where various judges' former clerks ended up working. By learning this, you will get a decent idea of your level of marketability following the clerkship.

The skills and insight you develop as a clerk will stay with you throughout your career. When you sit on the judge's side of the bench, you get the feeling that you are really part of the legal process. You get to witness how decisions are made and the implications these decisions have on peoples' lives.

Academic Positions

Yes…you can be a college professor if you are already a lawyer. Your law degree provides you entry into academic life beyond just the teaching of law. Your degree provides you with sufficient academic stature to teach almost any subject in which you have a background.

To outline the more obvious possibilities available, you can teach legal ethics, legal history, or any other law-related subject. But that's just for starters. Should you possess an undergraduate and/or master's degree in a subject other than law, there is no reason you cannot teach that as well. If you have developed an expertise, say, in 19th Century Naval History or Medieval Church Architecture, you may find yourself and your subject welcome at some university near you. In fact, many lawyers are teaching subjects other than the law right now. Many are found teaching at four-year institutions as well as at community colleges or paralegal institutes. Other lawyers have quit the practice of law to teach full-time.

You may have difficulty envisioning yourself as a professor because of the built-in intimidation factor. This requires a little more explanation. Let's start with your former law professors. Many of them were no doubt intimidating. There is the tendency, especially among first-years, to idealize as well as fear them. Their learnedness is assumed. They symbolically embody not only the highest intellectual traditions of the legal profession but the prestige of the university in which they teach. They serve as intellectual high priests and cultural guardians. Because of law professors' exalted social rank, it is falsely assumed that becoming one is beyond the reach of 95% of practicing attorneys.

This same intimidation factor works with professors who possess a Ph.D. They have gone through years of graduate coursework, 20+ hours of qualifying exams, and then must write a book-length manuscript to become certified. Like lawyers, once they begin teaching, they magically become experts in their field and ordinary citizens are reluctant to challenge them. This intimidation factor is founded on a series of myths, several of which are outlined below.

Myth: You Cannot Become a Professor Unless You are a Top Student.
What is not generally known, even among attorneys, is that the foregoing profile does not fit the majority of professors at the majority of law schools. In reality, you do not have to be brilliant to teach. You do need to understand your subject thoroughly, hopefully due to hands-on experience, but you don't have to be a top graduate from Harvard or the University of Chicago to get a job. Facts are, the majority of professors were good students, but many of them did not finish at the top of their classes. They became professors because they applied themselves and persevered. Not only that, there are professors, even at well-known colleges, who only have a master's degree and no doctorate, or have finished doctoral studies but never completed their dissertation.

Myth: Professors Are Drop-Outs From the Commercial World.
There is the myth that professors are men and women who could not stand up to the stress or the pace of law firm or corporate work. This is simply not true. Life as a professor offers many attractions. As mentioned earlier, you gain enhanced stature in the eyes of the public. You have the opportunity to impart your wisdom to the next generation. In addition, you gain numerous vacation days and may even get summers off. Many universities still offer sabbaticals at full or reduced pay every seven years or so. Do you secretly yearn to publish your observations and beliefs? A career as a professor encourages and rewards such writing.

Myth: It is Impossible to Find a Position as a Professor.
The commonly held perception is that if one thinks it is hard finding an advertised position in a law firm or corporation, it is even harder to find an advertised professor position. In particular, it is believed that the academic profession has its own hiring rituals and tends to rely on word of mouth; and because most positions are unadvertised, they will be offered to mysterious "others" who are wired into a mysterious professor network. In fact, there are thousands of teaching positions available and many of them are filled each year in a way you might not have imagined. A little research and creativity in your search can go a long way. Many, if not most, of these jobs are filled simply because the school receives an inquiry from an interested applicant. For instance, small colleges may hope to find somebody locally to teach a course or two at night. They may not advertise this job. You must be proactive to find these opportunities.

Are You an Attorney? Then You Can Be a Professor.

Being an attorney is the basic requirement: your law degree certifies that you have successfully completed graduate work. Do you possess expertise in a specific area of the law? Great. That makes you even more attractive to almost any law school. Do you possess expertise in a subject other than the law? Great. That knowledge plus the law degree makes you attractive to almost any university. It is worth emphasizing again: a great many professors, whether in the law or another discipline, were not exceptional students. Truth is, many schools will not even request a transcript before they interview you. So stop worrying about what you may perceive as daunting prerequisites. If the idea of working as a professor interests you, apply! It's as simple as that.

Working In-house

As a new lawyer, chances are slim to none that you will immediately be offered a chance to work for a corporation. Corporations do not have training programs as do government agencies and private law firms. Thus, they prefer to select attorneys who already have significant training in a specific practice area. In Section 3, there is a much more thorough analysis of in-house work, geared toward attorneys who are considering a career change. For now, I'll just give you a quick overview so that you understand the venue and how it differs from that of a law firm.

The in-house venue differs culturally from that of a private law firm. There is an operative hierarchy in place within corporations as opposed to the simple distinction in law firms between associates and partners. In some instances, an attorney may find that he or she is the only one in residence with a law degree. Thus, the in-house attorney, instead of being treated with a certain degree of "professional courtesy," is often considered to be merely another employee with a rank defined by both salary and the number of employees supervised. Also worth noting, the in-house attorney's only client is the corporation itself, meaning that the work will tend to be specifically focused and often repetitive: dealing with claims and lawsuits, for instance, or handling difficult employee hires and dismissals.

What in-house jobs offer is relief from the pressure of having to justify oneself by the number of billable hours generated. Then there is the corresponding benefit of knowing that the corporation is, more often than not, self-sustaining by virtue of its size and thus not subject to a dominant client's sudden decision to take its business elsewhere.

Attorneys move in-house for a variety of reasons. In-house attorneys, depending on the situation, often work very hard, especially in mergers and acquisitions and securities matters; although more often than not this kind of work is jobbed out to private law firms with the in-house lawyer managing the account.

Working for the Military

Most attorneys who practice in this sphere are members of the Military Judge Advocates/JAG or in private practice representing a member of the military. Military lawyers operate in both civilian and military courts and must be capable of functioning equally well in each. The practice of military law frequently involves a variety of other practice areas, such as environmental law in the case of activities taking place on an Army base, contracts law when military entities deal with outside suppliers, and family law as it concerns child abuse, drugs, divorce, adoption and trusts and estates work. One of the attractions of military law is that after working 20 years, a lawyer is eligible for a life-time pension but can continue his or her specialty either solo or in a private firm.

As is true with in-house environments, the military is a hierarchy with ranks that start with the entry-level position of second lieutenant (although most attorneys quickly reach the ranks of captain and major) and top out at the rank of general or admiral. Pay, housing and other perks depend on rank and not on the individual skill of the attorney/officer in question. A feature of military life attractive to many is the constant change of assignment every two years or so. An attorney can be posted almost anywhere in the world where the American military or consular services has a location.

Military law can also be considered a specialty as well as a venue. For example, many attorneys, after leaving active service, continue in the Reserves and/or work for private law firms which handle military accounts. Other attorneys with military law experience locate themselves in private offices near Army bases to serve any needs of military personnel not strictly involving military matters.

Non-Profits: Public Interest Law

Your decision of whether or not to make public interest law a career probably hinges on more than money; however, money is the number one factor that drives attorneys away from this pursuit. The fact of the matter is that public interest attorneys don't make as much money as those attorneys in firms or corporations. But perhaps you've already decided that money will not be a factor in the path you choose to follow. Perhaps you already live a toned-down lifestyle; maybe you've inherited a guaranteed income. Either way, let's leave money out of the equation for now and concentrate on just what it is you wish to do and where and how you wish to do it.

Do legal jobs with local or federal government qualify as public interest jobs?
No, they don't. Generally, a government lawyer's job is to enforce current laws, whereas a public interest lawyer may seek to change these laws or work in areas not covered by them. For example, Ralph Nader, on his own, accused General Motors of knowingly producing unsafe automobiles because he felt that existing law and federal oversight did not satisfactorily address automotive safety issues.

Government jobs do exist in which lawyers examine the fairness of legislation and its application and seek to root out inequities. For example, a lawyer working for a state or federal civil rights department might reasonably qualify as practicing public interest law. But even civil rights lawyers paid by the government must back off if told to do so by superiors. Public interest law, in an ideal sense, implies that a lawyer is beholden to his or her conscience only, and not to any temporal authority. Does the term "public interest law" imply legal work performed for a charitable organization or trust? Generally speaking, yes, this is closer to the mark, although again there are exceptions. Public interest law also applies to the individual lawyer who personally takes on clients or causes without pay because of his/her conviction that an individual or class of individuals is not being given the protection to which they are entitled under current law. This loose definition does not mean to imply that public interest lawyers are not paid for their time and effort, only that their charity's effort is not financially-driven, but is instead fueled by altruistic personal conviction and the satisfaction gained from helping right a perceived wrong.

Is Public Interest Law Counter-cultural?
Yes, in a limited sense, public interest law is counter-cultural, because it frequently attacks the assumptions and myths upon which all cultures are based. Cultures are formed based on generalized shared conditions and perceptions. American culture, as an example, was first shaped by its original settlers' belief that they had been, in their lands of origin, persecuted for their non-normative religious beliefs. For this reason, religious tolerance quickly became important to the original settlers and part of the American foundational myth (Land of the Free). The fact that, to the contrary, virulent religious and racial discrimination contradicted this myth is immaterial. The culture developed a belief which became codified into myth and into law. It is into the space between utopian myth and reality that the public interest lawyer steps in. What comes first is the utopian sense of a perfect society as reflected in a culture's myths. Next comes the realization that such utopian, mythic ideals are not realized in practice. Only then comes the effort to fix the dissonance between the ideal and the real.

Do You Have to be a leftist to be a Public Interest Lawyer?
The perception of most public interest lawyers is that they are found only on the political left of issues. This may be true as a generality, but not always in practice. For example, public interest lawyers practice on both sides of the abortion debate. Pro-abortion lawyers argue for the right of the individual to control what goes on inside her body. Anti-abortion lawyers argue that destroying an embryo is murder, period. Some public interest lawyers argue against the death penalty because they believe killing is morally wrong. Others argue that it is the duty of society to rid itself of those who take innocent lives. Regardless of whichever side a public interest lawyer takes, it is obvious that he or she is guided by a specific vision of a perfect society, along with an interior discourse that affirms this vision and denies the validity of other competing visions.

So why is it necessary to be "underpaid" if you are a public interest lawyer?
Quite simply, the organizations that employ public interest lawyers don't have money to pay big salaries. That's explanation enough. Then there is public perception and expectation. If lawyers make a lot of money helping the unfortunate, it is presumed that they are profiting from the meek and disenfranchised. Finally, there is the perception that those who wish to help others should be similar to priests and clergy by eschewing material rewards. Thus, even if a public interest lawyer found a way to make money by helping those who cannot pay, the likelihood is that the lawyer would not take the money, at least not openly. To conclude, lack of funding and cultural expectations conspire against public interest lawyers ever making money. Ergo, if you choose this type of law, expect to make considerably less than lawyers practicing other types of law.

How to Know if You Are Cut Out to be a Public Interest Lawyer:
Here are seven key questions you should ask yourself:
  1. Is money unimportant to my sense of well-being and self esteem?
  2. Am I uncomfortable working in structured environments?
  3. Am I ideologically committed to a modest lifestyle?
  4. Do I possess a strong streak of idealism?
  5. Do I come from a strong religious background?
  6. Do I view public interest law not as a profession but as a calling?
  7. Does the existence of elitisms of all kinds anger me?
If you answered "yes" to three or more of the above questions, you might give serious consideration to a career in public interest law. The next question becomes: "how do I go about finding a job?"

Identify a Cause
You must feel strongly about a certain cause and have thought enough about it to eschew all your doubts. Usually, the cause will announce itself to you. This is what is meant by having a calling. Choose your cause well and you will produce within yourself a harmony of belief merged with action that most lawyers and most other citizens seldom, if ever, attain.

Find Out Who is Hiring
Check the local and national legal newspapers and magazines. Look in the Yellow Pages under "Charities." Talk to religious groups and fraternal orders. Visit law schools and inquire there. Attend career fairs such as the annual Equal Justice Works Career Fair and Conference. On the Internet, search for "Public Interest Law." Once you have investigated the listings, follow through on email links to other public interest web pages. Most public interest jobs are not high profile, meaning they are not always advertised and there isn't always a lot written about them.

What Happens if My Project Must be Abandoned Because the Money Runs Out?
If, after your initial foray into public interest law, you have decided to stay in the field, always proceed with the knowledge that your work could be terminated through no fault of your own. Keep lists of organizations and individuals and possible projects that might interest you down the line.

See If There is Grant Money Available
A lot of public interest work is subsidized by corporations, religious groups and wealthy individuals. The Stanford Public Interest Law Foundation (SPILF), as an example, offers public interest law project grants covering legal services for pregnant teenagers, housing discrimination, battered women, women prisoners, immigrant and refugee rights, children needing special education and a wide variety of other causes. If you see a problem which needs fixing and nobody is addressing it, you can apply to SPILF and other public interest foundations by filling out a proposal and launching your own cause.

If, after reading this, you are more convinced than ever that you want to be a public interest lawyer, then go for it. You will need perseverance. You will need grit. It will not be an easy road. But you will have the satisfaction of contributing to a greater good. Hopefully, society will not only pay attention to what you have to say, it will agree, and better yet, take positive action. In this way, you will be providing a service not just for the short-term but possibly for generations yet unborn.

Working for the Government

For many attorneys, there is no more ideal position than working for the Federal or State government. One of my colleagues used to work for the United States Department of Justice and, the way he tells it, after 5:15 p.m. each evening you could fire a canon down the hall because everyone had gone for the day. In addition, he said that there were several attorneys who would actually show up day after day, month after month and literally do nothing. In all seriousness, though, there are some major advantages to choosing a career with the government.

First, government positions are usually secure. Many government attorneys practice their entire careers with the government and face little prospect of a layoff regardless of bad economic winds. It is also extremely difficult to be fired as a government attorney, because government jobs are generally there to stay.

Second, government attorneys are often quite collegial with one another, and there is a fraternity of sorts amongst them because they are not competing to bill hours. Government attorneys often become quite close, as it is not uncommon for them to work side by side for two to three decades.

Third, the work government attorneys do is often immensely interesting. For example, you may work on the type of high-profile litigation that others see only once or twice (or perhaps never) in a law firm career. Additionally, many government attorneys often spend at least one day a week in court. Government attorneys who do not do litigation work may be involved in important policy work that has a national impact.

Fourth, given the importance of the work they do, many government attorneys receive training and develop a skill set that actually continues their advancement in private employers' eyes. Throughout the United States there are numerous partners in important law firms who received a decade or more of training as prosecutors before returning to the private sector.

Fifth, being a government attorney can potentially lead to an excellent career in a higher government post. A large number of federal judges started out as prosecutors at the state and federal level. Additionally, many important cabinet positions in both federal and state governments are filled by government attorneys each year.

Almost always, the health care and retirement benefits that government attorneys receive far eclipse what one could expect in private practice. Many government attorneys end their careers with sizable retirement benefits which do not require them to change their lifestyle at all.

At the end of the day, many attorneys choose not to work for the government. One of the most common reasons attorneys do not choose government work is because of perceived financial concerns. Nevertheless, many government attorneys do make over $100,000 a year and live comfortably.

The lure for most government attorneys is the opportunity to practice law with like-minded individuals in a relatively secure environment. Government attorneys also often enjoy much better lifestyles than other attorneys. With more time and energy left for family and leisure activities, government attorneys reap the kind of less tangible benefits that can make a tremendous difference in career satisfaction. In the end, the result is often more happy and fulfilling lives outside of work.