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Jay Tustin remembers his classmates at UCLA Law with a chuckle: "If I had polled my first-year class, 90 percent of them would have said they wanted to work in the social interest." Far fewer actually took such jobs, opting instead for traditional law-firm positions that would help them pay off student loans. Tustin sees the same pattern in the students he has taught in environmental law clinics at Denver University and the University of Colorado since 1992: "I've had hundreds of students, and maybe 10-tops-have followed through to public interest jobs."
According to the National Association for Law Placement's Jobs & J.D.'s: Employment and Salaries of New Law Graduates-Class of 1999, which surveyed 173 ABA-accredited law schools, only about 27 percent of U.S. law graduates head for careers in the public sector. While some work in organizations geared toward causes like human rights or environmental protection, others land positions in government or clerk for a judge after graduation. Women generally fly the public interest route more often than men; a third of employed female law school graduates take public interest jobs, compared with only a quarter of employed male grads.
Voices from the Field
Most people browse the newspaper simply to keep abreast of current events, but JDs who opt for the public sector tend to take front-page travesties to heart. "The number one reason for entering public interest law is the great job satisfaction you get from using your degree to lend your skills to those who are essentially voiceless," says Rebecca Epstein, who began her public interest career at the U.S. Department of Justice in 1997. There, she worked on civil cases involving police misconduct, trying to remedy problems from the management perspective. "[It was] probably the most intense work I have ever done. That literally felt like I was working on life-or-death issues," she says. Today, Epstein is a staff attorney at Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a nationwide public interest law firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. She tackles Title IX funding issues for TLPJ, working with universities to ensure that women in athletic programs get the benefits they deserve.
Like Epstein, criminal defense attorney Elisabeth Semel found her calling in the public sector. She became head of the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Representation Project in 1997, shortly after Congress phased out funded postconviction resource centers that sent experienced lawyers into the ring for clients on death row. Today, more than 3,700 people are under the death sentence in the U.S., some without the guarantee of a lawyer during successive postconviction proceedings. Death row inmates are many times left with inadequate representation, according to the Death Penalty Representation Project.
Semel is dissatisfied with the representation available to defendants during all phases of capital cases. As a lawyer, activist, and fund-raiser, she works to amp up the ABA's recruitment of law firms to assist with or undertake capital cases. She also solicits donations from philanthropic organizations to send lawyers to handle death penalty cases through nonprofit capital representation offices. Among those that have signed on is George Soros's Open Society Institute, which has pledged $100,000 per year through 2003-an amount that Semel and her associates must match with an additional $50,000 annually from law firms, individuals, the American Bar Association, and other foundations. "When you're a criminal defense lawyer and you want to be as good as you can, and you see something as awful as the death penalty, it's a challenge," Semel says. She now instructs law students in capital defense, as director of the new capital clinic at the University of California-Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. But she will continue to raise funds for death penalty representation and plans to "hit California firms very hard."
For Doris Ng, a staff attorney for Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit women's law center in the San Francisco area, the battle is against sexism that prevents women from enjoying equal treatment in the workplace. Ng's clients demand access to opportunities that men claim; some, for example, want to be police officers and firefighters. "It's very gratifying to know that you can make a difference," Ng says.
Others agree, and also cite on-the-job factors that fuel their passion. For example, Epstein enjoys working with "smart, skilled attorneys dedicated to similar interests," as well as the challenge of handling "intense" cases and issues.
Getting a Head Start
You may know from your first day as a 1L that you're destined to follow in the footsteps of the attorneys profiled above. While enthusiasm is a great beginning, there are many concrete steps you can take during school to prepare for a public interest career. The more you distinguish yourself, the better. This is especially true in a field where funding constraints necessitate limited hiring. During your first year, you generally have little (if any) say in scheduling your classes. Focus on earning the best grades you can in such subjects as contracts, torts, civil procedure, and other 1L rites of passage. Law school grades will be a factor in whatever field you choose-and they often make or break perks such as fellowships, stipends, and clinic placements that can boost your public interest career. "It's kind of a myth that grades are not important, or not as important, in public interest law," says Malcolm Reilly, a 2L at Brooklyn Law School who co-chairs his school's public interest student group. "Grades are always important." After the first year, strike a balance between the core legal classes-evidence and corporations, for example-and classes that will help prepare you for public interest practice. "Take a diverse array of classes," says Joanne Kubiniec, a 2001 graduate of the University of Buffalo School of Law and former executive editor of the Buffalo Public Interest Law Journal. "Take classes that will be on the Bar, and expose yourself to everything." After all, before you can become a public interest lawyer, you have to become a lawyer. And that means passing the Bar-which poses the same challenge whether you're headed to a top-10 firm, the District Attorney's office, or the Legal Aid Society. Still, take advantage of relevant courses to gain exposure to interested faculty, and to keep yourself up-to-date on issues you will face as you begin your career. For example, students at American University's Washington College of Law may choose to add a seminar in human rights or postconviction remedies to their course selection. At Northwestern University's School of Law, students are offered public interest courses in such diverse subjects as refugee and asylum, prisoners' rights, and children's rights. Also, consider doing an independent study with a professor based on a specific public interest project.
Perhaps the best way to prepare for a public interest career is to participate in clinics during law school. Clinics allow law students to supplement their classroom learning with practical experience. And Reilly notes that public interest organizations-often underfunded and needing all the help they can get from qualified, eager students-are perfect for providing valuable hands-on experience.
"We did everything except represent our clients," says Lisa Taylor, a 2001 graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law, who was involved with a public interest and community service clinic. She researched and worked with cases involving employment discrimination, divorce, and child care for incarcerated mothers. Taylor-who is joining the Department of Justice as a civil rights attorney-praises her clinic not just for the career preparation it gave her but also for the inspirational opportunity to "translate the law" for clients who might otherwise have been left in the dark.
Formerly president of the membership council for the National Association of Public Interest Law (NAPIL), Taylor says she always knew she wanted to work at the Justice Department. She advises students to participate in public interest activities on campus, to submit case notes to public interest law journals across the country, and to join legal-oriented associations for both experience and leadership opportunities.
For example, students may wish to consider running for a position with the American Bar Association's Law Student Division, which elects a vice chair of student bar associations and three division delegates each summer. Applications are available at www.abanet.org/lsd and are due in June. Check out the "Student Organizing" section of the NAPIL page for more opportunities to connect with other public interest law students.
Competition for public interest jobs remains keen, partly because nonprofit employers have tight staffing budgets. A number of organizations, however, do fund attorneys who work in the public sector after graduation. NAPIL, for one, pays recent grads to work for two years on a project of their choosing or in an organization selected by NAPIL. See the "NAPIL Fellowships" section at www.napil.org for more information.
Some law firms also provide public service fellowships to top-notch students. The Skadden Fellowship Foundation, affiliated with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, has placed more than 300 law graduates and outgoing judicial clerks in public interest projects over the past 13 years. "We ask applicants to design their dream job, and we hope to be able to fund them," says Skadden Fellowship Foundation Director Susan Butler Plum.
Hired for a year-with the general expectation that the highly competitive and prestigious fellowship will be extended for a second year-Skadden fellows earn a $37,500 salary and get all the benefits normally granted to employees of the organization with which they work. Also, the firm pays fellows' law school loans (any that are not forgiven by the school; see sidebar) for the duration of the fellowship. Approximately 90 percent of Skadden fellows remain involved with public interest law after the completion of their term.
Skadden fellows work with a variety of organizations that provide civil legal services to the poor and disenfranchised; some examples from the class of 2001 are the Urban Justice Center, the NAACP, Disability Rights Advocates, the Juvenile Law Center, and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. About 25 fellows are chosen each year; applicants must have stellar transcripts and demonstrate a dedication to public service.
Several firms offer summer public interest fellowships. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius sponsors four such fellowships each year. Students chosen for these positions enjoy all of the experiences and perks their classmates get at firms across the country but devote half the summer to pro bono work on a project of their choice.
The Job Search
While judicial clerkships and public interest fellowships are popular stepping stones for public interest lawyers, these positions are not available to everyone. A little extra legwork can go a long way in the quest for fulfilling employment.
Job fairs provide an excellent opportunity to drop a slew of resumés and peek at available opportunities. Every fall, NAPIL sponsors a public interest law fair, the largest of its kind. Over 1,000 students flock to Washington, D.C., for the gala networking event, where they meet some 200-odd employers representing a nationwide mix of organizations.
Similar events are held by regional law schools. New York University holds the Public Interest and Public Service Legal Symposium; Suffolk University's Law School in Boston and the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in Philadelphia also host public service career programs, as do Georgetown and George Washington University in D.C. Those hoping to jump into the public sector should also trawl the Web: Though popular job search engines will yield some employment notices, there are a number of sites maintained specifically for public interest law positions. Check out the NAPIL Web site's "Jobs and Opportunities" section for a current listing.
Passion with a Price Tag?
Money is certainly a concern for graduates entering the public sector-especially those with considerable debts. Reilly, a 2L at Brooklyn Law School who moonlights as a regional coordinator at NAPIL, notes, "It's not really a legal issue, but a real-life issue."
Yet Epstein notes that the financial situation is not as dire as some people imagine. "The contrast is stark, because of how high law firm salaries are," she admits. "But it doesn't mean you'll be dirt poor." She assures idealists that paychecks are "pretty decent" for lawyers who work in government organizations. Work in a judge's chambers also helps fill the piggy bank: According to the NALP survey, 1999 grads who took on judicial clerkships earned an average of $38,000-not a sum to sneer at.
Tustin reminds recent grads that their careers will take them many places-so public interest law doesn't necessarily have to be the first stop. "What I think is most important is to keep your goal in sight. So if your end goal is to work for the public interest, get there," he says.
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