Why People Give Up on Their Public Interest Dreams

I came to law school planning to go into public interest law. Fifteen years later, I have worked for the government (clerking), a non-profit, and at three universities practicing and teaching public interest law. I have never worked at a law firm, even for a summer.

But I can’t say I wasn’t tempted.

Before I explain, you should know a few things about me. First, I have never been particularly motivated by money. Second, I really hate working hard for things I don’t care about. I would find it very hard to put in law firm hours without a clear sense of purpose (and that purpose would have to be something greater than my own ambition, accomplishments, or bank account). Clearly, I was not destined to become a law firm partner.

When I was deciding to go to law school, it did not occur to me that lawyers could make a lot of money. I chose law school over graduate school because I wanted to get a degree that would give me practical skills that I could use to help people. I knew very little about the legal market or corporate law firms. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what the average salary for a lawyer was. I had given very little thought to how I was going to pay off my law schools loans. (This is a bad idea. I’m just telling you so that you can understand what my mindset was).

And yet, during law school I flirted with the idea of abandoning public interest and going to work for a law firm.

It might have had something to do with the fancy recruiting dinners and cocktail events that firms threw on campus. Perhaps it was realizing just how much money per week you could make as a summer associate. Or maybe it was the fact that all of my classmates were immediately obsessed with landing offers from the most prestigious firms. It was hard to resist.

I didn’t apply for any law firm summer jobs during my 1L year, but by my second year, I was beginning to wonder whether I should at least explore working for a law firm. I participated in the on-campus interviewing program during the fall of my second year. I did a couple of callbacks and I even got an offer from a top law firm in New York.

I went through the process half-heartedly. Sometimes, I lied about my interests. Other times, I told the truth as a kind of social experiment to see how my interviewers responded. It was largely an unpleasant experience and to this day, I am not entirely sure why I did it.

The interview process confirmed for me that I didn’t want to go into corporate law. Two moments really stood out to me. The first was a partner telling me that they didn’t really care if I wanted to work there as long as I stayed a couple of years and worked hard because “most associates don’t make partner anyway.” The other was an associate who, when I told her about what I was really interested in, said, “Don’t come here. You’ll be miserable.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

I turned down the offer and took an (unpaid) internship at the ACLU. It was the best decision I ever made and I have not, even once, regretted it.

And yet, many of my classmates made different decisions. Most people I knew came in wanting to go work in government or do some kind of public interest work. A few came to law school wanting to be academics. Almost no one I knew came to law school wanting to become a law firm partner. And yet, upon graduation, many of those people ended up at law firms. Quite a few are still there.

So what happened? I’ll be exploring this question in more detail in future posts, but I believe the short answer is: culture, personality, and financial necessity.

Check back for more in a few days.

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