I assume that if you’re reading this blog, you are at least considering a career in public interest law, but you may be wondering how to make the decision about what kind of public interest law you want to practice. Many law students focus on figuring out what area of law they are interested in or what problem in the world they want to try to solve. That’s important, because you want to be passionate about your work. But it’s not the only question you should be asking. You also want to find a job that you enjoy doing day-to-day, that plays to your strengths, and that minimizes work that drains or bores you. Many jobs sound better in theory than in practice. A job you never seriously considered may end up being perfect for you. That’s why you’ll want to spend your law school years trying out different jobs to see what works for you. Here are some questions to ask yourself when evaluating the different kinds of public interest jobs:
(1) What are you happiest spending your days doing? If you are a social butterfly, you won’t be happy as a solo practitioner. If you are painfully shy, a job that requires you to stand up in court every day might not be a good fit. If you hate writing, being an appellate lawyer is going to be challenging. If it drains you to meet with people all day, you might not want to become a legal services attorney. It doesn’t matter how important you think the work is if you aren’t happy doing it.
(2) What are your strengths? We should always be pushing ourselves to try hard things, but you will make yourself miserable if you pick a job that does not play to your strengths. There is a lot of good work to do out there to do (more work than can possibly be done), so pick something where you can make a difference.
(3) What annoyances are manageable, and which aren’t? Every job has things about it that are tedious and that you would rather not do. Your job is to figure out which jobs have annoyances that you can tolerate, and which jobs have annoyances you cannot. For example, many lawyers who work in non-profits have to do fundraising, and very few people enjoy fundraising. Private-public interest law firms will require you to bill your time, which no one enjoys. Working for the government involves all sorts of bureaucracy and red tape. Being a social entrepreneur might require you to become more well versed in accounting and tax law. Being a clinical professor has its annoyances too, like how students drop off the face of the earth when finals roll around. There is no perfect job, so you should find a job that is imperfect in the way that is right for you.
(4) What kind of change do you want make in the world? Not every public interest lawyer changes the world in the same way. Let’s say that you are very interested in housing justice. Do you want to help tenants avoid evictions? Do you want to work with developers to build affordable housing units? Do you want to pass legislation strengthening tenants’ rights? Do you want to abolish private property? Each of those projects is going to lead to very different work even if the goal – “housing justice”– is the same.
In future posts, I will be discussing different kinds of public interest law: legal services, impact litigation, movement lawyering, policy work, government work, private-public interest law firms, academia, and social entrepreneurship. I will also have guest bloggers writing about these different public interest career paths.
It might take some trial and error to find the right path for you, but it’s important to keep trying until you do. You’ll be much happier and be able to make a much bigger contribution to the public good when you find your calling.