In my last post, I discussed whether public interest students should do law review (my answer was a qualified no). Today, I’ll discuss some of the other extra-curriculars you will have the opportunity to participate in: moot court, affinity groups, student government, and volunteer opportunities being the major ones. In order to evaluate these opportunities, recall the three goals every public interest law student should have: getting real legal experience, proving your passion for public interest work, and making connections that will help you get a job.
Let’s take moot court first. You may think that moot court is essentially like getting real legal experience because you are learning how to write an appellate brief and do an oral argument. Except that moot court isn’t real, and doesn’t really approximate actual legal work. Real lawyering is messy. It is not wrapped up for you in a tidy package. The record below is often voluminous and complicated. There sometimes is not applicable case law to draw from. If there is case law, it may be convoluted and contradictory. And then there is the little matter of actually having a client.
If you want to do appellate litigation after law school, you should absolutely do moot court because it may be difficult to get real appellate experience as a law student. But most public interest lawyers do not focus on appellate practice, at least not exclusively. Perhaps more importantly, public interest employers will not view moot court as real legal experience. Unless you win the competition (and let’s be honest, you probably won’t), you’re unlikely to see a career benefit at all.
The same goes for trial team, or trial advocacy as it is called at some schools. If you can take moot court or trial team as a course that takes the place of a lecture course or two, then do it. You will probably get more out of it that your typical law school course. But I wouldn’t do it as an extra-curricular unless you are planning on dedicating yourself to appellate litigation.
Student government is another activity that law students often devote time to. It is basically like student council in high school, except that instead of ice cream socials and car washes, they plan happy hours and networking events. Let me be blunt: student government is a waste of your time. You may think that it will be a good way to make connections with faculty or alumni, and that very well may be true depending on your school. But in my experience, the connections you will make are much more likely to be in the private sector. I have never met a public interest lawyer who was very involved in student government in law school (perhaps because they had more important things to do). And while organizing raffles and planning social events may be good leadership experience in high school, it doesn’t really teach you anything about being a lawyer. Go to the events they plan if you want to network; don’t waste your time planning them.
Counterintuitively, the calculus is different for affinity groups, such as groups for female law students, students of color, or LGBTQ students. Public interest law disproportionately attracts women and people of color, and thus, aspiring public interest lawyers are more likely to make worthwhile connections through affinity groups than through student government. In addition, affinity groups can be places of support and mentorship for law students who might otherwise feel alienated in law school, which is more likely to describe law students from underrepresented groups. Finally, having an affinity group on your resume will signal your identity to public interest organizations who are committed to hiring diverse staff, and may give you an advantage on the job market. (Although it should be said that there are many situations where identifying yourself as a member of an underrepresented group would be a disadvantage).
Many law students also do volunteer work, both law-related and not. Although it is hard to generalize, law-related volunteer experience is generally a worthwhile and strategic way to spend your extra time in law school. Not only are you getting real legal experience, but you are proving your passion by engaging in pro bono work before graduation. Non-legal volunteer work may also show commitment, especially if it is related to the area of law you eventually want to practice. For instance, teaching an art history class at a local prison isn’t legal work per se, but it might help you demonstrate your commitment if you want to be a prisoners’ rights lawyer. Volunteering at a domestic violence shelter could benefit a law student planning on representing domestic violence victims after law school. And, of course, volunteer work is valuable even if it doesn’t give you a career advantage, something you would be hard-pressed to say about moot court or student government.
The bottom line is that you have limited time in law school, and you shouldn’t let yourself get caught up in doing something just because everyone else is. Use your time wisely in order to set yourself up for a public interest career.