Up to this point, we have discussed non-profit and government jobs as two common career paths for public interest lawyers. Today, I’ll tackle another path that often isn’t considered public interest work at all but that I think should be: social entrepreneurship. Simply put, social entrepreneurship is the idea that private companies can pursue profits while also contributing to the public good. In order to qualify as a public interest job, I think more than a nominal contribution to the public good is required. A company that donates a small portion of its profits to charity, without more, would not fit my definition of social entrepreneurship. Instead, I use the term to describe companies who exist primarily to make the world a better place, even if they make some money along the way.
Here are a few examples of companies operating in the social entrepreneurship space:
734 is an online coffee distributer that works with local growers in Sudan to source fair trade coffee and then invests profits into scholarships and education programs for Sudanese refugees. The company no doubt has at least one lawyer on payroll. Is that lawyer practicing public interest law? You bet.
Arcadia describes itself as “a tech company empowering energy innovators and consumers to fight the climate crisis.” It connects renewable energy sources to the electric grid using consumer demand. At core, the company’s mission seems to be to fight the climate crisis by investing renewable energy. Is a lawyer working for Arcadia a public interest lawyer? I would argue yes.
GoldieBlox is a company that designs STEM products for girls in order to encourage and promote gender parity in STEM fields. Though it’s immediate goal is to sell products, its long-term goals include helping more girls and women go into STEM fields. A lawyer working for GoldieBlox may not be doing traditional public interest work, but does her work contribute to the public good? Absolutely!
You probably have quibbles about whether one or all of these examples should be considered public interest lawyering. It’s true that some companies who claim to be doing good are not actually doing good, and not every lawyer working for these companies is doing good even if the company as a whole is. But these same critiques could be lobbed at non-profit organizations or government attorneys too. There are people pretending to do good everywhere. I would also urge you not to dismiss these companies solely because they are for-profit endeavors. We need a big tent to solve our social problems and we should welcome people who approach problems in different ways.
Like all kinds of public interest lawyering we have discussed, there are pros and cons to going this route. The pros are apparent –in most cases, private companies will pay more than non-profits or governments. If your position comes with stock options or other profit-sharing agreements, you could make a lot more. Being a social entrepreneur also allows you to be more creative than you can often be when taking on traditional lawyering roles.
Because these companies tend to be small, the lawyers who work for them may be asked to take on a variety of legal and non-legal roles. For that reason, these jobs might appeal to lawyers who are less keen on litigating or lawyering in general. They allow lawyers to use their legal training in a way that doesn’t always look like traditional lawyering. If you want to be a public interest lawyer, but feel that your skillset is well suited for business pursuits, this could be the place for you.
The most obvious downside is that when you are working for a private company, it is difficult not to let profits drive your decision-making, and there is always the danger that your commitment to the public good will melt away when profits are on the line. Moreover, even a limited commitment to profits could restrict the amount of good you can do. When you try to serve two masters, one often gets the short end of the stick. In business, profits tend to win out over principles.
Social entrepreneurship also requires a certain tolerance of risk that most lawyers don’t need to have. Start-ups fail and companies go bankrupt. Ideas that seem good sometimes don’t pan out. Sure, non-profits and law firms can also go under, but they usually don’t. Businesses fail all the time.
Another con is that unlike other types of public interest jobs, there is no clear pipeline from law school into these positions. Getting one may require spending a few years getting experience and then a few more pounding the pavement looking for a good fit. The best way to figure out a way into the industry is, as always, to find mentors who have made the journey before you. Your career development office probably knows which alumni are working in social entrepreneurship positions. That’s a good place to start.
If you can overcome these obstacles, however, social entrepreneurship can be an excellent way to use your law degree for good.