How to Transition to Public Interest Law Later in Your Career

Often when I talk to students, I hear some variation of the following: “I am going to go work at a law firm to pay off my loans for a few years and then I will go do public interest work.” When I hear this, I try to let students know the obstacles they will encounter. It is not as easy as they think it will be.

From the students’ perspective, this decision makes a lot of sense. What’s the harm in going to work at a law firm for a couple of years when you can pay off your debt, get some good legal experience, and still spend most of your career in public interest? What is a few years in the grand scheme of things!

From the perspective of potential public interest employers, however, the decision is problematic. Perhaps most importantly, you have signaled that public interest work is not that important to you. If it were, you would have gone into public interest law right out of law school. Every public interest lawyer also has or had student loans and figured out a way to pay them without a law firm salary. They are not going to be sympathetic to the argument that you needed to pay off your loans. Public interest lawyers are a very judgmental bunch; don’t expect them to agree with your decision to make a lot of money.

As for that legal experience? Many public interest lawyers have a fairly low opinion of the training that law firm associates get in their first couple years. There is a belief, rightly or wrongly, that most new associates spend a lot of time doing grunt work before being given real responsibility. Public interest organizations can’t wait years before giving their attorneys such responsibility, and they have a high opinion of the training they provide.

Moreover, the skills you learn at a firm may not translate well.  Skills like how to do e-discovery are little used in public interest practice. Nor are you likely to have the chance to learn things like trauma-informed lawyering and how to work with people living in poverty. In addition, firm lawyers learn to practice law with almost limitless financial resources at their disposal. Public interest lawyering requires a different skill set.

So you should know that if you decide to go work at a law firm, you will face challenges getting a public interest job later on. What can you do to maximize your chances of a successful transition?

The first thing you should do is devote as much time as you can to doing pro bono work in the area that you eventually want to transition to. Firms vary widely in how they handle pro bono work. Some count pro bono hours towards the annual hours requirement. Others don’t. But in all firms, you will be getting pressure to do more paid work than you feel like you can comfortably do (it’s part of the business model). In this environment, it can feel like you simply don’t have time to add pro bono work on top of your other case load.

I get it, I really do. But you have to do it if you want to transition into public interest work later on. If you don’t have time for pro bono work, it signals to potential public interest employers that you simply don’t care enough. And because you went to work at a firm, they are already operating under that assumption. You come in at a disadvantage and you need to prove them wrong.

Next, you need to strategize ways to make connections with organizations that are working on issues you care about. Volunteer. Donate money. Go to annual fundraising galas and networking events. People are less likely to stereotype you as a corporate lawyer if they know you. They might even tell a hiring committee, “He does work at a firm, but I have met him and he’s committed to this work.” A single good word can do more than almost anything else.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, live frugally even though you are making lots of money. Pay off your loans quickly and transition to another job as soon as possible. (Living frugally will also make the transition to a public interest salary easier. Beware of the golden handcuffs.) In particular, avoid waiting to make the move when you are 5-7 years into your firm job. Public interest organizations know about the timeline for making partner. If you leave when other people are getting pushed out, organizations will assume you are just looking for a job and that you don’t really care about the work.

In sum, you can transition to public interest work later in your career, but don’t assume it will be easy. You should be planning your exit on the very first day of orientation.

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