Private Public Interest Law Firms

So far, I have discussed non-profit organizations, government jobs, and social entrepreneurship as different ways to practice public interest law. Today, I want to discuss private public interest law firms.

At core, most private law firms are mercenary – they work for whomever will pay their rates. There may be limits to this, of course. Corporate law firms can and do turn down work that would require them to advocate for repugnant clients or take abhorrent legal positions (especially if such work would exact a reputational cost), but that is not primarily the way they make decisions about what work to take on. And, regardless of whether they can turn down repugnant clients, they often don’t. Just look at the list of well-regarded law firms that represented former President Trump in his pernicious and quixotic quest to overturn the democratic results of the 2020 election.

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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!

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Law School Extra-Curriculars: Moot Court, Affinity Groups, and Volunteer Work

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.

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You Should Believe in What You Do

In Code of Capital, Katerina Pistor writes about how one of the fundamental objectives of law is to create and protect wealth, and that lawyers are the skilled craftspeople who engineer this process. “Lawyers,” she writes, “are commonly described as legal service providers. This description, however, greatly understates the contribution that lawyers make in the coding of capital, and through it, to the creation and distribution of wealth in society.”

Not all law firm work meets this description, but a lot of it does. It makes sense when you think about it. Why would anyone pay a 25-year-old right out of law school $180K a year if they weren’t making someone richer? Most people I know didn’t go to law school to make rich people and corporations more money. And yet, that is largely what they ended up doing.

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