Becoming a Public Interest Lawyer now available

Great news! My book, Becoming a Public Interest Lawyer, is now for sale. Here is the book description:

Becoming a Public Interest Lawyer is a comprehensive guide for prospective, current, and recently-graduated law students who want a career in public interest law. It helps students decide which kind of public interest job is right for them and then gives them the tools and information they need to land their dream job. It provides candid, practical advice on how to choose a law school, survive the first year, develop a resume, search for a job, and manage student debt. Extended sections cover summer internships, public interest fellowships, law school extracurricular activities, and life after law school as a public interest lawyer. It is written for those who want to use their law degree to do good in the world but who need help charting their path. Anyone can have a meaningful, successful public interest legal career. This book lights the way.

You can order it directly from West Academic or from Amazon. As always, I welcome feedback on my contact page.

Public Interest Lawyers Deserve Debt Relief

Joe Biden announced his student loan forgiveness plan and there is some good news for public interest students and lawyers. Earlier reporting suggested that Biden might exclude law school and medical school debt, which possibly made sense from a politics standpoint but would have been terrible policy. Because of the $125K income cap, the people with law school debt most likely to qualify under the program are those who went to law school but are not practicing law and public interest lawyers, both of which deserve debt relief.

The first group is undeniably in need of help. Not everyone who goes to law school becomes a lawyer. In 2020, only 72% of law graduates were able to secure a job that required a law degree ten months after graduation. One study found that twenty percent of 2010 law school graduates were still working in non-legal jobs five years later. At some schools, the percentage of graduates who snag legal jobs is lower still. Some of the lowest ranked law schools have bar passage rates below sixty percent.

Moreover, certain groups are disproportionately likely to fail the bar examination. Only 79% of black bar applicants have passed the bar examination two years after graduation, as opposed to 93% of white applicants. These statistics do not even take into account students who drop-out before getting their degree. More than 9 in 10 law students at unaccredited California schools drop out before graduation. Nationwide, the attrition rate is seven percent. In other words, many people with law school debt are not lawyers and never will be.

Public interest lawyers also deserve debt relief. Lawyers working at public interest organizations have an average starting salary of $63,000 and it is rare for them to make more than $125,000. Yet they often have the same debt burden as firm lawyers making upwards of $200,000 their first year out of law school. Despite that salary differential, many law students would prefer to take public interest jobs. High student loan payments can make that choice untenable.

We should reward people who choose lower-paid, socially-valuable jobs, not penalize them. Excluding public interest lawyers from debt relief would have sent a signal that they chose wrong and that they should have either taken a corporate job or forgone law school altogether. There was no suggestion that Biden exclude other people who chose poorly-compensated but important occupations such as social work or teaching. The same logic applies to public interest lawyers.

At the end of the day, $10K is unlikely to be transformative for most public interest lawyers given that the average law school debt is in the six digits, but it is something.

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.

Continue reading “Private Public Interest Law Firms”

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!

Continue reading “How to Transition to Public Interest Law Later in Your Career”

How to Avoid Burnout

It’s the time of year when law students are finishing their final exams and many are returning home for a few weeks of R&R before spring semester starts. This year, my students seemed more stressed than usual, probably in part because the pandemic won’t seem to go away. We powered through for awhile, but many people – including me! – are hitting a breaking point.

Continue reading “How to Avoid Burnout”