I have talked about how you should prepare for law school and the factors you should consider when deciding where to go to law school. In this post, I am going to discuss how you should spend your time in law school if you want to set yourself up for a public interest career. In short, you should spend your time in law school getting experience, proving your passion, and making connections.
The most important thing you can do as an aspiring public interest lawyer is getting real legal experience. It used to be possible to graduate from law school without ever having done any real legal work. That is less true now―the American Bar Association now requires six experiential credits to graduate from ABA-accredited schools―but you should still should work to get as much experience as possible. The reason is simple: public interest organizations cannot afford to hire attorneys that are not “practice ready.” They may only hire one or two attorneys a year depending on the size of the organization, and most work on lean budgets that don’t leave room for dead weight. When hiring, they are looking for attorneys who have the experience to start contributing immediately. That puts new lawyers at a disadvantage, but you can mitigate this disadvantage this by getting as much experience as possible in law school.
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A few years after I had graduated law school, my husband (also a public interest lawyer) and I were sitting at an upscale restaurant in New York City with another couple who were both lawyers working at big law firms. As we drank our second glasses of wine, one of them asked me about my work. I began telling them about a case I was litigating against the consul general of a foreign state who had subjected one of his domestic employees to indentured servitude. There were many twists and turns in the story involving diplomatic immunity and the State Department and an opposing counsel prone to violent outbursts when he was losing.
The couple listened intently. At the end of the story, the wife said, “your work sounds so interesting and important. I am so jealous.” “Many people transition from law firms to public interest jobs,” I said and I started to talk about the people I knew who had made the switch. But she shook her head and said, “we could never afford it. It’s so expensive to live in the city.”
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Welcome to Blog For the Public Good, a blog about public interest lawyering! My name is Nicole Hallett and I am a public interest lawyer and a clinical professor at the University of Chicago Law School. One of the things I enjoy most about my job is helping other people find rewarding and challenging careers in public interest law. I enjoy it because I believe that public interest law is an extremely fulfilling career path but also because I think public interest lawyering plays an important role in the fight for a just society.
When I applied to law school, I knew I wanted to use my law degree to help people and I assumed law school would give me the skills to do that. But beyond that, I knew very little. I had no idea how I should choose a law school or the challenges I would face in law school and beyond. I muddled through with a lot of mentorship and some luck, and I saw classmates do the same. Now, I speak to lots of young people — aspiring lawyers, law students, and young lawyers — who have many of the same questions I did. When I first started getting these questions, I felt unequipped to answer them. After all, I was only a few years out of law school. But thirteen years into my legal career and eleven years into my career teaching and advising students, I now feel qualified to help. I spend hours every week sharing what I know with people who come to me for advice.
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