Affording Public Interest Law

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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The Moving Walkway

In the last post, I set up a dilemma. Why do a majority of prospective law students say they want to go into public interest law, but only a tiny sliver do after law school? I posited that there were three factors at play – culture, personality, and financial necessity.

Today, I’ll discuss law school culture and how it encourages students to give up on their public interest dreams. I liken it to a moving walkway that students step on as soon as they enter their first year that leads them to take certain jobs after law school. Students step on the moving walkway for several reasons – everyone else is stepping on, the school is encouraging it, and, well, it’s easier than forging your own path.

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Why People Give Up on Their Public Interest Dreams

I came to law school planning to go into public interest law. Fifteen years later, I have worked for the government (clerking), a non-profit, and at three universities practicing and teaching public interest law. I have never worked at a law firm, even for a summer.

But I can’t say I wasn’t tempted.

Before I explain, you should know a few things about me. First, I have never been particularly motivated by money. Second, I really hate working hard for things I don’t care about. I would find it very hard to put in law firm hours without a clear sense of purpose (and that purpose would have to be something greater than my own ambition, accomplishments, or bank account). Clearly, I was not destined to become a law firm partner.

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Welcome to Blog for the Public Good

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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