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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I Want to Be a Public Interest Lawyer – How Should I Decide Where to Go to Law School? (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about some of the factors that might cause you to choose a lower-ranked law school over a higher-ranked one: specialized curricula and a strong public interest program. Two additional factors you might want to consider are geography and financial aid.

Geography

Let’s say that you are from St. Louis and you want to move back there after graduation, The two schools you are choosing between are St. Louis University and Emory University, a better-ranked law school in Atlanta, Georgia, a place you have no interest in living after graduation. Which law school should you chose? How much does geography matter?

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I Want to Be a Public Interest Lawyer. How Do I Decide Where to Go to Law School? (Part 1)

I get this question a lot, and to some extent the answer is the same as the one I would give to anyone deciding where to go to law school. The legal profession is very focused on status, prestige, and credentialing. The law school you attend matters. This is true no matter whether you want to work for the U.S. government, a big law firm, or legal aid. In general, the higher ranked your law school is, the more opportunities you will have after law school. No, I do not think this is how it should work, but it will not help anyone to pretend this is not the case. The rankings that almost everyone uses are those published each year by U.S. News and World Report. Everyone recognizes that these rankings are flawed, but that does not stop employers from making hiring decisions based on them.

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What Is Public Interest Lawyering?

Because this blog is about public interest lawyering, it is important to define what exactly I mean by the term. We could define it as all legal work not done for a remunerative purpose, but rather to achieve some other goal. This definition is convenient if we want to ignore the fact that people disagree about what is in the public interest.

Take abortion rights as an example. Pro-choice lawyers spend their careers fighting to protect and expand abortion rights. Pro-life advocates spend their careers trying to cut back and eliminate abortion rights. Under this first definition of public interest lawyering, both sides could be engaging in public interest lawyering, even though they seek to achieve diametrically opposed goals. In both cases, it is not money that motivates the lawyers, but principles of equality and justice. They simply happen to disagree about how to interpret what those principles mean.

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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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