"Selling" public interest jobs

Written by Jeannine Bell

Photo Credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert

Every year I’m approached by students who have an interest in public service.   Though I myself am quite public-service minded–I’ve spent some time working with nonprofits, I know several public interest lawyers and I believe fervently in doing this work, whenever I’m asked about this, my heart sinks. I prepare myself for a difficult conversation and a student who is about to be disappointed. The students that approach me often think that they can save the world and get paid quite well for it. Like other students they also think that most of the time they spent in practice will be working directly as a crusader for whatever cause they are supporting.  From what I know about the law practices of many public interest lawyers this, like many dreams that law students have, is simply unrealistic. I want to encourage them, though, and am torn about what to say. In part to sound encouraging, when asked about civil rights job opportunities, I always speak broadly trying to represent the full scope of what students could possibly do, from working for the federal government to working as a private civil rights lawyer. I do try gently to alert them to some of the challenges–these jobs are competitive just like getting a job at a “regular” law firm (I actually think they are more competitive, but that’s neither here nor there) and that these jobs are not especially well-paid. This latter issue, the issue of pay, is most disappointing to students that I encounter.  My most recent insight about this has been to say that if you really want to do pro bono work, it is easier and cheaper, I think, in the long run to get comfortable with the fact that it does not pay well rather than chase a job that does pay well. I don’t know if students find this satisfying, but it’s what I’ve come up with.