For those fearing a screed against pro-bono or public interest legal services, fear not. I put the term in quotes for a reason.
Martin Luther King day is often touted by some activists as "A Day On, Not a Day Off". (Thanks to law school and the recession, every day is a "day off" for me.) As my belated public service for the holiday, let me take some time to warn you about the tantalizing allure of going to law school to pursue a public service career.
You see, with an overall saturated legal market and a recession that has hit the legal industry particularly hard, the days of law schools (particularly those near the bottom) being able to enroll students with promises of solid (if not astronomical) starting salaries may be nearing its end. This means the schools may have to eventually shift their marketing campaigns.
One tactic that has begun to take shape is the idea that public interest law is a viable alternative for those unqualified for or uninterested in the private firm route.
The best example of this is the University of Massachusetts' justification for acquiring one of the Bay State's two unaccredited TTTTT law schools (Southeastern Law). Tuition will supposedly be set at a "bargain basement" price of around $20k. Not exactly a steal (at least on the consumer's end), but UMass claims this will allow its student to pursue careers in public interest law.
I'll leave it to you to figure out exactly how borrowing $60k in tuition plus living expenses in costly Massachusetts translates into the ability to take a post-law school vow of poverty.
This little wrinkle aside, there's a larger fallacy at play here: The notion that public interest jobs are some sort of default for any TTT graduate who's not particularly interested in raking in the dough. The implication is that the only thing stopping the rest of us cold-hearted ghouls from being public interest lawyers is our lust for filthy lucre.
Right. Does anyone think that the sorry schlubs from Suffolk or other local TTT's are working at the local Burger King because the smell of flame broiled all beef patties beats helping out poor people? "Boy, it's pretty embarrassing wearing a paper hat and serving up Whoppers, but anything is better than doing public interest work."
Of course not. The reason why such graduates languish unemployed or underemployed rather than become public interest attorneys is because these positions are just as competitive as more lucrative private positions.
Don't believe me? Well, my half decent T2 school had a special program for a select group of public interest students. Essentially, they got either full or partial scholarships in return for a promise that they'd spend a certain amount of time after graduation in public interest jobs. Here's the rub, they only needed to spend part of the period actually in public interest jobs. I can't remember the breakdown, but it was something like five of the first seven years post graduation.
The reason? Because public interest jobs are so hard to come by even for good students. These students were selected based upon their high LSAT scores, GPA, essays, and dedication to service. They most likely did well in law school. These were not UMass' envisioned TTTTT flunkies trying to enter public interest law by default.
I saw a number of students with good grades and solid public service credentials pour their hearts into applications and essays to get grants for public interest work only to get rejected left and right. The US government's honors program is just as competitive as any big law SA program, and even DA and PD jobs are no longer as accessible as they used to be except for maybe some sparsely populated areas (i.e. not MA or NYC).
We hear quite a bit about how so many people could use the assistance of legal counsel who can't afford it. Surely there must be plenty of demand for public interest lawyers. Yes, if you're willing to give your services away. The problem is that many recent grads (as well as plenty of more seasoned attorneys) aren't that much better off financially than these needy clients. Few organizations/agencies are willing to pay us to provide this legal support, so we can't afford to be public interest attorneys.
It's kind of like the constant attempts by people to procure free legal advice. I could have a great solo practice if all I did was dole out free legal advice to people. Of course, once I ask for any money, these "clients" would decide that they can just figure things out themselves.
Pro-bono service and helping your friends out with legal issues is nice, but sadly, "good will" is not part of the Sallie Mae lexicon, and having a big heart won't stop them from breaking your knees (or put food in your belly).
If you're wealthy beyond your dreams and want to get a law degree to do good for the less fortunate or you're so enlightened that you eschew the material things of this world (and can live with your parents for life), then you'll have plenty of opportunities to help people out.
If, however, you're a normal person who is somewhat attached to the idea of living under a roof, having running water, and eating, don't fall for the law schools' promises of public interest work - unless you consider helping a law school dean make his mortgage payments on his third house to be in the "public interest".