Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Public Interest" - The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

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".


  1. Once it gets to the point where someone will blush when saying to someone at a party (cocktail or random post-undergrad house party) that they go to law school, then the law school cartel will be really on the run. Basically you got to make impressionable people who know nothing think that when they hear someone say "I go to law school" that they think that the law student has no marketable skills, which is probably in many cases a fact. Basically people should be ashamed of making law school an option for themselves. Only those outside who go to Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and Standford should feel any security stating they go to law school. Everyone else should be looked down on. So many people go to law school because it reassures themselves socially that nothing is wrong with themselves because they can't find anything else to be good at and make a career out of. I think this is the case in many many cases.

  2. I see a lot of this from lower-tiered schools. I also see it from quite a few lower-first tier, and tier 2 schools.

    If the schools REALLY cared about producing attorneys who can represent the poor and the powerless, they would: (a) teach practical skills; (b) require at least one year of clinical training/experience (which would entail interviewing and meeting with actual clients, interviewing witnesses, going to court with them, filing motions; etc.); (c) teachers and administrators would take a large cut in pay - is there ANY reason why a legal theorist should be making more than $65K-$75K a year?; and (d) reduce tuition to reasonable levels, i.e. $10K-$15K per academic year.

    Reading parsed, appellate opinions, and covering relics such as RAP and caveat emptor DOES NOT help - in the slightest - a young lawyer to go out and help indigent people.

    Schools could also provide dorm rooms (or nearby, off-campus apartments or room rentals) for such students at reasonable prices, i.e. $350-$600 per month. Put them on affordable meal plans, too - like freshmen living in dorm rooms. (But at a better price.)

    The reality of the situation is this: schools recognize that the market is overflowing with JDs. Many of their graduates cannot find work - period! They are now encouraging and promoting "public service" to their students.

    The schools promote this, but yet the "professors" and administrators DO NOT follow this same advice. (Law school is a business, and like any business, it is ugly.) By their fruits, ye shall know them.

  3. When I was in law school a few years ago the PD's office was considered a "default" option to the point it was almost a joke. At any given time, there would be between 6 and 15 open PD spots listed on their website, and they would hire 3l's who were willing to live in the hills months before graduation.

    I went to law school to be a criminal attorney and planned on working there from the first day of school. After graduation though, I wound up taking a job as a prosecutor in a different jurisdiction instead, in no small part because it was considered so much more prestigious. (And now that I have all the power, pride, and glory of fighting crime just like they do on T.V., I'll never go back.)

    The point is that I still keep tabs on that PD office, thinking it's an option if my mother's guilt trip ever trumps the above and I want to move back near my family someday. For well over a year, that office hasn't posted more than three openings at a time, and there are very long periods where there is nothing at all available. And trust me, most of these offices are no place anyone wants to live.

    I think the idea that public service jobs were easy to get has always been a myth, but it does seem almost impossible now. Although, I don't really feel sorry for anyone who now laments that they can't "even" find a public interest job. People like that are the worst kind of douche bags, and real civil servants can spot them a mile away.

  4. From a reader:

    [This is] a link to a job posting on the ACLU website for an unpaid fellowship for law students/junior attorneys.

    In order for someone to do this they'd have to do it while in school or have some kind of income from another source. Is the ACLU posting this to target deferred BigLaw Associates?

    If so, it seems like lawyers are going to need BigLaw qualifications even to get unpaid positions. It's quite sad!


  5. Okay, taking ZERO regard for someone actually living some of this in picking lawyers is just stupid. A little off topic but in my own experiences, poor people neither trust nor want to talk to trust fund babies. They think you are patronizing, clueless & in the best cases, can't relate to them or their problems.

    If these organizations had a clue, they'd be recruting some people who actually CAME from the relevant backgrounds & could actually build trust in the client base. I take some issue with this as someone who's been around poor people, has faced bad situations personally, knows the mindset FAR better than your average Ivy League law graduate & even worked in a law school legal clinic. Count me in the group that hates patronizing BigLaw/Ivy League types who feel they're "lowering" themselves to work in public interest. No one I know cares about these peoples' whiny little problems, okay?

  6. I know a lot of blogs such as this one seem catered to TTT law grads. However, I know plenty of folks from top 14 law schools who are in the same position. If you didn't graduate in the top 50% of your class at a T14 school, your chances of getting a job in this economy are as small as someone who graduates in the top 25% from a TT or TTT school. Many grads from top law schools have been laid off and those who did not get good grades only have the luxury of bragging that they got into a T14 law school. They still owe mounds of debt and are sitting on their laurels at their parents' house. No one is safe in this economy outside of Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. And if you want to do public interest work you will still make $35k regardless of whether you graduated from Maryland or Michigan. The only difference might be that the higher ranked school offers a better loan forgiveness program.

  7. Another point I wanted to make is that there are people in this economy who are QUITTING their legal jobs because they really are that miserable. The lesson here is don't go to law school unless you know you have a type A personality who walks around with a stick up your ass and only cares about making money above your sanity, personal life, and family. Even if you do land a $160k/year job you have to ask yourself was it all worth it to spend 3 years being miserable only to hold your law firm job for 1-2 years only to pay off your loans and walk away virtually empty handed and starting off in a completely different job industry. The only winners in this situation are the law schools, the law profs, and the few who work long enough at a firm to see monetary profit at the loss of their marriage and/or the best years of their life.


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