By Carol Simpson • September 16, 2007•Nonprofits and the Public Interest
My summer internship is over. I spent 10 weeks totally immersed in public interest law, and as a result I have completely changed what I had so carefully planned to do after graduation. No longer do I plan to remain an academic, nor do I wish to pursue a job at a large firm. More than likely I will open a solo practice so I can do public interest law.
Some of this change may also go back to how I got to attend law school. Just at the time I was preparing to take the LSAT, my younger son, then 24, became ill. After three weeks in the hospital, and a few more at home, he died. Losing a child is the most horrible thing that can happen to a parent, but the day was surreal that the insurance agent came to my home to deliver a check for the proceeds of the life insurance policy I had on each of my children. What can you do with that sort of money? You certainly can’t take a vacation, or buy a car. The check sat on the coffee table for over a week. I had to recruit a friend to help me get the check in the bank before my cat chewed it up.
The money sat in my bank account, an obscene reminder that a parent should never have to bury a child. I followed through that fall, zombie-like, filling out law school applications, and completing my tenure packet for my academic job. When I started to get law school acceptances, I had an epiphany: the money would let me attend law school with the idea that I could help others, in my son’s name. The money wasn’t so much a payment for his life, but a new lease on mine so that I might turn what was a tragedy into a victory. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that, but I had confidence that I would find out along the way.
The path became clear during the summer. Starting with a first amendment case, I spent the summer hip-deep in civil rights litigation. The plaintiffs are poor, and their opponents are powerful. Official oppression, on both a local and national level, deprived these plaintiffs of fundamental rights. Looking at the case law and reading the opinions of great Supreme Court justices brought the issues into focus. I may be a novice legal intern, but I could see the problem and identify the legal remedies. Crafting the arguments was a joy! The high point of my summer was hearing the words of my argument come out of the mouth of a federal judge as she explained to the defendants why their rationale had no merit.
But as elated as I was that day, the reality is that public interest organizations have few jobs for entry level lawyers. I was fortunate that our organization offered weekly discussions with local attorneys who work in or with public interest organizations in town. One consulting attorney came to talk to us about how she got her start in public interest law. Straight out of law school, and for about eight years, she had her own practice in family law and criminal defense. She explained how to keep a roof over your head and food on the table while practicing law, and still having enough time to give significant hours to local public interest organizations. She now works full time in public interest law thanks to the experience she got in those early years.
When I started law school I would never have considered having my own firm, much less doing full time public interest law. I wanted to do intellectual property or nothing. And while I still get a lot of intellectual satisfaction in working through a complex copyright problem, nothing will replace the gratitude of a public interest plaintiff when you fight for their rights being denied by some governmental entity. So I thank MsJD for the opportunity to serve in this public interest internship, and I also thank them for the opportunity to put my future legal career into focus. I think my son would approve.