Keeping the Fire Alive: Lawyering in the Public Interest

As someone deeply passionate about social justice and public interest lawyering, I have found Bill Quigley’s “Letter to a Law Student,” particularly telling and poignant.  Quigley notes that “justice is a counter-cultural value in our legal profession,” and that a social justice student “cannot be afraid to be different than others in law school or the profession.”

Quigley’s words have rang true for me: becoming a social justice lawyer can at times be challenging and isolating, and yet fulfilling beyond words.  As a law student, my most memorable moments have been at the intersection of social justice and the law: being able to stand up in court and argue on behalf of a survivor of domestic violence in her family law case, working with a refugee on his immigration case, or conducting human rights research and advocacy from Sierra Leone to India.  My experiences in law school have only taught me to think more critically about social justice lawyering.  This work can be a challenge: it forces you to think on your feet, can be emotionally draining, exposes you to ethical questions and quandaries, and requires you to grapple with complexity.  You realize that nothing is quite simple; no problem is so easily solved. You lose some idealism, but you gain in critical insight and wisdom.

Maintaining this commitment throughout law school and afterwards is not easy.  As Bill Quigley describes very aptly, “[t]hose who practice social justice law are essentially swimming upstream while others are on their way down.”  Public interest careers are often harder to get into, and the process is not quite so streamlined as other paths within the law. You have to be comfortable with uncertainty, risk, and lower salaries to do this work. Here are a few tips to keep the fire alive.

Know what you want to do:  Perhaps most important is to come to law school already with an idea of what kind of public interest career you hope to enter after law school.  Do you want to represent asylum seekers?  Defend tenants in housing cases?  Impact litigation? International human rights work?  Knowing precisely what you want to do after law school will ensure you can craft your path appropriately and maximize your practical experiences in law school to help you build the most relevant skills, experiences, and connections.  Law school is not always the best place to begin exploring your interests; while it seems long, the three years will fly by.  Each semester and each summer are crucial opportunities to develop skills in the field that interests you.  So, this means that developing as much experience before law school, doing your research, and choosing a path to pursue within public interest will be an incredible asset.

Choose the right law school:  If you know public interest law is for you, choosing the right law school can make all the difference.  Is the school one that seems committed to fostering a great environment for public interest students?  Ask the right questions before you commit.  Make sure your law school has a great loan repayment program for public interest, funding for two summers of public interest summer jobs, clinics in the areas of law you’re interested in, and a robust public interest and fellowships career services office.  A lot of schools now have their own post-graduate public interest fellowship funding to ensure that you can launch your career in the area you want; this should be a key priority to look into.  Make sure the funding opportunities exist to allow you to launch your public interest career.

Once you're there:  Once you're in law school, perhaps the most important thing I’ve found is to get as much clinical and internship experience as you can in the fields you’re interested in.  Practical experience already working with clients in immigration cases or doing trial work will be an incredible asset if you’re applying to jobs and fellowships in that area, for instance. Spend almost every semester and summer doing work in the field you’re interested in, and get that concrete experience to build your skills and track record.  Clinical and practical experience can often be far more important than grades in the social justice space!

Second, find your mentors. Clinic and internship work in particular can help you develop connections and find supervisors who have seen your work and can serve as mentors and recommenders. This will prove important if you apply for post-graduate fellowships.

And finally, find a community that inspires you and keeps you grounded. Find likeminded students, staff, and professors interested in public interest work, whether through your sections, classes, or clinics.  This will keep you passionate when it gets hard, and give you a strong support system that will help you make it through the uncertainty of it all.

Ultimately, doing public interest work as a lawyer can be challenging, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Be prepared to be uncomfortable, and to swim upstream – but also know that this work can teach you the most, and give you immeasurable joy, inspiration, and solidarity. 

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