Pipe Dreams and Pumps: One Public Interest Law Student’s Two-Sided Story

When I decided to go to law school, I knew I wanted to help people. I wanted to be what they call a “public interest student.” For me, law school was a magic place where I could acquire a particularized skill set in order to help more people more effectively. It never occurred to me (a first-generation law student from Missouri) that people attended law school to do anything else. I capitalized on my experience studying and teaching abroad and working with juvenile sex offenders to create the most compelling personal statement I could dream up, and I was off to the races. I applied to schools with strong human rights programs and picked the one that fit the best.

But as I moved along the law school conveyor belt, I felt myself becoming increasingly unmoored from my purpose. I applied to 25+ law firms during On Campus Interviewing my second year, did a handful of call back interviews, missed countless classes and came out with no offers. Interestingly, no one shook me and said, “Hey! Remember why you came here? Why are you applying to private practice? You didn’t even know what a law firm was six months ago!” And I certainly didn’t pick my head up to think about it on my own. I had convinced myself that after working with trauma-affected populations, I had had enough. The stories were too sad, the need was too great, and I just wanted more “professional distance” from the human services front-line. But sometimes, decisions make you.

Truth be told, my resume contained zero lines on it that indicated in any way that I was interested in private practice. I spent my first summer working for a small community-based non-profit in Chicago, so even while I wavered, my resume kept telling a consistent story, and that story was not that my dream was to work for a Big Law firm. So, after licking my wounds from the onslaught of rejections and empty platitudes and (in some cases) radio silence from firms I interviewed with, I began to wonder if this was going to be a decision that made me.

After OCI, there just isn’t a “path of least resistance” for summer employment for second year law students, let alone a clear path into public interest work. And career development offices are not as well equipped to help those students. So, I didn’t even think about applying again for 2L summer jobs until winter break. Instead, I started talking a big game with my professors. I told them I was interested in criminal law, human rights, human trafficking, international work, and anything in between. I took all the human rights classes I could handle and began building relationships with the professors that could advocate for me most effectively in those fields. And eventually, a professor took me aside and said there was someone coming to campus he wanted me to meet, an alumnus who at the time worked in the Office of International Affairs at the Department of Justice. After fan-girling for a hot second, I collected myself and said I would be delighted to meet him. This alumna told me about the volunteer internships the DOJ has every year, directed me to the website, and said apply to anything and everything that looks even remotely interesting and that’s exactly what I did. Over winter break I accepted an internship with the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) in the Criminal Division at the DOJ. I was going to D.C.

Now I know what you’re thinking…. “VOLUNTEER?! How did this girl eat? How did she live? How did she commute?

I worked during my 2L year so I was able to save some money, I applied for outside funding from fellowships at my law school, I applied for academic year fellowships for my 3L year knowing I would be heading into the fall semester at a deficit, and I applied for federal work study. I walked a total of ten miles every week and took public transportation to get to and from work, I bought most of my lunches at the CVS across the street from my office and I stayed at an Airbnb in Maryland. And (lucky me) the Department covered my commute  because I used public transportation.

This path is not glamorous, but man has it been worth it. My summer at CEOS was exactly the most perfect place for me to be. It was everything I wanted from a summer job and more. It re-sharpened my focus, and put me in an office with like-minded, similarly motived law students who encouraged me to apply to prosecutor’s offices and non-profits in places I never imagined possible. These people were my village. When I wavered and looked at post-grad law firm positions thinking about the enormous debt-burden I was about to undertake, these people would talk me off the ledge.

Heading into 3L, I re-committed to the public interest. I applied to non-profits, fellowships, and prosecutor’s offices. I spent chunks of student loan dollars and savings to pay for my own flights for multiple rounds of interviews. I kept talking a big game about wanting to work in the public interest and told anyone who would listen what I was doing and what I cared about. I pinned down our career development officers for an hour to do a mock panel interview with me so I could prepare. I once took a 17-hour Amtrak from South Bend, Indiana to New York City after attending a funeral to make it to an interview. I stayed in youth hostels when I couldn’t afford hotel rooms and took the subway and buses to get around. And eventually, I accepted a position with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.

Now, the take-away from this story is not “look at all the things I did, yay me” and it is not “if I can do it, you can too.”

The take-away here is that the public interest path is blurry. It is lonely. It is a hustle. It is difficult. It is a path you carve out for yourself and it is the path-less-taken. But it is possible. You will watch your passionate, assured  classmates fall off into private law firm jobs with six-figure salaries, excellent training, and flashy, well-resourced offices. And you will look at that life and yearn for it, because everyone around you has it. You will rationalize with yourself that you can set your moral high ground aside for 5-7 years just to pay off your debt and then you’ll be out.

But the reality is, after 5-7 years, you will have developed a community, a quality of life, a book of clients, and a loyalty to your employer. You may have even purchased a house that you won’t be able to afford the mortgage on unless you maintain your income. And you will probably be on track to make partner. You may pick up a pro bono case here or there, but eventually the voice inside your head that told you to go to law school in the first place, the voice that wanted nothing more than to help people who are suffering, will barely be a whisper. 

If that is a risk you are willing to take, there is nothing wrong with that. But if it isn’t and, like me, you have found that voice becoming smaller as you move through law school, I would encourage you to find your village, re-read your personal statement, take a class purely because the topic is something you care about, and stay the course. I promise that it will be worth it.



Check out this “public interest drift” research from John Bliss, if you haven’t already. https://thepractice.law.harvard.edu/article/drifting-law-students/

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