Trading in the Expense Account: Transitioning from Big Law to Public Interest: The Agony and the Ecstasy

I am currently completing a year-long fellowship at a nonprofit. My term comes to an end at the end of the summer, and I already find myself looking back on the last eight months and feeling grateful, but also a little excited about the fellowship ending.

 I am grateful for many reasons that I probably cannot even accurately describe: this job has opened up my mind and heart to a lot of issues that I had never seriously considered before. Professionally, I have worked with some amazing people and have acquired skills that I would never have learned at a law firm. I am completely astounded by the dedication and passion that is sustained when people are doing work that they believe in the deepest parts of their being. There is just nothing like waking up and knowing that your work matters.

 But – obviously – the financial strain will not be missed. Public interest work encompasses many things, and the salaries vary considerably between government and nonprofit work. Nonprofit or third party fellowships are notoriously low-paid because they tend to believe that when you’re working on behalf of the indigent, rolling up in a Benz [video] with your Theory suit, Jimmy Choos, and Balenciaga Papier might raise some eyebrows. Plus, your champagne wishes and caviar dreams are incidental to the fact that you have legal skills, of which there is very high demand and insufficient access in many communities (only not in the ones where Theory, Choos, and Balenciaga are ubiquitous).

 So, they pay you an amount that is meant to simultaneously acknowledge the fact that you have a professional degree, but that should also make you reflect on just how difficult it is to live hand-to-mouth, as many sadly do in this great nation. Were it not for my law school’s amazing loan repayment program, it would have been impossible for me to take this job. As I’ve said before, my loans are roughly 70% of my current income, and if I was wholly responsible for them I would have less than $800 a month to live on. In Washington, D.C. I don’t really want to think what that would be like.

 A big part of the transition, which I can’t say has been completely realized in my case, is perspective. If you think you’re poor, you will feel poor. I am, in actuality, solidly middle class based on the salary that I make. Fortunately for them, unfortunately for me, a lot of my friends make a lot more (Don’t let them fool you with that nonsense that you’re still middle class up to $250k. Puh-lease.) As we all know, it our relative sense of wealth that fuels our happiness/unhappiness with how much we make. So what do you do when you make significantly less than everyone else you know?

 Drop ‘em like it’s hot. [video].

 I’m just kidding – mostly. As with any big change in life, there are people who transition with you and those who don’t. Some of the people you used to be happy to waste your lunch hour with or grab a drink with after work will be on the chopping block. For the people who really mean something to you, you have to be strategic so as not to continuously eat your money (I mean this literally. No one entertains at home anymore and it gets insanely expensive to eat/drink out all the time). If I can’t manage to get all of my friends  in to the same room to catch up then I try to schedule periodic get-togethers at times that are mutually beneficial [read: happy hour or some time when food/drink is not full price].

 Otherwise, I am re-learning how to entertain myself. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but apparently unstructured play-time (and the ensuing boredom) is really great for kids and I think there’s an argument for the same in adult life.

 So the next time you’re tempted by the beautiful weather and patios opening around the city –qualify your decline of invitations by letting them know that you’re not being anti-social or cheap. You’re learning how to be more creative.  


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