Trading in the Expense Account: Transitioning from Big Law to Public Interest: Big Law is About More Than Just the Money

I split my 2L summer between a firm and government work. I thought that it would help me decide which route that I wanted to go, but it only made me more confused. I really enjoyed the people that I worked with at the firm, but felt more connected to the work that I did at the government and various non-profits. I was scared about making a bad decision, so I made the decision on the most objective criteria I could find – the money.

The “show me the money” technique is not really a technique at all, though. It’s a cop-out and I’ve come to believe that any human decision that too closely resembles “rational choice theory” is probably a terrible decision. It’s not terrible because it’s the wrong decision – it could be exactly right. It’s terrible because you denied yourself the ability to make an emotional connection to your job.

You have to know how to love work before you can find work you love. The most miserable people I have ever worked with were those who saw no purpose in their showing up everyday beyond collecting their paycheck. This is what happens when you think that the career marketplace demands that you act based on theories of economic behavior.

When you’re working in Big Law, it is easy to be cynical. Corporations seem to be huge, faceless misers who demand all of your time and creativity in service of their bottom line. You are nothing but a line item – “legal fees.”  Let me tell you – it doesn’t matter how much you make if this is what you think about your job. The money will never be enough.

There is, however, a different way to look at it. Working in a law firm provides access to unparalleled resources and insanely talented lawyers, which is a great foundation for any career. I got to work on some really interesting pro bono cases that I wouldn’t have had exposure to without the firm support, and on both billable and non-billable matters there were experienced attorneys available to assist with strategy and logistics.

I have heard people who are interested in public interest work say that going to a firm is selling out or that the only reason to do it is the money. While those both may be true in certain instances, the underlying reason why these firms are held in such high regard is because, at base, they do great work on challenging and complex matters. If you’re highly motivated and ambitious – this can be a great steppingstone to whatever else you may be thinking about doing in life. 

Regardless of the type of public interest work that you decide to do, seeing a lot of great lawyers working in one place is also great for the sheer number of examples it provides. You’ll see people who are great managers and terrible managers and the future academics all under one roof, which is something that is harder to get at a non-profit or in a smaller office where the office dynamic and culture may be more tightly controlled.

Given that it’s the time of year where we all give thanks and reflect on the blessings that we have in our lives, I have found that it’s important to think especially hard about those things that don’t currently seem to be paying dividends. Going to a firm for a few years to help pay down your debt is not selling out, unless you choose to think of it that way. Think bigger. Take advantage of the opportunities you have to find out what kind of lawyer you want to be – regardless of setting – and focus on doing the best work you know how to do.

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