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Trading in the Expense Account: Transitioning from Big Law to Public Interest: Oh, You Fancy, Huh?

Pro bono and government attorneys have a reputation for being, how would you say, aesthetically challenged. Do you remember that terrible show that Mark-Paul Gosselaar did “Raising the Bar,” where he played a public defender? Basically, no one cared about the show and just complained about his hair for the entire first season to the extent that he cut it all off for the second (and final) season. Beyond the fact that it made him look ridiculous, it was an affront to public defenders everywhere – why do you have to look terrible to prove that you’re committed to the cause? Is there any correlation between grooming and work ethic?

Clearly, not. But, it doesn’t mean that your appearance doesn’t matter.

If you’re the kind of person that likes to get your nails done and hair done and sport the hottest looks then transitioning to a government or public interest job is probably not going to be for you. If you’ll allow me to be embarrassingly honest for a moment, I remember when I was at the firm, there was a time that I was busy and didn’t have time to wash clothes, so I just BOUGHT A WHOLE WEEK’S WORTH OF CLOTHING. Undergarments and all.

Now, this is in no way a point of pride for me. It’s just a fact. I did it and I still paid my rent that month. I didn’t think about it, really. Online shopping was one of the hardest habits to break when I started my fellowship and I regularly ordered tons of things and, feeling intensely guilty as soon as the packages arrived, generally opened them long enough to fish out the return slips and send them back to the warehouse. This is not a fun exercise and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

So, what can you do as a person who likes to look good, but doesn’t have disposable income? Let me tell you:

  1. DIY. One of the great things about government jobs and public interest jobs is that they tend to require less of your time. So, you can hold on to one or two favorite services (like, obviously I’m not going to start cutting my own hair), but you’ll need to roll up your sleeves and start working for yourself. Make it fun though: set aside a “spa day” for your nails and facials. It’s even more relaxing when there’s no bill to pay at the end.
  2. Read the Labels! It is imperative that you take care of the things that you do have. Does your shirt need to be washed in cold water in the gentle cycle and line dried? Do it. You’ll have less money for dry cleaning, so use it wisely, but there are lots of resources online (like The Laundress) that have tons of tips on how to care for dry clean only fabrics without spending a fortune. In general, it’s also good to have a good tailor and cobbler on the ready. There are so many things that you wouldn’t even know can be fixed – and it’s almost always cheaper than buying it brand new!
  3. When You Buy New, Buy Smart. You can still shop, of course, but you no longer have the capacity to just collect things you’ll never wear. I love party dresses, and I used to buy them all the time. Do you know how often I go to events/parties that require sparkly cocktail dresses? Hardly ever. Same with high heels. I have a closet full of beautiful, never/rarely worn shoes that I love, but I actually can’t wear due to a foot injury. Don’t be me. Please. Do you need it? Do you want it? Does it fit your lifestyle? Does it fit your current wardrobe? If yes, go on with your bad self!
  4. Be Creative! This is something that I’ve learned to do more since I can’t shop often. You know all those never-worn things that I mentioned before? Well, transitioning to a lower-paying job is the BEST time to “shop” your closet and see if there are any treasures that you can incorporate into your wardrobe. I change out my closet with the seasons, and I love going through the things that I haven’t seen for a few months and figuring out what new outfits can be created. I find that, when it comes to clothing, distance can sometimes make the heart grow fonder, and when you don’t see something everyday, the rediscovery can be even more satisfying than a new purchase. 
  5. Don’t Be Lazy. Basically, if we believe that Mark-Paul Gosselaar meant to convey something positive about public defenders by looking like a hot mess then we have an uphill battle. There’s no reason that you can’t look great and do great, meaningful work but it does take some effort.  As lawyers though, appearing competent is just as important as being competent and no one really wants to be associated with the guy with holes in his pants, shirt un-tucked, and bed-head – no matter how brilliant he is. You wouldn’t submit the brief equivalent of that, so don’t expect people to take you seriously if you look that way either. (Although, ladies, do be careful to always be professional. Just because something is marked “wear to work” does not mean that you should actually wear it to work).

I think that it’s unfortunate that do-gooder lawyers are often portrayed has helpless, style-challenged hacks whose grand ideals make it impossible for them to EVER consider themselves – remember Sandra Bullock at the beginning of Two Weeks Notice? Shameful. We can do better ladies. We must do better.

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