What Can You Do with a Law Degree?

					   CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER                                                                                                 1. 800. 973. 1177

What Can You Do with a Law Degree
[by Legal Authority]
Legal Authority offers insight into seven different careers where your law degree can be put to good use -- and they all involve the

You can read about:                                though. Some small firms are actually “bou-         to work on important deals or cases. No mat-
                                                   tiques” and focus only on one specific type of      ter what your responsibilities, a more senior
1. Working at a Law Firm                           law, which means you won’t get exposure to a        member of the firm will always be watching
2. Judicial Clerkships                             wide variety of practice areas.                     over you and monitoring your work. You’ll
3. Academic Positions                                                                                  make mistakes, but your supervisor won’t al-
4. Working In House                                At a mid-size firm, new associates are likely to    low you to screw up too badly.
5. Working for the Military                        make more money than they would at a small
6. Non-Profits: Public Interest                    firm. Also, the practice may be less general-       Working at a law firm, no matter what size,
7. Working for the Government                      ized-a mid-sized firm will probably have at         also means that you’ll get experience servic-
                                                   least a few different departments or practice       ing clients. Law firms are part of the service
Working at a Law Firm                              groups. Medium firms will, of course, have          industry. Although they offer a very profes-
                                                   more resources than very small firms, but           sional service, at the heart of it, the client is
A law firm is an excellent place to begin your     they still won’t be able to match the vast law      still king-after all, the clients pay the bills!
legal career. Most corporations don’t hire         libraries and administrative support that big       Therefore, young attorneys must learn how
members of their legal team until they have        firms offer. Still, if you are afraid you might     to meet clients’ needs and keep them happy.
had a few years of seasoning at a law firm.        get lost in the crowd or weeded out of a highly     This is a valuable skill, but it means that your
Why? Well, because a law firm is viewed as a       competitive large firm, a mid-size firm may         needs often have to take a backseat. Accord-
type of “finishing school” for a young lawyer.     be the way to go. A mid-size firm can offer a       ing to a former law firm associate, “If a client
Of course, a lawyer’s “finishing” will depend      combination of solid training in a variety of       calls at 6:30 on a Friday night and needs
on the type of firm where he or she works.         legal specialties, a good salary, and hands-on      something by Monday, you had better cancel
                                                   experience.                                         the plans you made for the weekend, or else
At a small firm, the environment may be much                                                           ask for a huge favor from a fellow associate.”
different than at a large, big-city firm. The      Many large firms have training programs,            Still, for anyone wishing to move up the ranks
practice may be more general overall and the       either formal or informal, that guide a young       or strike out on his or her own, knowing how
firm may not have a formal training program.       attorney’s professional development. For            to tend to a client’s needs is an important
Instead, new associates are likely to have         example, an associate may be rotated through        skill.
more client contact and more hands-on expe-        several different departments before he
rience from the start. While you may not work      or she chooses to focus on a specific prac-         Firms stay financially successful largely
the long hours that are required in a large        tice area. That way, associates get a broad         based on how much they bill the client. Charg-
firm, you may have to bring in your own busi-      overview of the firm and of the legal system        ing by the hour used to be the norm, but more
ness. In addition, small firms don’t have the      as a whole. This day-to-day variety can keep        and more often, firms (especially large ones)
same resources as larger firms, so you may         you from getting bored; however, working at a       are charging by tenths of an hour (every six
find yourself handling your own paperwork          large firm may mean you’ll spend more time          minutes). Every minute that associates and
rather than relying on a legal secretary.          paying your dues by writing boring briefs and       partners aren’t billing is “lost” time that could
                                                   memos.                                              otherwise be generating revenue. From a
Finally, small firms typically don’t offer the                                                         firm’s perspective, the more time an associ-
high starting salaries of mega-firms. But, if      Working at a law firm also provides young           ate bills, the better. And, since clients are so
you are eager to jump in and control your own      lawyers with a sort of safety net. Yes, all new     important to a firm’s livelihood, associates
destiny, a small firm can provide excellent        associates have to start out doing the scut         will eventually be responsible for bringing in
training. Not all small firms are the same,        work, but eventually, you’ll have the chance        new business, or “rainmaking.”

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   CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER                                                                                                 1. 800. 973. 1177

The potential to earn big bucks is what lures      Now that you have an idea of what awaits            Contacts: If you plan on practicing in the
many young lawyers to big firm life. Even in an    you in a small, medium or large firm setting,       area of the country where you clerk, you will
economic downturn, top recruits at big firms       your task is to decide which is best for you.       have an excellent opportunity to evaluate the
may find themselves earning six figures right      But remember. If you start out at a small or        skills and abilities of the attorneys practicing
out of school. The dollars come at a price,        medium-sized firm, the chances of ever join-        in your court. In addition, since you will be
though. New associates often report working        ing a large firm are considerably reduced. On       interacting with many of these attorneys on
60 to 80 hour weeks. This is partly because the    the other hand, if you find certain aspects of      an ongoing basis, these same attorneys will
learning curve is very steep during the first      large firms (e.g., their tendencies to fix each     also be evaluating your skills and abilities
few years, but it is also because the client is    attorney forever in a specific practice area)       and will be potential contacts for employment
king. If the client needs you there on Saturday    unfavorable, then you would be wise to avoid        once you begin practicing. A little known fact
and Sunday, you’ll be there.                       them. The choice is yours.                          is that you can be a clerk at any point in your
                                                                                                       career. Clerkships are not just for recent
Law Firms at a Glance                              Clerkships                                          graduates-they are also for people who have
                                                                                                       been practicing for quite a while and seek
 Firm        Small        Medium      Large        Many lawyers describe the year they spent           the opportunity to give something back to the
 size                                              clerking as the most interesting year of their      legal system. The skills and level of insight
                                                   lives. And this is really the essence of a clerk-   you acquire during your clerkship will help
 Hours       May be       Defi-       Long
                                                   ship. It allows you to see the inner workings       you throughout your career regardless of what
             shorter      nitely a    hours
                                                   of the legal system, work closely with a judge,     practice area you choose.
             than at      full-time   are ex-
                                                   and gain a level of illumination about the
             large        job         pected
                                                   legal system itself that you can carry with you     Different Types of Clerkships
                                                   throughout your legal career. A clerkship is        In evaluating whether or not a clerkship
 Salary      On the       Average     Usu-         one of the highest honors in the legal profes-      will make you marketable, it is important to
             low end                  ally quite   sion and there are many places you can clerk.       understand the differences between various
                                      high         Almost every law clerk has lots of positive         types of clerkships: namely, federal and state
 Training    Do-it-       Some        A well-      things to say about his clerkship experience.       clerkships. The distinction between federal
             yourself     training    devel-       Some of the advantages of taking a clerkship        and state clerkships is examined below.
                                      oped         include:
                                      system                                                           Federal Court Clerkships
 Re-         Expect       Usually     Para-        Knowledge: Clerking provides an opportunity         Federal court clerkships are typically con-
 sources     to do        some        legals,      to see how the legal system operates from the       sidered the most prestigious. At the Federal
             your own     support     word         inside out. By understanding how the system         level, the order of prestige of clerkships is
             paper-       staff       proces-      works, you may arguably be a more effective         typically considered: (1) Supreme Court clerk-
             work                     sors,        litigator once you start practicing law because     ships, (2) circuit (appellate) clerkships, (3)
                                      a law        you will understand how your work will be           federal district court (trial court) clerkships,
                                      library-     evaluated by the court.                             and (4) clerkships with United States mag-
                                      every                                                            istrates. There are also several specialized
                                      thing you    Training: You are likely to receive close train-    courts (such as Federal Tax Court) that are
                                      need         ing and supervision from your judge. Most           on approximately the same level as federal

 Practice    Mostly       Some        Lots of      clerks discuss legal issues with their judge        district court clerkships; however, they are

 Type        general      special-    different    daily and are therefore exposed to the judge’s      not quite as prestigious.

                          ization     specialty    thought process on an ongoing basis. In addi-

                                      depart-      tion, clerks have their work critiqued by judg-     The most prestigious clerkship you can have

                                      ments        es day-to-day, which far surpasses the level of     is with the United States Supreme Court.
                                                   training most attorneys receive in most other       Here, you will typically be working closely with
                                                   legal environments. Due to the close supervi-       a judge and evaluating the decisions made
                                                   sion and training most clerks receive during        by lower courts. While some cases can go
                                                   their clerkship, your legal skills are likely to    immediately before the Supreme Court, most
                                                   develop significantly while clerking.               cases on which the Supreme Court rules were

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   CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER                                                                                                  1. 800. 973. 1177

 originally before another federal appellate        Considered beneath a circuit court clerkship       State Court Clerkships
 court. Accordingly, as a Supreme Court clerk,      is a clerkship with a federal district court.      Clerking for a state court will give you impor-
 you will most often be making rulings on           Here, you will be working closely with a fed-      tant and meaningful local roots and contacts.
 cases which have already been evaluated at         eral district judge. Most of the work a federal    There are generally the same distinctions
 the appellate stage.                               district judge does involves ruling on matters     at the state level as there are at the federal
                                                    leading up to and during a trial. Accordingly,     level for clerks. Thus, for example, there will
 The work you do as a clerk for the Supreme         you will be exposed to discovery disputes,         be a supreme court, an appellate court and
 Court is extremely important, and the is-          numerous oral arguments on issues such as          a trial court. Within this spectrum, there will
 sues you work on are often in the papers           summary judgment motions and also federal          also be further distinctions. A clerkship with
 and involve profoundly important national          criminal trials. There are far more federal        a state court does not consistently carry the
 issues. Virtually all attorneys who clerk for      district judges than there are circuit court       same level of prestige as a clerkship with a
 the United States Supreme Court can liter-         judges.                                            federal court. Some state court judges are
 ally “write their own ticket” in terms of the                                                         elected by a popular ballot, for example. Ac-
 firms they join following the clerkship. Many      One of the advantages of a district court          cordingly, the quality of judges tends to vary
 Supreme Court clerks end up going into aca-        clerkship is that you are exposed to actual        widely.
 demia, however. Most Supreme Court clerks          trials. The work also tends to be much more
 are coming from the best law schools and           fast-paced than the work done by circuit court     In addition, a clerkship with a state court
 were the top students of their respective law      judges. You are likely to get to know many         judge is often not the wisest choice for at-
 school classes. A high proportion of Supreme       attorneys practicing in the area. Most clerks      torneys wishing to practice in other areas of
 Court clerks are graduates of Harvard and          for federal district judges end up becoming        the country following their clerkship. While
 Yale Law Schools, for example.                     litigators inside law firms once their clerk-      a clerkship with a federal district judge can
                                                    ships are completed, so these connections          potentially make you marketable anywhere in
 Next in prestige comes a clerkship with a          can be valuable.                                   the United States, clerking with a state court
 federal circuit court (i.e., appellate court)                                                         judge may not necessarily have the same
 judge. The attorneys who get appellate court       Beneath these federal clerkships is a clerk-       result.
 clerkships are also typically the top students     ship with a United States Magistrate Judge.
 of their respective law schools. As an appel-      Unlike other federal clerkships, federal mag-      While some of the above may not sound all
 late court clerk you are often responsible for     istrates are not appointed by the President        that positive, the fact of the matter is that
 reviewing the opinions of a federal district       of the United States and are not appointed         most of the clerkships available throughout
 court (i.e., a trial court). Many attorneys do     for life. A United States Magistrate typically     the United States are at the state level. Plus,
 an appellate court clerkship before applying       works on procedural and other matters for          the contact between clerks and attorneys in a
 to be a clerk for the United States Supreme        which the Federal District Judge does not          given area tends to be much more profound at
 Court.                                             have time. Thus, for example, the Magistrate       the state level than at the federal level. Thus,
                                                    may work with attorneys on discovery matters       if you are quite sure you want to practice law
 As an appellate court clerk (which you will        until a trial occurs, or may be the first person   in a given area of the United States, you may
 be if you clerk for the Supreme Court or a         to arraign a defendant in a criminal matter.       in some cases be better served clerking at
 circuit court), most of your work will be heav-                                                       the state as opposed to the federal level. At
 ily research based. You will be working on         In addition to Magistrate Judges, there are        the state level, you are also more likely to be
 evaluating opposing appellate briefs as well       also clerkships available with Federal Tax         exposed to a much busier docket and a wider
 as the trial record of the district court and      Judges and Federal Bankruptcy judges, in           array of litigation.
 formulating opinions regarding the proper in-      addition to other specialized federal courts.
 terpretation of the law. Very little of the work   These clerkships are often the best clerk-         In addition, most cases that attorneys work
 you do will involve going to court; however,       ships a future bankruptcy attorney or tax at-      on are in state and not federal court. Thus,
 you will attend oral arguments from time to        torney could hope for. While these clerkships      you are likely to receive exposure to the types
 time. Most appellate court clerks describe         do not carry the same level of prestige as         of cases and the law that you will actually be
 the work they do as quite “academic.” While        some other federal clerkships, they do offer       dealing with once you commence practice. At
 many appellate court clerks end up practicing      the type of specialized training that can be of    the federal level, the cases decided are those
 in law firms, a high number also go on to hold     enormous benefit to clerks wishing to spend        involving diversity jurisdiction or federal law.
 government positions or to teach.                  their career in a particular practice area.        Such cases comprise a small portion of the

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   CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER                                                                                                  1. 800. 973. 1177

types of cases most attorneys work on in          ingly, throughout much of the United States,      will stay with you throughout your career.
day-to-day practice with a law firm. There-       applications for clerkships have declined         When you sit on the judge’s side of the bench,
fore, in many respects a clerkship with a         significantly. In addition, many judges must      you get the feeling that you are really part of
state court will make you better suited to law    make numerous offers to fill each clerkship       the legal process. You get to witness how de-
firm practice.                                    position.                                         cisions are made and the implications these
                                                                                                    decisions have on peoples’ lives.
Getting a Clerkship                               Myth: You Can Only Get a Clerkship In the
There are a few myths that surround getting       Area of the Country You Are From. Not true.       Academic Positions
a position as a law clerk. Some of the more       You can get a clerkship in any area of the
common ones are addressed below. The              country. While some state court judges are        Yes…you can be a college professor if you are
biggest misconception is that clerkships are      more receptive to local attorneys, the fact is    already a lawyer. Your law degree provides
only available to the very best students. This    that judges are seeking the best applicants       you entry into academic life beyond just the
is simply not true (but don’t feel that you       for the positions they have available.            teaching of law. Your degree provides you
have to tell anyone about this after you have                                                       with sufficient academic stature to teach
clerked-let them think what they will).           If you are going to relocate for a clerkship,     almost any subject in which you have a
                                                  however, you should be fairly certain that        background.
Myth: Only People Who Were On Law Review          you want to remain in that area to practice
at Harvard Law School Can Get a Clerkship.        law upon completion of the clerkship. The         To outline the more obvious possibilities
                                                  experience you gain with local attorneys and      available, you can teach legal ethics, legal
There are thousands of clerkships. Certainly,     local laws won’t be as beneficial if you move     history, or any other law-related subject. But
the more prestigious clerkships can be            to another state.                                 that’s just for starters. Should you possess
more difficult to get. Nevertheless, there are                                                      an undergraduate and/or master’s degree in
numerous opportunities to clerk across the        Final Thoughts About Clerking                     a subject other than law, there is no reason
nation. You just need to know where to look.      Choosing a clerkship requires a similar           you cannot teach that as well. If you have
For example, every state in the country has       thought process as choosing a particular          developed an expertise, say, in 19th Century
federal clerkships as well as state clerk-        law school. For example, attending a law          Naval History or Medieval Church Architec-
ships available. How many people do you           school like Yale is going to give you a serious   ture, you may find yourself and your subject
think are applying to be federal law clerks in    advantage when you are applying to law firm       welcome at some university near you. In
South Dakota? One of the secrets to landing       positions throughout the United States. A         fact, many lawyers are teaching subjects
a clerkship at the federal (and state) level is   law school like Yale might be compared to         other than the law right now. Many are found
bringing sufficient depth to your search by       clerking on the Supreme Court. Conversely,        teaching at four-year institutions as well as
not limiting yourself geographically.             a smaller, more local law school like the         at community colleges or paralegal insti-
                                                  University of Toledo is not going to give you     tutes. Other lawyers have quit the practice of
Myth: Getting a Clerkship is Next to Impos-       as great an advantage throughout the United       law to teach full-time.
sible Because There Are Hundreds of Ap-           States. This school will, however, probably
plicants for Each Position.                       give you good options in Toledo, Ohio.            You may have difficulty envisioning yourself
                                                                                                    as a professor because of the built-in in-
Think again. With the salary increases that       Accordingly, before you accept a clerkship,       timidation factor. This requires a little more
began in law firms in 2000, the number of         you need to have a good understanding of          explanation. Let’s start with your former law
people applying for clerkships declined           whether or not you want to work in the area       professors. Many of them were no doubt in-
drastically. In some cases, federal district      where you will be clerking. The clerkship is      timidating. There is the tendency, especially
judges received less than 15 applications per     most likely going to make you marketable if       among first-years, to idealize as well as fear
position.                                         you are seeking to work in the state where        them. Their learnedness is assumed. They
                                                  you are clerking. You should also do some         symbolically embody not only the highest
At the state level this problem is even more      research into where various judges’ former        intellectual traditions of the legal profession
pronounced. While salaries in the private         clerks ended up working. By learning this,        but the prestige of the university in which
sector have increased fairly dramatically         you will get a decent idea of your level of       they teach. They serve as intellectual high
over the past several years, they have not        marketability following the clerkship.            priests and cultural guardians. Because
increased at nearly the same pace in the                                                            of law professors’ exalted social rank, it is
federal and state governments. Accord-            The skills and insight you develop as a clerk     falsely assumed that becoming one is beyond

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   CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER                                                                                                1. 800. 973. 1177

the reach of 95% of practicing attorneys.           reer as a professor encourages and rewards         Working In-house
                                                    such writing.
This same intimidation factor works with                                                               As a new lawyer, chances are slim to none
professors who possess a Ph.D. They have            Myth: It is Impossible to Find a Position as a     that you will immediately be offered a chance
gone through years of graduate coursework,          Professor.                                         to work for a corporation. Corporations do
20+ hours of qualifying exams, and then must        The commonly held perception is that if one        not have training programs as do government
write a book-length manuscript to become            thinks it is hard finding an advertised position   agencies and private law firms. Thus, they
certified. Like lawyers, once they begin teach-     in a law firm or corporation, it is even harder    prefer to select attorneys who already have
ing, they magically become experts in their         to find an advertised professor position. In       significant training in a specific practice area.
field and ordinary citizens are reluctant to        particular, it is believed that the academic       In Section 3, there is a much more thorough
challenge them. This intimidation factor is         profession has its own hiring rituals and          analysis of in-house work, geared toward at-
founded on a series of myths, several of which      tends to rely on word of mouth; and because        torneys who are considering a career change.
are outlined below.                                 most positions are unadvertised, they will be      For now, I’ll just give you a quick overview so
                                                    offered to mysterious “others” who are wired       that you understand the venue and how it dif-
Myth: You Cannot Become a Professor Unless          into a mysterious professor network. In fact,      fers from that of a law firm.
You are a Top Student.                              there are thousands of teaching positions
What is not generally known, even among at-         available and many of them are filled each         The in-house venue differs culturally from
torneys, is that the foregoing profile does not     year in a way you might not have imagined. A       that of a private law firm. There is an opera-
fit the majority of professors at the majority of   little research and creativity in your search      tive hierarchy in place within corporations as
law schools. In reality, you do not have to be      can go a long way. Many, if not most, of these     opposed to the simple distinction in law firms
brilliant to teach. You do need to understand       jobs are filled simply because the school re-      between associates and partners. In some
your subject thoroughly, hopefully due to           ceives an inquiry from an interested applicant.    instances, an attorney may find that he or she
hands-on experience, but you don’t have to be       For instance, small colleges may hope to find      is the only one in residence with a law degree.
a top graduate from Harvard or the University       somebody locally to teach a course or two          Thus, the in-house attorney, instead of being
of Chicago to get a job. Facts are, the majority    at night. They may not advertise this job. You     treated with a certain degree of “profes-
of professors were good students, but many of       must be proactive to find these opportunities.     sional courtesy,” is often considered to be
them did not finish at the top of their classes.                                                       merely another employee with a rank defined
They became professors because they applied         Are You an Attorney? Then You Can Be a             by both salary and the number of employees
themselves and persevered. Not only that,           Professor.                                         supervised. Also worth noting, the in-house
there are professors, even at well-known col-                                                          attorney’s only client is the corporation itself,
leges, who only have a master’s degree and          Being an attorney is the basic requirement:        meaning that the work will tend to be specifi-
no doctorate, or have finished doctoral studies     your law degree certifies that you have suc-       cally focused and often repetitive: dealing with
but never completed their dissertation.             cessfully completed graduate work. Do you          claims and lawsuits, for instance, or handling
                                                    possess expertise in a specific area of the        difficult employee hires and dismissals.
Myth: Professors Are Drop-Outs From the             law? Great. That makes you even more attrac-
Commercial World.                                   tive to almost any law school. Do you possess      What in-house jobs offer is relief from the
There is the myth that professors are men and       expertise in a subject other than the law?         pressure of having to justify oneself by the
women who could not stand up to the stress          Great. That knowledge plus the law degree          number of billable hours generated. Then
or the pace of law firm or corporate work.          makes you attractive to almost any university.     there is the corresponding benefit of know-
This is simply not true. Life as a professor        It is worth emphasizing again: a great many        ing that the corporation is, more often than
offers many attractions. As mentioned earlier,      professors, whether in the law or another          not, self-sustaining by virtue of its size and
you gain enhanced stature in the eyes of the        discipline, were not exceptional students.         thus not subject to a dominant client’s sudden
public. You have the opportunity to impart your     Truth is, many schools will not even request a     decision to take its business elsewhere.
wisdom to the next generation. In addition,         transcript before they interview you. So stop
you gain numerous vacation days and may             worrying about what you may perceive as            Attorneys move in-house for a variety of
even get summers off. Many universities still       daunting prerequisites. If the idea of work-       reasons. In-house attorneys, depending on the
offer sabbaticals at full or reduced pay every      ing as a professor interests you, apply! It’s as   situation, often work very hard, especially in
seven years or so. Do you secretly yearn to         simple as that.                                    mergers and acquisitions and securities mat-
publish your observations and beliefs? A ca-                                                           ters; although more often than not this kind

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   CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER                                                                                                1. 800. 973. 1177

of work is jobbed out to private law firms with    Non-Profits: Public Interest Law                   individual or class of individuals is not being
the in-house lawyer managing the account.                                                             given the protection to which they are entitled
                                                   Your decision of whether or not to make public     under current law. This loose definition does
Working for the Military                           interest law a career probably hinges on more      not mean to imply that public interest lawyers
                                                   than money; however, money is the number           are not paid for their time and effort, only that
Most attorneys who practice in this sphere         one factor that drives attorneys away from         their charity’s effort is not financially-driven,
are members of the Military Judge Advo-            this pursuit. The fact of the matter is that       but is instead fueled by altruistic personal
cates/JAG or in private practice representing      public interest attorneys don’t make as much       conviction and the satisfaction gained from
a member of the military. Military lawyers         money as those attorneys in firms or corpora-      helping right a perceived wrong.
operate in both civilian and military courts and   tions. But perhaps you’ve already decided
must be capable of functioning equally well in     that money will not be a factor in the path you    Is Public Interest Law Counter-cultural?
each. The practice of military law frequently      choose to follow. Perhaps you already live a       Yes, in a limited sense, public interest law is
involves a variety of other practice areas, such   toned-down lifestyle; maybe you’ve inherited       counter-cultural, because it frequently at-
as environmental law in the case of activi-        a guaranteed income. Either way, let’s leave       tacks the assumptions and myths upon which
ties taking place on an Army base, contracts       money out of the equation for now and con-         all cultures are based. Cultures are formed
law when military entities deal with outside       centrate on just what it is you wish to do and     based on generalized shared conditions
suppliers, and family law as it concerns child     where and how you wish to do it.                   and perceptions. American culture, as an
abuse, drugs, divorce, adoption and trusts                                                            example, was first shaped by its original set-
and estates work. One of the attractions of        Do legal jobs with local or federal govern-        tlers’ belief that they had been, in their lands
military law is that after working 20 years, a     ment qualify as public interest jobs?              of origin, persecuted for their non-normative
lawyer is eligible for a life-time pension but     No, they don’t. Generally, a government law-       religious beliefs. For this reason, religious
can continue his or her specialty either solo or   yer’s job is to enforce current laws, whereas      tolerance quickly became important to the
in a private firm.                                 a public interest lawyer may seek to change        original settlers and part of the American
                                                   these laws or work in areas not covered by         foundational myth (Land of the Free). The fact
As is true with in-house environments, the         them. For example, Ralph Nader, on his own,        that, to the contrary, virulent religious and
military is a hierarchy with ranks that start      accused General Motors of knowingly produc-        racial discrimination contradicted this myth
with the entry-level position of second lieu-      ing unsafe automobiles because he felt that        is immaterial. The culture developed a belief
tenant (although most attorneys quickly reach      existing law and federal oversight did not sat-    which became codified into myth and into law.
the ranks of captain and major) and top out at     isfactorily address automotive safety issues.      It is into the space between utopian myth and
the rank of general or admiral. Pay, housing                                                          reality that the public interest lawyer steps
and other perks depend on rank and not on          Government jobs do exist in which lawyers          in. What comes first is the utopian sense of
the individual skill of the attorney/officer in    examine the fairness of legislation and its        a perfect society as reflected in a culture’s
question. A feature of military life attractive    application and seek to root out inequities. For   myths. Next comes the realization that such
to many is the constant change of assignment       example, a lawyer working for a state or fed-      utopian, mythic ideals are not realized in
every two years or so. An attorney can be          eral civil rights department might reasonably      practice. Only then comes the effort to fix the
posted almost anywhere in the world where          qualify as practicing public interest law. But     dissonance between the ideal and the real.
the American military or consular services         even civil rights lawyers paid by the govern-
has a location.                                    ment must back off if told to do so by supe-       Do You Have to be a leftist to be a Public
                                                   riors. Public interest law, in an ideal sense,     Interest Lawyer?
Military law can also be considered a specialty    implies that a lawyer is beholden to his or        The perception of most public interest lawyers
as well as a venue. For example, many at-          her conscience only, and not to any temporal       is that they are found only on the political left
torneys, after leaving active service, continue    authority. Does the term “public interest law”     of issues. This may be true as a generality, but
in the Reserves and/or work for private law        imply legal work performed for a charitable        not always in practice. For example, public
firms which handle military accounts. Other        organization or trust? Generally speak-            interest lawyers practice on both sides of the
attorneys with military law experience locate      ing, yes, this is closer to the mark, although     abortion debate. Pro-abortion lawyers argue
themselves in private offices near Army bases      again there are exceptions. Public interest        for the right of the individual to control what
to serve any needs of military personnel not       law also applies to the individual lawyer who      goes on inside her body. Anti-abortion lawyers
strictly involving military matters.               personally takes on clients or causes without      argue that destroying an embryo is murder,
                                                   pay because of his/her conviction that an          period. Some public interest lawyers argue

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   CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER                                                                                                1. 800. 973. 1177

against the death penalty because they believe      7. Does the existence of elitisms of all kinds     Foundation (SPILF), as an example, offers
killing is morally wrong. Others argue that it      anger me?                                          public interest law project grants covering
is the duty of society to rid itself of those who                                                      legal services for pregnant teenagers, hous-
take innocent lives. Regardless of whichever        If you answered “yes” to three or more of          ing discrimination, battered women, women
side a public interest lawyer takes, it is obvi-    the above questions, you might give serious        prisoners, immigrant and refugee rights,
ous that he or she is guided by a specific vi-      consideration to a career in public interest       children needing special education and a wide
sion of a perfect society, along with an interior   law. The next question becomes: “how do I go       variety of other causes. If you see a problem
discourse that affirms this vision and denies       about finding a job?”                              which needs fixing and nobody is addressing
the validity of other competing visions.                                                               it, you can apply to SPILF and other public
                                                    Identify a Cause                                   interest foundations by filling out a proposal
So why is it necessary to be “underpaid” if         You must feel strongly about a certain cause       and launching your own cause.
you are a public interest lawyer?                   and have thought enough about it to eschew
Quite simply, the organizations that employ         all your doubts. Usually, the cause will an-       Conclusion
public interest lawyers don’t have money to         nounce itself to you. This is what is meant by     If, after reading this, you are more convinced
pay big salaries. That’s explanation enough.        having a calling. Choose your cause well and       than ever that you want to be a public interest
Then there is public perception and expecta-        you will produce within yourself a harmony of      lawyer, then go for it. You will need perse-
tion. If lawyers make a lot of money helping        belief merged with action that most lawyers        verance. You will need grit. It will not be an
the unfortunate, it is presumed that they are       and most other citizens seldom, if ever, attain.   easy road. But you will have the satisfaction
profiting from the meek and disenfranchised.                                                           of contributing to a greater good. Hopefully,
Finally, there is the perception that those         Find Out Who is Hiring                             society will not only pay attention to what you
who wish to help others should be similar           Check the local and national legal newspa-         have to say, it will agree, and better yet, take
to priests and clergy by eschewing mate-            pers and magazines. Look in the Yellow Pages       positive action. In this way, you will be provid-
rial rewards. Thus, even if a public interest       under “Charities.” Talk to religious groups and    ing a service not just for the short-term but
lawyer found a way to make money by helping         fraternal orders. Visit law schools and inquire    possibly for generations yet unborn.
those who cannot pay, the likelihood is that        there. Attend career fairs such as the annual
the lawyer would not take the money, at least       Equal Justice Works Career Fair and Confer-
not openly. To conclude, lack of funding and        ence. On the Internet, search for “Public          Working for the Government
cultural expectations conspire against public       Interest Law.” Once you have investigated the
interest lawyers ever making money. Ergo, if        listings, follow through on email links to other   For many attorneys, there is no more ideal
you choose this type of law, expect to make         public interest web pages. Most public inter-      position than working for the Federal or State
considerably less than lawyers practicing           est jobs are not high profile, meaning they are    government. One of my colleagues used to
other types of law.                                 not always advertised and there isn’t always a     work for the United States Department of
                                                    lot written about them.                            Justice and, the way he tells it, after 5:15 p.m.
How to Know if You Are Cut Out to be a Public                                                          each evening you could fire a canon down the
Interest Lawyer:                                    What Happens if My Project Must be Aban-           hall because everyone had gone for the day.
Here are seven key questions you should ask         doned Because the Money Runs Out?                  In addition, he said that there were several
yourself:                                           If, after your initial foray into public inter-    attorneys who would actually show up day
1. Is money unimportant to my sense of well-        est law, you have decided to stay in the field,    after day, month after month and literally do
being and self esteem?                              always proceed with the knowledge that your        nothing. In all seriousness, though, there are
2. Am I uncomfortable working in structured         work could be terminated through no fault          some major advantages to choosing a career
environments?                                       of your own. Keep lists of organizations and       with the government.
3. Am I ideologically committed to a modest         individuals and possible projects that might
lifestyle?                                          interest you down the line.                        First, government positions are usually
4. Do I possess a strong streak of idealism?                                                           secure. Many government attorneys practice
5. Do I come from a strong religious back-          See If There is Grant Money Available              their entire careers with the government
ground?                                             A lot of public interest work is subsidized by     and face little prospect of a layoff regardless
6. Do I view public interest law not as a pro-      corporations, religious groups and wealthy         of bad economic winds. It is also extremely
fession but as a calling?                           individuals. The Stanford Public Interest Law      difficult to be fired as a government attorney,

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   CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER                                                                         1. 800. 973. 1177

because government jobs are generally there        not to work for the government. One of the
to stay.                                           most common reasons attorneys do not
                                                   choose government work is because of per-
Second, government attorneys are often quite       ceived financial concerns. Nevertheless, many
collegial with one another, and there is a         government attorneys do make over $100,000
fraternity of sorts amongst them because they      a year and live comfortably.
are not competing to bill hours. Government
attorneys often become quite close, as it is not   The lure for most government attorneys is the
uncommon for them to work side by side for         opportunity to practice law with like-minded
two to three decades.                              individuals in a relatively secure environment.
                                                   Government attorneys also often enjoy much
Third, the work government attorneys do is         better lifestyles than other attorneys. With
often immensely interesting. For example, you      more time and energy left for family and lei-
may work on the type of high-profile litigation    sure activities, government attorneys reap the
that others see only once or twice (or perhaps     kind of less tangible benefits that can make a
never) in a law firm career. Additionally, many    tremendous difference in career satisfaction.
government attorneys often spend at least one      In the end, the result is often more happy and
day a week in court. Government attorneys          fulfilling lives outside of work.
who do not do litigation work may be involved
in important policy work that has a national

Fourth, given the importance of the work
they do, many government attorneys receive
training and develop a skill set that actually
continues their advancement in private em-
ployers’ eyes. Throughout the United States
there are numerous partners in important
law firms who received a decade or more of
training as prosecutors before returning to
the private sector.

Fifth, being a government attorney can poten-
tially lead to an excellent career in a higher
government post. A large number of federal
judges started out as prosecutors at the state
and federal level. Additionally, many impor-
tant cabinet positions in both federal and
state governments are filled by government
attorneys each year.

Almost always, the health care and retirement
benefits that government attorneys receive
far eclipse what one could expect in private
practice. Many government attorneys end
their careers with sizable retirement benefits
which do not require them to change their
lifestyle at all.

At the end of the day, many attorneys choose


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