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									   CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                                                   1. 800. 973.1177




Doing Some Good: Careers in the Public Interest
[Randi Rothberg]
Many students enter law school with dreams of saving the world, but most end up taking a different path and never look back. Here’s what they’re miss-
ing—and how you can get involved.




Jay Tustin remembers his classmates at             essentially voiceless,” says Rebecca Epstein,       donations from philanthropic organizations
UCLA Law with a chuckle: “If I had polled my       who began her public interest career at the         to send lawyers to handle death penalty
first-year class, 90 percent of them would         U.S. Department of Justice in 1997. There,          cases through nonprofit capital representa-
have said they wanted to work in the social        she worked on civil cases involving police          tion offices. Among those that have signed
interest.” Far fewer actually took such jobs,      misconduct, trying to remedy problems               on is George Soros’s Open Society Insti-
opting instead for traditional law-firm posi-      from the management perspective. “[It was]          tute, which has pledged $100,000 per year
tions that would help them pay off student         probably the most intense work I have ever          through 2003-an amount that Semel and her
loans. Tustin sees the same pattern in the         done. That literally felt like I was working on     associates must match with an additional
students he has taught in environmental law        life-or-death issues,” she says. Today, Ep-         $50,000 annually from law firms, individu-
clinics at Denver University and the Universi-     stein is a staff attorney at Trial Lawyers for      als, the American Bar Association, and other
ty of Colorado since 1992: “I’ve had hundreds      Public Justice, a nationwide public interest        foundations. “When you’re a criminal defense
of students, and maybe 10-tops-have fol-           law firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.          lawyer and you want to be as good as you
lowed through to public interest jobs.”            She tackles Title IX funding issues for TLPJ,       can, and you see something as awful as the
                                                   working with universities to ensure that            death penalty, it’s a challenge,” Semel says.
According to the National Association for          women in athletic programs get the benefits         She now instructs law students in capital de-
Law Placement’s Jobs & J.D.’s: Employment          they deserve.                                       fense, as director of the new capital clinic at
and Salaries of New Law Graduates-Class                                                                the University of California-Berkeley’s Boalt
of 1999, which surveyed 173 ABA-accredited         Like Epstein, criminal defense attorney             Hall School of Law. But she will continue to
law schools, only about 27 percent of U.S.         Elisabeth Semel found her calling in the            raise funds for death penalty representation
law graduates head for careers in the public       public sector. She became head of the               and plans to “hit California firms very hard.”
sector. While some work in organizations           American Bar Association’s Death Penalty
geared toward causes like human rights or          Representation Project in 1997, shortly after       For Doris Ng, a staff attorney for Equal
environmental protection, others land posi-        Congress phased out funded postconvic-              Rights Advocates, a nonprofit women’s law
tions in government or clerk for a judge after     tion resource centers that sent experienced         center in the San Francisco area, the battle
graduation. Women generally fly the public         lawyers into the ring for clients on death row.     is against sexism that prevents women from
interest route more often than men; a third        Today, more than 3,700 people are under             enjoying equal treatment in the workplace.
of employed female law school graduates            the death sentence in the U.S., some without        Ng’s clients demand access to opportunities
take public interest jobs, compared with only      the guarantee of a lawyer during succes-            that men claim; some, for example, want to
a quarter of employed male grads.                  sive postconviction proceedings. Death row          be police officers and firefighters. “It’s very
                                                   inmates are many times left with inadequate         gratifying to know that you can make a differ-
Voices from the Field                              representation, according to the Death Pen-         ence,” Ng says.
                                                   alty Representation Project.
Most people browse the newspaper simply to                                                             Others agree, and also cite on-the-job fac-
keep abreast of current events, but JDs who        Semel is dissatisfied with the representation       tors that fuel their passion. For example,
opt for the public sector tend to take front-      available to defendants during all phases           Epstein enjoys working with “smart, skilled
page travesties to heart. “The number one          of capital cases. As a lawyer, activist, and        attorneys dedicated to similar interests,” as
reason for entering public interest law is the     fund-raiser, she works to amp up the ABA’s          well as the challenge of handling “intense”
great job satisfaction you get from using your     recruitment of law firms to assist with or          cases and issues.
degree to lend your skills to those who are        undertake capital cases. She also solicits




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   CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                                                  1.800. 973. 1177




Getting a Head Start                                  students are offered public interest courses in    and three division delegates each summer.
                                                      such diverse subjects as refugee and asylum,       Applications are available at www.abanet.
You may know from your first day as a 1L that         prisoners’ rights, and children’s rights. Also,    org/lsd and are due in June. Check out the
you’re destined to follow in the footsteps of         consider doing an independent study with a         “Student Organizing” section of the NAPIL
the attorneys profiled above. While enthu-            professor based on a specific public interest      page for more opportunities to connect with
siasm is a great beginning, there are many            project.                                           other public interest law students.
concrete steps you can take during school
to prepare for a public interest career. The          Relevant Extracurriculars                          Fellowship Opportunities
more you distinguish yourself, the better.
This is especially true in a field where funding      Perhaps the best way to prepare for a public       Competition for public interest jobs remains
constraints necessitate limited hiring. During        interest career is to participate in clinics       keen, partly because nonprofit employers
your first year, you generally have little (if any)   during law school. Clinics allow law students      have tight staffing budgets. A number of
say in scheduling your classes. Focus on earn-        to supplement their classroom learning with        organizations, however, do fund attorneys who
ing the best grades you can in such subjects          practical experience. And Reilly notes that        work in the public sector after graduation.
as contracts, torts, civil procedure, and other       public interest organizations-often under-         NAPIL, for one, pays recent grads to work for
1L rites of passage. Law school grades will be        funded and needing all the help they can get       two years on a project of their choosing or in
a factor in whatever field you choose-and they        from qualified, eager students-are perfect for     an organization selected by NAPIL. See the
often make or break perks such as fellow-             providing valuable hands-on experience.            “NAPIL Fellowships” section at www.napil.org
ships, stipends, and clinic placements that                                                              for more information.
can boost your public interest career. “It’s          “We did everything except represent our cli-
kind of a myth that grades are not important,         ents,” says Lisa Taylor, a 2001 graduate of the    Some law firms also provide public service
or not as important, in public interest law,”         University of Georgia School of Law, who was       fellowships to top-notch students. The Skad-
says Malcolm Reilly, a 2L at Brooklyn Law             involved with a public interest and community      den Fellowship Foundation, affiliated with
School who co-chairs his school’s public              service clinic. She researched and worked          Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, has
interest student group. “Grades are always            with cases involving employment discrimina-        placed more than 300 law graduates and out-
important.” After the first year, strike a bal-       tion, divorce, and child care for incarcerated     going judicial clerks in public interest projects
ance between the core legal classes-evidence          mothers. Taylor-who is joining the Department      over the past 13 years. “We ask applicants
and corporations, for example-and classes             of Justice as a civil rights attorney-praises      to design their dream job, and we hope to be
that will help prepare you for public interest        her clinic not just for the career preparation     able to fund them,” says Skadden Fellowship
practice. “Take a diverse array of classes,”          it gave her but also for the inspirational op-     Foundation Director Susan Butler Plum.
says Joanne Kubiniec, a 2001 graduate of the          portunity to “translate the law” for clients who
University of Buffalo School of Law and former        might otherwise have been left in the dark.        Hired for a year-with the general expectation
executive editor of the Buffalo Public Interest                                                          that the highly competitive and prestigious
Law Journal. “Take classes that will be on the        Formerly president of the membership council       fellowship will be extended for a second
Bar, and expose yourself to everything.” After        for the National Association of Public Interest    year-Skadden fellows earn a $37,500 salary
all, before you can become a public interest          Law (NAPIL), Taylor says she always knew she       and get all the benefits normally granted to
lawyer, you have to become a lawyer. And              wanted to work at the Justice Department.          employees of the organization with which they
that means passing the Bar-which poses the            She advises students to participate in public      work. Also, the firm pays fellows’ law school
same challenge whether you’re headed to a             interest activities on campus, to submit case      loans (any that are not forgiven by the school;
top-10 firm, the District Attorney’s office, or       notes to public interest law journals across       see sidebar) for the duration of the fellowship.
the Legal Aid Society. Still, take advantage of       the country, and to join legal-oriented as-        Approximately 90 percent of Skadden fellows
relevant courses to gain exposure to interest-        sociations for both experience and leadership      remain involved with public interest law after
ed faculty, and to keep yourself up-to-date on        opportunities.                                     the completion of their term.
issues you will face as you begin your career.
For example, students at American Universi-           For example, students may wish to consider         Skadden fellows work with a variety of orga-
ty’s Washington College of Law may choose             running for a position with the American Bar       nizations that provide civil legal services to
to add a seminar in human rights or postcon-          Association’s Law Student Division, which          the poor and disenfranchised; some examples
viction remedies to their course selection.           elects a vice chair of student bar associations    from the class of 2001 are the Urban Jus-
At Northwestern University’s School of Law,



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   CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                           1.800. 973. 1177




tice Center, the NAACP, Disability Rights            section for a current listing.
Advocates, the Juvenile Law Center, and the
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. About 25         Passion with a Price Tag?
fellows are chosen each year; applicants must
have stellar transcripts and demonstrate a           Money is certainly a concern for graduates
dedication to public service.                        entering the public sector-especially those
                                                     with considerable debts. Reilly, a 2L at Brook-
Several firms offer summer public inter-             lyn Law School who moonlights as a regional
est fellowships. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius             coordinator at NAPIL, notes, “It’s not really a
sponsors four such fellowships each year.            legal issue, but a real-life issue.”
Students chosen for these positions enjoy all
of the experiences and perks their classmates        Yet Epstein notes that the financial situation
get at firms across the country but devote half      is not as dire as some people imagine. “The
the summer to pro bono work on a project of          contrast is stark, because of how high law
their choice.                                        firm salaries are,” she admits. “But it doesn’t
                                                     mean you’ll be dirt poor.” She assures ideal-
The Job Search                                       ists that paychecks are “pretty decent” for
                                                     lawyers who work in government organiza-
While judicial clerkships and public inter-          tions. Work in a judge’s chambers also helps
est fellowships are popular stepping stones          fill the piggy bank: According to the NALP
for public interest lawyers, these positions         survey, 1999 grads who took on judicial clerk-
are not available to everyone. A little extra        ships earned an average of $38,000-not a sum
legwork can go a long way in the quest for           to sneer at.
fulfilling employment.
                                                     Tustin reminds recent grads that their careers
Job fairs provide an excellent opportunity to        will take them many places-so public interest
drop a slew of resumés and peek at available         law doesn’t necessarily have to be the first
opportunities. Every fall, NAPIL sponsors a          stop. “What I think is most important is to
public interest law fair, the largest of its kind.   keep your goal in sight. So if your end goal is
Over 1,000 students flock to Washington, D.C.,       to work for the public interest, get there,” he
for the gala networking event, where they            says.
meet some 200-odd employers representing a
nationwide mix of organizations.


Similar events are held by regional law
schools. New York University holds the Public
Interest and Public Service Legal Symposium;
Suffolk University’s Law School in Boston and
the University of Pennsylvania School of Law
in Philadelphia also host public service career
programs, as do Georgetown and George
Washington University in D.C. Those hoping to
jump into the public sector should also trawl
the Web: Though popular job search engines
will yield some employment notices, there are
a number of sites maintained specifically for
public interest law positions. Check out the
NAPIL Web site’s “Jobs and Opportunities”




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