When I started law school, I did not ever intend to be a law firm lawyer. (In point of fact, I never even intended to take the bar exam. I intended to be some kind of low-income person’s renaissance woman, teaching the little ones and dispensing free legal advice and cooking casually elegant meals for the crowds of people who would flock to my charmingly rustic yet well-appointed apartment to enjoy my company. I was woefully misinformed about the technicalities of legal licensing and also perhaps the teensiest bit delusional.) But, as Dutch put it so aptly recently, I envisioned myself as some sort of female teacher-goddess version of the next Clarence Darrow, committed to serving justice and righting wrongs and, in my particular case, working to make educational equality more of a reality through carefully-planned legal action instead of just more talk and blather. My mother, never one to hide her feelings, took me aside after a particularly insufferable outburst on how I intended to save the world and said: “If you graduate from law school without ever having worked at a law firm, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.” Now, it’s true that Mom is drawn to hyperbole (this is, after all, the same woman who said, after I told her I wasn’t planning to change my name when I got married, “well, I hope you’re prepared for a lifetime of heartache and confusion!”) but she had a point. Without ever working in a law firm, and without ever knowing in real life anyone who worked in a law firm, I had ruled them out entirely, which was maybe not fair. Plus, they pay gobs and gobs of money to their summer employees, which became more tempting as the student loan debt began to mount. So I decided to take my mom’s advice and work at a law firm for half of this summer (thus also conveniently sidestepping 40 years of her saying “don’t you ever wonder what might have happen if you’d just given it a shot at a law firm?”) And, as you might have read here, it was pretty good. The people were truly great- smart and funny and interesting and well-informed- all the things I longed for when I was teaching, frankly. And, as promised in my interviews, law firms (or at least the one I was at) do good work. My firm was kind enough to sniff out my public interest leanings and staff me almost exclusively on a pro bono case for the second half of my time there, and the case was fascinating- important, with the potential for nation-wide impact, and an opportunity to work with some really smart people. I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that this is where I’m going to tell you that I had it all wrong about law firms. I’m going to tell you that I’ve seen the light, and really the best way to practice public interest law is from within a law firm, where you are wrapped in a cozy blanket of financial security and you can “leverage the firm’s resources behind the pro bono work to really make an impact.” That’s certainly the line law firms feed you during on-campus interviewing when you ask about pro bono work. Indeed, I did see how nice it can be to be working on behalf of poor people with the benefit of unlimited copy paper, unfettered use of Westlaw, and a word processing department to type in all the changes we made to the dozens of drafts of our amended complaint and memorandum of support. It takes some of the stress away, that nagging tension you feel when you’re trying to walk the tightrope between effective advocacy and responsible financial choices and wonder whether your cost-saving measures come at a cost to your client’s case.
But I didn't drink that deeply of the Kool-Aid. The resources are great, but I also know that as a full-time law firm lawyer you never get to spend 50% of your time working on a pro bono matter, because you have to bill hours to paying clients. And while I don't like worrying that I’ve shortchanged my client in my cost-cutting measures, I do like the sense of ownership that comes from doing all pieces of a case. When there’s no word processing department, you’re typing the brief and editing it and making changes and filing it yourself. And sometimes that’s stressful, but it also lets you see the whole process. The attorneys I worked with did a great job of explaining my assignments to me and giving me a sense of the larger case and the big issues at play, but when it got right down to it, I was a very well-compensated research assistant. So today I head to New York, and on Monday I start my public interest internship, where there are sure to be fewer lunches at swank restaurants and where there will definitely NOT be a Word Processing department. But hopefully, during my six weeks there, they’ll be short handed enough that they’ll give the intern some actual work of consequence to do, and I’ll get to learn a whole lot more about foster care and how it works (and, more importantly, how it doesn’t,) than I know now. Hopefully, I'll come to the conclusion that underpaid but meaningful-to-me public interest work is the direction I want to take for my career. I’ll also be sure to entertain the non-law interested people among you with tales of how fantastically I manage to screw up using NY transit and sad sad stories of eating cereal for dinner 14 days in a row. You’ll be riveted, I promise.