now clogging the internet elsewhere

23 July 2006

Brace yourself, Big Apple

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.


At 7/23/2006 11:25:00 AM, Anonymous Mason's Sister said...

If you're every up for some cheap cuisine a step above the cereal, along with fascinating institute tales told in a language of only acronyms let me know!

At 7/23/2006 11:47:00 AM, Anonymous Mason said...

I see my sister has beaten me here. It is so sad for me that you are both in NY together and I am not there. BUT, I promise a weekend trip up and I'll even be a sport about the acronyms. And pseudostoops- I just bought groceries so that I can pack myself lunches this week in public interest- goodbye free food.

At 7/23/2006 12:41:00 PM, Blogger Lily Graypure said...

I think it's really cool that you've split your summer. You've done it the smart way--last summer I took two unpaid internships, and my finances have never been the same since. Good luck!

At 7/23/2006 11:22:00 PM, Anonymous samantha Jo Campen said...

I *thought* someone had upset the force. I guess that was just you leaving Chicago. hurmph.

Really, if I can function in NYC and kick ass on public transit, you can too. I didn't even get groped!

At 7/24/2006 04:59:00 PM, Blogger half & half said...

Hey, the public interest life doesn't seem so bad. I mean, you still get to bill the cost of the cereal to your client, right? Right?

At 7/24/2006 09:17:00 PM, Blogger TMAO said...

I don't know anyone who agonizes over a single previously made and continuously reinforced choice as much as you, nor manages to make it seem as interesting and endearing. I've been thinking about your situation and have decided that it would make an amazing Adult Choose Your Own Adventure.

GOAL: You must navigate the dual worlds of law school and the legal practice without sacrificing her ideals or succumbing to the lure of the Bright Lights and Big City.

If you accept the summer job at the law firm, turn to page 47. If you volunteer at the free legal clinic, turn to page 98.

Seriously. I think this could be huge.

Then we could expand it to cover a wide array of scenarios. If you order another Wisconsin Lunchbox, turn to page 4. If you go for the PBR, turn to page 98. If you order whiskey and tell the barkeep to knock out another Cosmo for the young lady at the end of the bar, turn to page 56.

If you reinvest your tax return to bolster the strength of your profolio, turn to page 112. If you take the money and head for Mexico with a mixtape from Summer 97 and an inflatable goat named Earl, turn to 83. If you support the local economy with endless purchases of burnt coffee, new fiction, and large burritos, turn to 48.

I'm getting more excited by the minute. I'm quitting my job.

At 7/25/2006 12:14:00 PM, Anonymous dutch from sweet juniper said...

okay, so I figured out what firm you clerked for (the day I linked to you I noticed in my sitemeter that you had come over several times from your own statcounter and the law firm's name shows up in statcounter) don't worry, I won't out you, but I will say this: when it comes time to make a decision about actually accepting a job there, let me put you in touch with a friend who was there for two years. I believe it is wise to at least hear from those who've taken the path before you.


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