Making Public Interest Work

November 17, 2010 - 12 AM

S.S., 1L

Many people arrive at law school, particularly at Yale, with deep ideals and prior experience in the fields in which they eventually hope to work. I worked on anti-trafficking issues in India and spent most of my undergraduate career involved in education issues among the poor and incarcerated in both US and South Asia.

Yale likely has one of the largest proportions of alumni working full-time in public interest careers. I tend to be cautious about relying solely on statistics proffered by career development offices, but whether you look at the number of graduates who have been awarded prestigious postgraduate fellowships like the Skadden or Equal Justice Works or the number of alumni 10 years out working at public interest firms, organizations, or in government, Yale does quite well for itself. And you can start getting involved with public interest work from your first year—I am currently representing an Iraqi living in Amman in an appeals process for resettlement in the US through the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). And unlike most other law schools, at Yale, 1Ls can become involved in clinics starting their second semester, so opportunities abound.

In terms of career choices, Yale is extremely generous with its funding of public interest careers, both in terms of loan forgiveness and postgraduate fellowships; still, some classmates can be tempted by high-paying private sector jobs (sometimes just temporarily). It's true that the average public interest lawyer's paycheck is smaller than that of a big law firm associate, and it can be scary for some of my peers to imagine raising a family on a $50,000/year salary. Yet I came from such a family, plus I'm also pursuing a Ph.D. in economics, so I'm aware of how many families in America, and obviously in the world, live happily on salaries below that figure. My point is that people's experiences can shape their expectations and career choices. So while Yale is probably one of the best law schools to pursue public interest work, the lure of a big and relatively secure paycheck to help pay off student loans can sometimes distract from public interest ideals. Clinics and the other public interest offerings at YLS help to keep public interest-minded students focused on the reasons why they've made a commitment to serve others rather than simply their own bank account.

I'm happy that at YLS I have found great friends who truly are committed to public interest, many of whom have spent years working at environmental nonprofits, charter schools, or in grassroots social movements before coming here. All of my friends challenge me to think more deeply about my own values, in a way that I think sets Yale apart from just about any other law school.