I was talking to my brother Joe the other day about graduation, his and mine. You see, in May, Joe, his twin sister Jackie and I will all be graduating: Joe and Jackie from college and I from law school. Jackie’s got it all figured out; she has known since day one of college what she wanted to do when she got out and has gone after it. Joe, like many college students, is unsure of where he wants to go next in his life. He is filled with inspiring words he has heard over his 16 years of formal education and ready to put those words into action, but he isn’t sure how. And I know how he feels. Seven years ago I was in the exact same position and the choice I made led me here, to Cornell Law School.
As a government major at my college I knew that I was interested in the law and in politics, but I wasn’t ready to commit three years of my life (and a hefty amount of debt!) without being sure that law school was the right decision for me. As my time here at Cornell Law winds down, I know now that I made the right choice and that I owe it to my experience in AmeriCorps.
Through the AmeriCorps program, I worked at a legal aid office in southeastern Massachusetts, splitting my time between two departments. I did some community outreach and organizing around educational issues, and I assisted the housing attorney with her caseload. The housing work was particularly interesting (and relevant to this column) because it gave me some real-world insight into what it was like to be a lawyer. After some training, my supervisor would hand me a file and the case would be mine and so would the opportunity to make a difference.
In the housing department, the bulk of the cases I worked on involved clients who had applied for public housing assistance, whose applications the local housing authority denied and who sought to challenge the denial. Often times the housing authority based these denials on a person’s prior criminal history without looking more carefully at the situation. Sometimes a charge might be something minor or unrelated to being a good tenant; sometimes the conviction would be quite old or the charge was actually dismissed; and sometimes the client would have taken steps in the meantime to address the issue.
The best part of working on these cases was that a law degree wasn’t required, at least at the early stages. So, after I was trained, my supervisor would hand me an intake file, say “I think you can handle this one” and leave me to work. I would handle the entire case, interviewing the client, researching the relevant issues, drafting demand letters, negotiating with the other party and ultimately arguing for my client. Even though it was an administrative proceeding and not an actual court proceeding (so there were far less evidentiary or procedural formalities), I got a taste of what it was like to craft arguments and apply law to facts to further my clients’ claims. I even won a positive result for a few of the clients, which was a great feeling.
I tell this story, though it probably stretches to the outer bounds of “Barely Legal,” for two reasons. The first is to suggest that for many college graduates, working for a year or two (or in my case, four) between college and graduate or professional school is a good idea. Taking four years off between undergrad and law school gave me some great advantages. As a practical matter, it helped to fill me out as a candidate for law school and for summer internships. Interviewers always ask about my AmeriCorps experience and, among other things, I think it shows them that I have carefully considered my choice to become a lawyer and that I have an idea of what that entails. Working for legal aid, I was able to see what being a lawyer was really like, even if it was only a small slice of the legal profession. Also, working in the public sector and for the state legislature, I was able to rule out some other career paths I was contemplating at the time.
The second reason I tell this story is to encourage people, like Joe, who are graduating or will graduate similarly undecided about what to do with their lives to seek out public or nonprofit sector jobs. Even outside of the legal field, programs like Teach for America, the Peace Corps and other AmeriCorps programs are just a few of the opportunities available to get involved and make a difference in the community. In my case, I found meaning in giving back to the community where I grew up by working for some of the more disadvantaged members. My first year out of college, I made a difference in the lives of many people and in return I gained serious, hands-on life experience.
Of course, there are many Jackies in the world, who know exactly what they want and are ready to go for it. But for those of you that are more like Joe, I encourage you to pursue opportunities after graduation that will allow you to gain valuable experience and insight into a career path that might be a good fit for your interests and skills. Programs like AmeriCorps offer these opportunities, with the added bonus of getting involved in, and working to better, your community. That is what I plan to tell Joe.
Matt Bohenek is a third-year law student at Cornell Law School. He may be reached at email@example.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.