People come to law school for a whole host of different reasons. Most personal statements speak of a desire to alleviate international injustices, to fight for equality and generally improve the world. Somewhere along the way, however, many of these plans get derailed. Opportunities to join prestigious law firms, a new-found interest in subjects like tax and the desire to make a lot of money are among the myriad reasons for which people stray from their initial paths.
Debt is generally the major catalyst. Even for those who come into law school debt-free, most leave law school with a six-figure debt cloud hovering over their heads. Despite the existence of loan repayment programs at top law schools, including Cornell, the fear of one day being unable to pay those loans back motivates many students who would not otherwise be interested to work high paying firm jobs for at least two to three years after graduation. The attrition rate at major firms is high, and most students know that they won’t truly enjoy the work, but they’re willing to put their dreams and social lives on hold for a couple years to pay down debt.
There are, of course, some students who came in to law school knowing exactly what they wanted to do — whether that be firm work, government work or otherwise — who are graduating with the same plan in mind. I’m happy for them, but I think they’re exceptions, not the norm.
After graduation, I’m planning to work at a law firm in labor and employment law. I knew very little about labor and employment law before coming to law school, and I really didn’t know what kind of law I wanted to practice. Like many of my peers, I was drawn to law firm work because of the potential to pay down debt. Fortunately, I’m very interested in labor and employment law and the firm was a great fit for me personality-wise, so I know I’ll enjoy what I do, but part of me wants to make sure I still find time to do the type of public interest work I mentioned in my personal statement.
Earlier this week, I was in South Carolina helping attorneys prepare for a post conviction review hearing in a death penalty case. The work was extremely interesting, and the stakes were very high. Additionally, the people I worked with, through the Cornell Capital Punishment Clinic, are extremely gifted at what they do — the world needs more lawyers like them. Although I don’t think I could ever do death penalty work full-time, I think it would be really fulfilling to take on a criminal defense case once in a while to give back and interact with different clients. Regardless of where my legal career takes me, the perspective I gained from working in the clinic has instilled in me a need to do some type of public service work whenever possible.
I urge you to think carefully about the type of pro bono work in which you engage. If you’re interested in capital defense work, try to seek out opportunities to help out death penalty resource centers or capital defenders’ offices. If you’re more interested in estate planning work, link up with local organizations who offer free will and trust services to indigent clients. Seek out organizations that engage in the type of public interest work that interests you most. It will be a nice break from your routine, and you’ll make a real impact on people’s lives. Legal aid organizations are more strapped for cash than ever before and all of them most certainly have more cases coming in than they can handle.
For those of you headed to law firms, congratulations! You’ve worked hard and should be proud of the offer you received. But if you ever had any inclination of doing public service work, please keep in mind that BigLaw and public service work are not mutually exclusive career paths. Bar associations impose upon all attorneys the obligation to engage in pro bono work, and many law firms allow you to count a certain number of pro bono hours toward your billable quota.
What I’m saying is, you can have both. You can work for a large law firm to earn the money you need to turn that giant debt cloud into a positive net worth while still engaging in, albeit on a more limited scale, some of the public service work you may have hoped to do initially. For those of you who were never interested in public service work, I urge you to give it a shot. As many can attest, it’s extremely rewarding.
This is my last Barely Legal column, and I thank you all for reading this year. I’m extremely proud of the Class of 2012, and regardless of where you’re heading, I wish you all the very best.
Chuck Guzak is a third-year law student at Cornell Law School and he assigns and edits submissions for Barely Legal. He may be reached at email@example.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.