As T-Fifty wisely noted this morning, getting a public interest legal job is a lot harder than it looks. You can’t spend two years of law school trying to get Biglaw to notice you, and only turn on your public interest charm after Biglaw rejects you. You can’t treat public interest jobs like the ugly girl ovulating her way through a night out with attractive friends.

Since getting a public interest job (especially a paying public interest job) is so competitive, students expect their law schools to help them through the process. And if you go to one of the best law schools in the nation looking to do public interest work, you expect quite a bit of help. That’s why your parents paid to put you through law school in the first place. (Oh, I’m sorry. Of course there are some people who are borrowing the full freight of a $45K/year education but totally intend to work for $45K salaries for the rest of their lives “because it’s the right thing to do.” Sure there are.)

At Columbia Law School, the students are complaining that they are not getting the public interest support they expected. As of this writing, 215 of them have signed a petition asking Dean David M. Schizer to address their concerns about career services for students who want to go into the public interest.

Given the general difficulty all law students are having getting any type of job, the public interest concerns could seem small time. But since so many law schools sell themselves as the cradle for our public interest lawyers of the future, you’d think a school like Columbia would do a better job at least paying lip service to the public interest ideal…

The petition is very long (you can read the full version here) but the point is clear. From the petition sent to Dean Schizer:

We write to alert you to a wide divide between how much support the administration believes it is providing to students seeking opportunities in public interest and the amount of support that students actually feel they are receiving.

There are a lot of arguments in this petition, but the ones about the staffing of Columbia’s public interest programs seem to be the most critical. Columbia can talk about helping students pursue careers in the public interest, but if they are not willing to put any manpower behind it (or enough competent manpower behind it) then it really is just talk:

Staff Retention: In the past eleven months, SJI has lost six staff members, ending the mentoring relationships we had developed with them. Dean Chapnick is now the only SJI staff member who worked in the office when current 2L students began their studies just over a year ago. The lack of overlap between the tenures of departing and arriving staff exacerbates the loss of institutional knowledge, resulting in extended periods of confusion. Please explain the reasons for this high rate of attrition….

Career Counseling for 2011: Given the critical need for advising in November through March, the staffing gaps at the office currently are debilitating for students seeking assistance in their pursuit of summer and post-graduate employment. Please identify what steps are being taken to provide counseling to students in the interim, what the anticipated schedule is for hiring replacements for the open positions and whether the administration plans on soliciting student input in the selection process.

The best part of the petition is the part where Columbia students beg for more networking opportunities:

Demand for Mentoring and Alumni Networks: Existing mentoring and alumni networking facilities through SJI are inadequate. While student groups try to fill this void, CLS needs an alumni database exclusively for public interest careers; this could be easily created from the spreadsheets SJI currently maintains. Please direct SJI to take steps to create this type of resource, if possible. If not possible, please explain why.

Hey, what’s the point of going to an Ivy League law school if not to network with Ivy League alumni?

In all, I think this petition is something nice to see. People complain all the time that lawyers are consumed by money. Well, here you have a bunch of students going to one of the best law schools in the country who want to devote some time to public interest. That’s nice. The fact that their very own educational institution is not doing a very good job helping them launch their careers is, sadly, typical.

It’s easy to blame law students for their (multiple) failings, but sometimes they just need a little help (and hand holding) from the people who are supposed to be preparing them for their future.

Petition [Public Interest Programming at Columbia Law School]


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