Public Interest

Incoming summer associates, would you donate one day of your summer salary to help other students at your school who did not get summer jobs? Would you donate that money for a pro bono or public interest cause? Would you donate that money so your law school could fund the pro bono interests of other students?

Or am I giving you a false choice? Is it offensive to suggest that your law school needs one cent of your hard-won salary to fund public interest programs that should be covered by your tuition?

These are the questions facing students at one law school, thanks to an interesting donation request from the school’s administration. This isn’t a public interest auction like you’ll see at many law schools, where students with extra cash can bid on items, and auction proceeds are used to fund public interest fellowships. Rather, this is a direct request for a redistribution of income.

And I’m not sure if this is laudable or monstrous…

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Size Matters, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

I have written this column from many places: my parents’ couch, my local Starbucks, my bed, etc. I have yet to try it from atop a soapbox, but here goes.

It is common knowledge that the need for pro bono services is increasing as funding for pro bono organizations is decreasing (or ceasing altogether). As explained by ABA President Stephen Zack, in a letter opposing cuts to funding for the Legal Services Corporation, “[f]inancially, many Americans are still hanging on by their fingernails. The worst thing that could happen is to lose the place people can turn to when their money woes create legal problems.”

Similarly, as explained by Esther Lardent, President of the Pro Bono Institute, in her address at the 2011 Annual Seminar and Forum on In-House Pro Bono, with regard to the impact of the economic downturn, “for pro bono . . . the worst is yet to come.” Lardent explains that the loss of funding to pro bono organizations has posed a “justice crisis,” and the need for legal assistance will increase.

So, as a result of the economy, more people need legal aid, but fewer legal aid organizations are able to meet those needs. Clearly if these people are to be served, private lawyers are going to need to take the laboring oar — and they have. According to Lardent, pro bono hours performed by major law firms increased in 2009 (2010 data is not yet available).

What about small law firms?

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On Tuesday we told you that McGuireWoods, Dewey & LeBoeuf, and Weil Gosthal were all contributing to the relief efforts under way in Japan. The response has been pretty great.

While some people seem to think Japan’s status as a rich nation means it doesn’t need any international aid, I don’t see how the country’s long-term ability to recover has anything to do with the immediate humanitarian crisis. Japan will undoubtedly be able to rebuild in the future, but its citizens need food and water today.

We’ve now received word that even more Biglaw firms are pitching in to do what they can. If you know of additional firms supporting relief efforts that we have not mentioned, please tell us in the comments to this post….

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After the Haitian earthquake last year, we saw law firms step up in a big way to support relief efforts down there. Hopefully we will see the same reaction to the ever-increasing tragedy unfolding in Japan. Given an 8.9 a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a massive tsunami, and a nuclear disaster that is already the second-worst nuclear accident in history, you hope that Japan will get all the help that the world can provide.

If anything, the nuclear meltdown angle is obscuring the humanitarian crisis currently happening in Japan. We know that Americans can’t focus on something unless there is some tangential relationship to something bad that could happen here, but you’d think that the possibility of 10,000 deaths would be enough to trigger our humanitarian concern without obsessing about apocalyptic scenarios.

Thankfully, a couple of law firms aren’t waiting for Japan to start glowing before making efforts to help…

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Numerous applicants to law school claim that they want to become lawyers in order to serve the public interest — and some of them are telling the truth. Alas, after burdening themselves with six figures of law school debt, they find it difficult to follow through on their public-interest dreams. The path of least resistance, or at least the path to the fastest repayment of loans, is working for a large law firm.

Working for a prominent law firm is great — lucrative, prestigious, honorable work — provided that it’s actually what you want to be doing (as opposed to, say, public interest work in Nepal). Unfortunately, many who toil in Biglaw do so primarily for the debt-dispelling powers of the paycheck.

Well, if you go to the University of Chicago Law School, you might be able to have your cake and eat it too — i.e., obtain an amazing legal education, work in the public interest, and not find yourself trying to invoke the “undue hardship” exception in bankruptcy.

Let’s learn about some changes that Chicago Law just announced to its LRAP, or Loan Repayment Assistance Program (those wonky Chicago types love their acronyms)….

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A view of Kathmandu (via The Kathmanduo).

On Wednesday we wrote about the great departure email sent out by Brian Emeott, a former corporate associate at Skadden in Chicago. Emeott, a 2004 graduate of Harvard College and 2008 graduate of Harvard Law School, picked up and moved to Kathmandu, Nepal.

Brian’s wife, Claudine Emeott, resigned from her own job in December and moved to Kathmandu in January. She’s in Nepal to advance a worthy cause: as a Kiva Fellow, Claudine is working with a local microfinance institution for three months.

In our original post, we applauded the Emeotts for their sense of adventure. You can follow them at their (excellent) blog, The Kathmanduo, as they “work, write, and photograph [their] way through beloved Nepal.”

Some of our commenters, however, were more skeptical. They wondered (and so did we): How are the Emeotts making this work, in financial terms? Are they trust fund babies?

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Today we honor the birthday of the late great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929 (so he would have been 82 today). The holiday of MLK Day is observed on the third Monday of January.

Legislation for a holiday honoring Dr. King was first introduced shortly after his assassination in 1968, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the legislation was passed and the holiday signed into law (by President Ronald Reagan). Observation of the holiday was controversial for a time, but in 2000 it was officially observed in all 50 states.

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Ed. note: Have a question for next week? Send it in to advice@abovethelaw.com.

Dear ATL:

I am a graduate of a T3 law school.  I was on a law journal, successfully competed in moot court competitions (regional and national) and loved my clinical experience during my third year of law school.  Basically, I love the courtroom, want to be a litigator, and have seriously been searching for a public interest job for a longtime.  It just hasn’t happened yet.

However, recently I had the opportunity to interview with BigLaw.  It’s a Vault50 firm, with an excellent reputation (like I need to say that). However, the offer I received was for a non-legal position, in the litigation support arm of the firm.  The pay isn’t great, but it’s almost in line with what most new lawyers are making anyway (those who aren’t going straight to BigLaw from OCI).  Is this a smart career choice?  Does the networking opportunity outweigh the cons of the position?  I’m just not sure if it’s smart to wait for a real lawyer gig, or take this position and run with it, and be the best non-lawyer I can be at the law firm.  Thoughts, comments, advice?

– Oliver Twist

Dear Oliver Twist….

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Biglaw isn’t all about high-stakes mergers and bet-the-company litigation. Many Biglaw firms take their commitment to pro bono very seriously. Obviously, these firms need to pay the bills, first and foremost. But when they can, many firms do try to give back.

As many of you already know, Skadden takes that commitment quite a bit further, with its Skadden Fellows program. We highlight this worthy program every year. The Skadden Fellowships are for law school graduates who want to devote their lives to public service, and the firm makes a major financial commitment to its fellows. From the Skadden Fellows website:

Fellowships are awarded for two years. Skadden provides each Fellow with a salary and pays all fringe benefits to which an employee of the sponsoring organization would be entitled. For those Fellows not covered by a law school low income protection plan, the firm will pay a Fellow’s law school debt service for the tuition part of the loan for the duration of the fellowship. The 2011 class of Fellows brings to 620 the number of academically outstanding law school graduates and judicial clerks the firm has funded to work full-time for legal and advocacy organizations.

It’s a sweet gig if you can get it.

And if you take a look at the list of Fellows — perhaps you know some of them? — you’ll notice that quite a few of them attend the top law schools in the country….

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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…

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