Public Interest

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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Convicts, or Mississippi lawyers?

Can Mississippi force lawyers to do pro bono work?

That’s the question state bar officials are thinking about, as reported in the ABA Journal. A number of Mississippi lawyers are objecting to a proposal that would require them to either (1) spend 20 hours a year representing the poor or (2) contribute $500 to the state bar for legal services programs.

One of these days, Mississippi is going to do something objectively good and moral and not at all confusing. But today is not that day…

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Earlier this week, Conor Friedersdorf, writing for The Atlantic, poured a big bottle of haterade all over the legal profession. More specifically, he criticized the way “Ivy League” lawyers are recruited, and the “palpable sense of entitlement” they exhibit even when they don’t take Biglaw bucks and instead work for the government. Here’s the set up:

The details of how elite law and business consulting firms recruit astonish me every time I hear them. Even getting an interview often requires attending an Ivy League professional school or a very few top tier equivalents. Folks who succeed in that round are invited to spend a summer working at the firm, the most sane aspect of the process.

But subsequently, they participate in sell events where they’re plied with food and alcohol in the most lavish settings imaginable: five star resort hotels, fine cigar bars, the priciest restaurants.

And here’s the money shot, one that is careening around the legal blogosphere like Billy Joel trying to get back from the Hamptons before the hurricane hits:

Though it isn’t defensible, it is unsurprising that a lot of people who eschew offers to work at these firms, favoring public sector work instead, imagine that they are making an enormous personal sacrifice by taking government work. The palpable sense of entitlement some of these public sector folks exude is owed partly to how few of “our best and brightest” do eschew the big firm route (due partly to increasing debt levels among today’s graduates, no doubt).

Really? You want to do this now? You want to talk smack about the people on the bottom rung of this totem pole, while willfully ignoring the clients, partners, law schools, and state governments that generate huge sums of wealth off the backs of the palpably entitled?

Fine. Let me take off my glasses, and we’ll step outside…

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UMass School of Law (fka Southern New England School of Law) is open for business. Orientation happened last week, and students started classes yesterday, at Massachusetts’s first public law school.

As has been well-documented in these pages, I’m unimpressed. Put simply: there isn’t enough of a demand for new lawyers right now to justify a revamped public law school — no matter how many times you emphasize the word “public” in your press releases.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to voice my concerns to the dean of UMass Law, Robert Ward, on NPR’s Radio Boston program. Click here to listen (I start running my mouth at the 8:30 mark).

I was asked on the program to provide an alternative perspective to the dean, and that’s what I did. But the mentality of the callers was particularly interesting. They really illustrated why there is so much support for more law schools…

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Sow your wild oats for a year -- and come to the firm when you're ready to work.

With apologies to Langston Hughes, we have to ask:

What happens to an associate deferred?
Does he dry up, like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore — and then run?

Run, run — away from Biglaw. That seems to be what at least some deferred associates are doing, as reported last week by the New York Times in an article about how they spent their deferral years — and how some of them aren’t returning to the well-feathered nests of private law firms when called back.

The Times interviewed two deferred associates who aren’t going back to their firms. Nathan Richardson, a 2009 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School who was deferred by Latham & Watkins, spent his year doing environmental law research at Resources for the Future — and plans to remain in public interest. Avi Singh, a 2009 graduate of Harvard Law School who was deferred by Quinn Emanuel, went off to the Santa Clara County public defender’s office in San Jose — and is staying there.

Due to deferrals, Latham and Quinn just lost the services of two bright young attorneys. And maybe, just maybe, this isn’t a bad thing — not just for these lawyers, but for their law firms….

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Usually, we find conversations with lawyers to be very engaging. But in this video short, Ron Livingston does not:

The Responsibility Project

The video was produced as part of a corporate undertaking — The Responsibility Project — devoted to “exploring what it means to do the right thing.” So, what is it trying to say exactly?

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Desperate times call for measures to take advantage of the desperate. Why pay California lawyers $10 an hour when they’re willing to work for free? And not just willing, but eager to provide their services on a volunteer basis.

We wrote before about the public sector utilizing the unpaid legal workforce when the Marin County DA advertised for attorneys for “unpaid, temporary positions that offer a valuable opportunity to gain courtroom experience including trying misdemeanor jury trials.” Last week, a tipster sent along another Craigslist ad from the other side of the Bay, with the subject line, “Seriously?” An excerpt:

Superior Court of San Mateo County Seeks Volunteers

The Legal Research Department of the Superior Court of California, County of San Mateo, is seeking attorneys willing to volunteer their time as a legal research attorney with a minimum 6 month commitment to the court.

We write often about these depressing job ads and the fact that a degree that entails six figures of debt can only help you nail down a six-month unpaid position. We wondered what kind of response such ads were actually getting, so we reached out to the San Mateo Court.

The response makes the ads even more depressing. The hiring attorney tells us that his phone won’t stop ringing…

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Working as a lawyer for the government is regarded by many as the life raft for riding out the recession. But thanks to shrinking budgets, attorneys in the public sector are also losing their jobs.

Yesterday the Bronx District Attorney, Robert T. Johnson, issued a letter announcing a layoff of 12 assistant district attorneys in his office, scheduled to take effect by the end of this month. The prosecutors who are losing their jobs have already been notified. Johnson blamed the New York City financial plan, which significantly reduces the office’s funding for the fiscal years of 2011, which started yesterday, and 2012.

The cuts were not unexpected, since Johnson had laid the groundwork for layoffs in a letter back in May. In that letter, first reported by the New York Daily News, Johnson predicted that he might have to lay off as many as 45 ADAs. So the cut of 12 ADAs could be seen as “good news,” since it’s smaller than some expected. (In his letter yesterday, Johnson said that he was able to avoid larger cuts thanks in part to some cost-saving measures in the office.)

But Robert Johnson announced another piece of news at the same time, which a number of veteran prosecutors found strange and upsetting….

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