How to become a civil liberties crusader
August 9, 2012 4:58 PM   Subscribe

Public interest law transition-filter: I am a lawyer in a private-sector transactional practice. I would like to be a public interest lawyer doing litigation or policy in national security, civil liberties, surveillance or drug liberalization.

My orientation on all these issues is civil-libertarian, pro-transparency and disclosure, etc. Groups whose work I tend to admire include the ACLU, EFF, EPIC, Government Accountability Project, CCR, etc.

I'm a few years out of law school and I have decent credentials: I graduated from a top school with good grades, and I work for one of the most distinguished "BigLaw" firms. The group I practice in is routinely recognized as the best, or among the best, in the business.

My big weakness is that I have no litigation experience and little public interest history. I haven't clerked. I haven't worked on any of the causes I'm interested in. I have been a member of a civil liberties group, but not a terribly active one. I have done some public interest pro bono projects as a practicing lawyer, but nothing really relevant to what I want to get into.

I understand that this is "bad" -- the question is, what do I do about it? What is the quickest and most efficient way I can get out of what I'm doing and into one of the things I'm interested in? Part-time, volunteer, unpaid internship and similar possibilities are all possible if I need to do them. Should I try to clerk? Who to talk to about this?

(I am of course prepared to accept a vastly diminished wage rate in exchange for work that I will find meaningful.)

All advice is welcome. Thanks.

If there is important information missing let me know in the thread and I will try to follow up.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A few thoughts:

Don't worry about your lack of past public interest work. It will disqualify you from a few places, but many (and most of the elite shops, as far as I can tell) simply want the best credentials and strongest work ethic -- they recognize that BIGLAW works people hard and demands a lot.

Clerkship is an interesting idea -- not a common move for a transactional lawyer, but there must be judges who'd like the idea of adding that to the mix -- especially if they have a docket heavy with controversies in industry areas where you've practiced. You'd need to research the chambers well.

However, if you think litigation or policy where you need to add skills, why don't you ask to transfer to litigation or the policy/regulatory group? Might be a haircut of a class year or two, but that's less of a financial sacrifice than clerking, and would more directly get you into the skill sets of relevance to a public interest litigation role.
posted by MattD at 5:19 PM on August 9, 2012

Develop yourself as an expert on a niche in the area you are interested in. This doesn't have to be something you work in for the rest of your life -- just something -- perhaps the intersection between privacy and voting transparency -- whatever. Start writing short articles on this niche, then longer more academic ones if you have the time, and build up a list of publications in the niche. Start blogging on it and, if you don't have the time to blog, write guest blog posts on relevant blogs. Add every single padiddly publication to your CV. Most people don't realize just how desperate print publications are for copy -- help them out, help yourself out.

Get on the board of the civil rights section of your state bar and other bars (ABA, ASIL, county bar, etc.). This part is easy, boards are always short of motivated people. After serving for a year and answering emails timely, your offer to take a position as vice-chair or co-chair will be readily accepted. Do a few hours a month of pro bono assistance for a civil rights organization; if the ACLU won't take you (many local chapters are flooded with aspirational probono dogooders), find another local organization. Most county or state bars will have a list of a hundred pro bono opportunities -- there's always something even tangentially related. If that doesn't work, find a relevant nonprofit and volunteer two hours of free legal counsel per month. You're now legal advisor to Libertarians for Transparency in the Pornography Trade. Whatever. Throw it on the CV.

Speak. Teach. Go to the local prisons and put on a one hour class on your Amendment of choice -- many/most prisons will allow any lawyer to come in and teach a class for free. On the CV it goes. Present at an old folks home on transparency in the health care industry -- whatever -- on the CV it goes. Once you are more confident, start presenting on the little subjects you wrote about for the state bar magazine or columns in newspapers at conferences. Go into a local school and do a session on civil rights as part of a politics class -- any teacher will be thrilled to get a day off the lesson plan.

Networking is pointless until you've got something to talk to other people about. I mean, yeah, definitely get involved, but no one is going to know who you are until they start seeing your name on all those articles about how we need a 28th amendment prohibiting the broadcasting of signals into deep space. Never shut up.

You are manufacturing an expert. There is no mystery. There are just many, many little steps that eventually become a leap. And it doesn't take all that long, either. A year or so, two max. Feel free to contact me if you'd like to talk more.
posted by letahl at 5:26 PM on August 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

One way to make the switch from a corporate law firm to public interest is to save save save, and then volunteer somewhere full time for six months. Be awesome during those six months. Apply for jobs.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:19 PM on August 9, 2012

I think there are some important things left out of your background. If you do not know already, you should assess what your current standing with your firm is and what your timeframe is for making the move. In your question, you cited wanting the "quickest and most efficient way" out of your current position, but there's a huge difference between having the luxury of your BigLaw salary while trying to retool yourself, versus an impending "you need to find something in 2 months" situation.

How were your hours last year, how are your hours this year, and how do they compare with the others in your associate class? If you do not make your hours, or your performance has otherwise been criticized, how long will it be before you are (gently or otherwise) shown the door by your firm? There is a huge difference in career posture between an associate in good standing versus someone who has just a few months to "find other opportunities".

I would caution against relying overmuch on your firm's internal pro bono program. As a non-litigator, your chances of getting actual pro bono experience from within the firm are, IMHO, slim to none. Real pro bono litigation opportunities are highly likely to be sought by actual litigators. And if your hours are down to begin with, it's very likely you wouldn't be allowed to work on those projects to begin with.

Of course, you should also assess your debt situation and living expenses. Think about what the predominant response would be if you had posted, "Dear Hive Mind, I currently make over $20,000 a month at a job I really hate. How do I extract myself from it so I can do _____?"

One reality check. I'm sure you know what the job market for recent law graduates is like. (If not, urgh....) There is a shit-ton of out-of-work, unemployed or underemployed people with law licenses who have no experience and who are looking for law jobs -- any jobs. There are still very many idealistic law students who want to work for public interest places. And there are far too many lawyers with actual litigation experience, working as "solo practitioners" or contract attorneys doing shit-work who are networking like crazy trying to find jobs. And there are many people -- like you -- who want to make a graceful exit from the lifestyle hell that is BigLaw to public interest. A public-interest position like the ones you mentioned is a prime catch for all of those.

Assuming you are a second- or third-year transactional associate, your BigLaw credentials might get your resume to the top of the stack, and get people to give you a shot even absent the substantive experience. Getting a BigLaw job a few years ago and surviving there for a few years means that you have a good work ethic and you are (probably) just getting to the point where you're not totally useless. (I mean that lovingly, really.) Many potential employers understand that and will value it.

Bottom line, I'd say network, network, network. Try to meet people at some of the organizations you're interested in, and try to figure out what the mix of lawyers in their office is and what their background is like. (Do not be surprised if there aren't many former transactional lawyers there.)

Also, think about geographic considerations. You may have better luck if you are in DC as opposed to New York.

Best of luck to you. It's still brutal out there.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 6:22 PM on August 9, 2012

Either take ClaudiaCenter's route (long stint volunteering) or go back to school to get a masters degree in public policy or similar area. Point of the masters is not to learn anything substantive, but to put yourself back in the "student" slot, with opportunities for internships and networking.
posted by yarly at 6:37 PM on August 9, 2012

I just left Biglaw for public interest. I HATED it there, even though I was making a ton of money. It's a miserable existence. I make about 60% less but my life is 100% better. (Whatever you do, save money and pay off your loans.)

Once I decided to leave it took me about two months to get a great job that I love. The openings are few and part between-- I just happened to be job searching at the exact right moment. I also wasn't looking in a major city like NYC where disgruntled Biglaw attorneys are crawling all over the place, so I think that was part of it too.

Network and submit your applications anywhere and everywhere. Treat interviews as a chance to network. Be prepared for skepticism and hostility because you have been working for the man. You should be able to explain yourself. Why did you work for the man? Why all of a sudden are you inspired by public interest work? My answer was that when I graduated I lacked creativity; I followed the rest of the sheep to the huge firms. It didn't take long for me to realize it was boring and soul crushing. Of course, they will be nervous that public interest is your retirement. Reassure them that you will continue to work your ass off.

Your biggest problem is that you are a transactional attorney. That's a huge, huge issue. If your firm permits it, take on pro bono litigation. Also, write. Publish! Create a couple of excellent writing samples for applications. Do not write about corporate law.

Clerking would be really good for you. It's a good way to network and it's a painless transition out of the firm. It would somewhat mitigate your lack of lit experience as well.
posted by snarfles at 6:46 PM on August 9, 2012

I was in a specialist practice in BigLaw like what you describe (wonder if it was the same one...). One of my colleagues did leave to do a clerkship from a transactional practice, and ended up using that as a bit of a "do over" on his practice.

But if you're in NYC and want to work at those kinds of joints, call/email Steve Shapiro at the ACLU for an informational interview. He is a really great guy, and I'm sure would give you a few minutes, at the very least.

And I agree with the others who say save money, and find yourself someplace that needs a smart body who's willing to work for nothing. Hustle.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:54 PM on August 9, 2012

There's a lot to unpack in your question, and you've gotten some good and perhaps not so good advice. At the outset, I have to say your chance of getting a job of any of the organizations you've listed if you applied today is pretty much zero. You have, as you say, absolutely no relevant experience, either in terms of the type of work you hope to be doing or the substance of it. That combined with your complete lack of public interest work makes you dead in the water. That's not an irrelevant point--- public interest law jobs care a great deal about whether you've done public interest work. Even if having a law firm job on your resume isn't a deal breaker (and in my experience, it often is), public interest lawyers, rightly or wrongly, often have a chip on their shoulders about dilettantism, which is what an application like yours would, today, look like, since you've never devoted any part of your personal or professional life either to these organizations' causes or the substantive legal work underlying them. The idea that having worked only in the private sector, even in biglaw, is going to put you at the top of the stack rather than at the bottom--- if not the garbage--- is, I think, just plain wrong, particularly for the organizations you've named. The ACLU's resume stack has a thousand people in it with great grades, great law schools, great clerkships, and great internships with, you guessed it, the ACLU.

That's all to say you're a hard sell. But you knew that, right? So what do you do about it? You start doing significant pro bono, as much as you possibly can. You start, as advised, becoming active in your bar committees. You create and build relationships with folks working at these organizations. You do not do this by telling them you're a miserable biglaw associate whose only pleasure in life comes from rolling around in all that money they themselves have chosen to forgo, and hey, wouldn't it be great if you could work at the ACLU, too? This is a fast way to annoy the very folks whose favor you are trying to curry. What you should do is put your head down and work, no task being beneath you--- again, nothing will annoy public interest law folks faster than having biglaw swooping in only the sexy work (i.e. policy). In the context of your paid work, try to get some actual litigation experience--- I realize that's often hard, if not impossible, in biglaw, but you should try. Maybe you could consider a career shift to a smaller firm or lesser known public interest place so you can build practical skills as you work on creating a resume the ACLU or the EFF might actually pick up. As for clerking, while it certainly ups the prestige factor for you resume, that's not really your problem. Lack of relevant experience is, so my focus would be on building a more relevant, rather than simply fancier resume. (That's not to say that clerkships are not incredibly valuable--- they are--- but what you need is perhaps more pragmatic.)

And finally, to the extent that what you care about is these organization's missions and actually supporting them, rather than doing sexy policy work, consider applying for a staff lawyer job. Larger public interest places often have their own in-house counsel, whose work may range from employment law to contracts. It's not exactly transactional work, but it's closer to what you've been doing so far, and you'd be doing work that really matters to the causes you care about.
posted by MeadowlarkMaude at 6:59 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Upon reading Meadowlark, I will add the setting your sights a little lower than ACLU is really, really great advice. By starting in a smaller, less prestigious place you can get the experience on your resume and meet the people you need to meet. It's all about getting your foot in the door.

Also! I hope my explanation of why I wanted to leave Biglaw didn't read as "I'm tired of being Scrooge mcDuck, I think the ACLU would be neat." I had totally genuine and informed interest in my now employer and its mission, and you should too. Don't act like people will be impressed with your firm (even if it's the best of the best) because they won't be.
posted by snarfles at 7:13 PM on August 9, 2012

Heh, Medowlark's right. I had forgotten how much Biglaw is distrusted by public-interest folks. Given that disdain, maybe the lack of litigation experience is actually a blessing -- no need to explain away how you billed hundreds of hours helping Chevron or Phillip Morris avoid liability for horrible injuries to the world, you just helped out on some innocent transactional work making The Man a few extra hundreds of millions of dollars.

I still do think that enduring Biglaw for a few years operates as market signaling, though. The proof in the pudding is what the people doing the hiring are looking for. And you'll find that best through networking.

When making the jump out of Biglaw myself, I had to prove to the people who were hiring me that ideological issues weren't going to be a factor. They regarded my experience as valuable and not disqualifying (but that's government, not public interest). And, socially, I had to prove to several co-workers that I was not "one of them". In my initial response here, I equated the (favorable) treatment I received in making my own jump out of Biglaw with a public-interest hiring framework, which is very likely to be different.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 7:28 PM on August 9, 2012

One organization in NYC that does serious free speech support is the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Maybe call them to see if they would be interested in accepting help from you (to build up your pro bono cred and skills.) I don't imagine they'd assign a case to you, but perhaps you could join an existing team that could use more help, and build your skills that way.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:12 PM on August 9, 2012

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