Looking for First Hand Info
January 3, 2008 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Applied to law school, looking to do work in human rights or civil liberties - but my info base is low. Just need more first hand information. Would love to hear about attorneys who love what they do - or if you know an lawyer who loves what they do. What kind of law? What does their/your work entail? Or sites that can give me further information. Thank you!!
posted by paris2000 to Law & Government (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You're probably better off knowing a lot more about what you want to do than vague generalities, or law school and the legal world is going to be pretty awful for you. If you want to do something very specific, than you can do some research and figure out how to use your law degree to that end. If you just want to generically fight for civil liberties, you're going to face a very harsh reality. Legal education does not really prepare you for activism and law degrees are very expensive ways to spend three years. The students I know who went to law school to fight for X are the only ones who are actually going to end up doing public interest (and even then, only a fortunate few at top schools get to do what they really want). People who just wanted to sort of fight for human rights end up toiling away 70 hour weeks in the private sector, at best.
posted by allen.spaulding at 6:26 PM on January 3, 2008

I like practicing law more in theory than in practice. To the extent that I assist in the resolution of (legal) problems for people (and entities), I love what I do. But the nuts n bolts of practicing law is soul-eroding. The hours are long, the details are nauseating (but so damn important), and if you are in private practice, you often have to account for every six minutes of your day and sometimes justify your time entries on cross-examination just to get paid.

I was interested in human rights and civil liberties when I went to law school. But the poor and needy don't pay well, and by the time I graduated I had a six-figure debt to pay off. Do not take a law school loan if you plan to represent the poor and needy. You can help them by going to work for any organization that helps them, with or without a law degree.
posted by Jezebella at 6:36 PM on January 3, 2008

>Would love to hear about attorneys who love what they do

Is there a chapter of the law society in the city that you live in? Attend a meeting. Arrive a half-hour early and network with the attendees. To help with this part of the meeting, call the organizer in advance, and state your intentions, tell him/ her that you are applying to law school and that you want to meet with successful passionate lawyers and learn about their work from them.

At the meeting, pick out a couple of people in the crowd and go meet with them (or get the meeting organizer to introduce you to a few people). When meeting with the person, shake hands, tell them your name, ask them theirs (ask for their card) and ask them about their work - what is the best part of their work? the worst? how long have they worked as a lawyer? what is the best moment in their career? and if the meeting is going very well, perhaps you could ask them if their firm offers tours for aspiring students (or student groups once you are in law school)?

Executed well, this could lead you not only to a situation where you could find a mentor in the business, but also an opportunity for articling or for doing a work term. Be professional (dress up for the meeting - and any subsequent meeting), be confident (but not over confident) and remember this - people love to talk about themselves and about their successes.

After your meeting, remember to send a hand-written thank-you card (you asked for the person's card, remember). These are always oh so rare, and oh so appreciated.
posted by seawallrunner at 6:46 PM on January 3, 2008

Mod note: a few comments removed - if your only response is some sort of eye-rolling WTF questions maybe you can just sit this one out.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:52 PM on January 3, 2008

People who have learned the sad truth about the legal profession the hard way wont be nice to you when you ask a question like this, particularly because everyone is always too nice and too positive instead of being realistic about these things.

I went to law school with the goal of helping the underdog. But, as Jezebella said, the underdog doesn't pay enough to cover my student loans - let alone do crazy things like buy a house or save for retirement. Meanwhile, the high profile human rights jobs go to people lucky enough to get them (and by lucky, I mean lucky enough to go to one of the top schools in the country). The professor that helped me focus on human rights in my research through law school has a Ph.D. in economics and a law degree and has still been unable to find employment in the field of human rights. That might give you an indication.

So let us know what you are thinking and we will let you know what we know. But as for stories about lawyers who love what they are doing and who smile every morning when they think about going into work... I don't know that there are going to be many of us around who can help with that.
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:54 PM on January 3, 2008

Instead of cold-calling the busy and understaffed legal departments of random nonprofits, I think it would be better if he could find a web community in which people voluntarily and helpfully answer the questions of others.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with cold-calling if you are looking for only an informational conversation. The key is to know exactly who you want to talk to and what it is you want to talk about. Do some research: 1. What are some groups I've read about? 2. What lawyers worked there that I would like to talk to? 3. Do I have the moxie to call their assistant and ask for 20 minutes of her time for an informational interview as I prepare for law school?

That's all it takes. Picking up the phone and making a call.
posted by parmanparman at 6:57 PM on January 3, 2008

I absolutely love what I do for a living. I'm a criminal defense attorney, and I wouldn't trade my job for anything.
posted by mikeand1 at 7:13 PM on January 3, 2008

I'm a lawyer, and I love what I do. I work for legal services for the poor, providing free legal services to people living with HIV/AIDS in one of the five boroughs in NYC. I've done this work for over five years, every since I graduated from law school. I work hard, and sometimes for long hours, for a relatively (compared to the big firms) low salary. I get great benefits to make up for the low salary, and some loan repayment assistance if I apply for it. I have the freedom to leave my office at 5 if that's what I need to do. After accumulating enough vacation time, I now am able to take every Friday off to hang out with my dog.

The top two things I love about my job are a) that I practice in actual courts (I've been arguing cases since pretty much the second week I started this job), in front of real judges, write my own briefs, argue my own appeals, and so on, and b) that I'm a general practitioner, and am as likely to find myself in Family Court defending Abuse and Neglect cases, in Housing Court representing tenants, in Supreme Court or in front of administrative tribunals trying to get city agencies to do or not do something, or, sometimes, in appellate courts prosecuting or defending appeals. The other things I enjoy about my job are the fact that I have real, individual clients, that my colleagues are smart, awesome, and supportive, and that my supervision is pretty excellent.

I have no idea if this work is what you would call human rights or civil liberties work, but it's pretty gratifying. Oh, one other thing: when I graduated from law school, I had no idea that this was what I was going to wind up doing. I actually didn't know what I wanted to do, just that I didn't want to go work for a firm right out of law school. I'm glad I found this work. It keeps me grounded, sane, and allows me to pay my bills.
posted by lassie at 7:22 PM on January 3, 2008

Go to a law school that's in your area (or look at its web site) and skulk about for lectures and other activities in those areas. Many practitioners give talks that may be of interest to you. If you have the chance, buttonhole people afterwards.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:19 PM on January 3, 2008

Is there a more specific field you are interested in? Or do you just like the idea of doing public interest? A lot of people go to law school wanting to do public interest only to find they don't actually enjoy the work or they can't afford it with the school loans. Also, remember that getting a good public interest job right out of law school is hard. You don't have enough experience to be much good to them. It does happen, but be prepared to work in the private sector for several years to pay off the loans and/or get experience.

Also, if you are serious about doing public interest, make sure your school has a really good loan repayment program (a lot make their programs sound MUCH better than they are, especially once you get out of the T25), also consider going to the school that is the cheapest, although this is a major double edged sword that you will need to consider very carefully.

Sorry this doesn't entirely answer your question, but the variety of public interest jobs out there are so incredibly varied that the only generalization that I can make is that they don't pay well, often they don't offer the work/life balance that people seem to expect for some reason in public interest, but I have heard the work is generally much more interesting (mostly because you often get to pick and choose your cases).
posted by whoaali at 8:24 PM on January 3, 2008

I work for a legal nonprofit as a disability rights lawyer, and I love (usually) what I do. I am very very very lucky to have landed where I am.

If I had to do it all over again, I might leave less to luck, and might plan a little bit more. Things to consider doing (almost all of which I failed to do):

Read the descriptions of these Skadden fellows and their projects. (You have to click through each year to see all of the fellows.) You can look for similar information for Equal Justice Works (another major fellowship funder). When you find someone from these lists who connect to you in some way (geography, same undergrad school, project that speaks to you), google them and figure out where they are now. If they're nearby, call them up and explain that you read about their work and that you'd like to meet with them for coffee or whatever. [If you're interested in criminal defense work, or environmental work, these sources may not apply.]

Be very saavy in selecting a law school WRT future loan obligations. Meet with someone from any prospective school *before* you start attending, and ask them whether they have loan forgiveness, loan repayment, etc., and read the rules and numbers. Consider a state school if the tuition is less, but be sure to weigh in the loan repayment (if any) of a private school.

During law school, try to make connections with two or three nonprofit or government entities. Work at a legal clinic, work as a semester or summer law clerk, work for a professor who runs a legal services clinic. This can take some planning -- you may need to apply for grants (from Equal Justice Works or from your law school's "PILF" or another source) to pay your salary.

Get to know people you like at the organizations where you work as a student and talk to them (when they're not too busy).

Go to public interest events and receptions at your law school and in your local legal community. (You can often pay a very reduced fee to attend or just walk in as a student.) Have fun with it.

If you connect to the people and institutions who do the work, and demonstrate your abilities, then you are more likely to have opportunities. As you approach graduation, start applying for nonprofit fellowships (and the very few entry-level positions).

It was my experience that the first few years in the non-profit world were extremely tough because the pay was so bad and the funding uneven. After a few years, it got easier.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:34 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

While it's certainly possible to do good work in the public interest, it's a bit much to hope for that kind of fulfilling and meaningful job out of the gate. In human rights especially - the impression I got from my international law classes was that human rights law is pretty much a wash these days. I'd definitely concentrate on more domestic battles.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 8:38 PM on January 3, 2008

Oh, I didn't answer the question. I do employment and disability rights law. I do a different types of legal work -- direct services, litigation, legislation, amicus work. Also assist (as does everyone) in fundraising and other organizational matters.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:52 PM on January 3, 2008

I'm just beginning my foray into the legal world, so take my comment in that context, but here's my experience:

An internship with a legal aid organization in undergrad was what made me want to go to law school. I did well there and loved the work. The BigLaw life and salary was never my motivation for choosing a legal career - I wanted to help society's downtrodden.

I graduated from a highly ranked law school, but my grades were only decent and I didn't have the time for more than a couple of extracurriculars. The relative few social justice jobs went to the top ranked students in my class; students who were incredibly driven and not infrequently well-connected to boot. When the student loans came due and I still hadn't managed to find work in legal aid, I accepted a position at a general practice firm mostly out of financial necessity. It's not evil corporate work by any means, but it certainly isn't what I envisioned myself doing back when I entered law school. Human rights/civil liberties? ACLU type stuff? Much more competitive.

The things I wish I had known before going to law school:

There are a lot of other law students who will take the long hours and low pay for an altruistic career, and therefore a lot of competition. I'd say even more than for the big corporate firms.

It's a lot harder to get to the top of your class at law school than you'd think (this coming from someone who got 4.0s in undergrad while barely trying).

Don't let this discourage you; I'm not unhappy. My plan for now is to save up some money and build experience and perhaps break into legal aid in a couple of years, so it's not as though I've had to give up my dream. It's just been my experience that wanting to change the world or to use your legal powers for good aren't enough on their own to get you into the rewarding public interest work.
posted by AV at 9:08 PM on January 3, 2008

I'm not a public interest lawyer, nor do I foresee myself being one, but I'll give you some general pre-law-school advice.

First, be very, very conscious of the economic reality of the cost of law school and the low pay that often comes with the kind of career you want. If you do not have a substantial scholarship and go through with it anyway, be prepared to spend 5 to 10 years doing decidedly non-public interest work in order to pay off your student loans.

Also, as others have noted, the job market is very tight, including the public interest job market. I would advise you not to go to any school where you cannot be very confident that you will do significantly better than your peers.
posted by jedicus at 9:18 PM on January 3, 2008

I have a friend who's an ACLU lawyer. She loves her job, finds it very interesting and fulfilling without crazy hours. Her main complaint is that the work that is done by secretaries or more menial associates is, in public interest, usually done by you. Civil rights law is also extremely competitive and poorly paying--said friend was lucky/hardworking/talented enough to make law review at a top five law school, and to have a strong background in activism and social justice, as well as a family that was able to help her avoid going into debt for her education.
posted by phoenixy at 9:27 PM on January 3, 2008

No information in your profile or your question about where you live or intend to practice. I work as a prosecutor in Canada, and I love what I do. It is a very different job than that of an ADA in the U.S. from what I understand, and I work (generally) far better hours than my private practice colleagues, and the compensation package is competitive, though not stellar. Law school was a pittance back when I took it, so my loans weren't punishing. I get to go to court often (which is what I love to do), and I help put dangerous people away for a very long time when it is warranted.
posted by birdsquared at 9:44 PM on January 3, 2008

I'm a clerk for a federal judge, and I really enjoy my job. I'm two and a half years out of law school, and I worked in private practice doing patent litigation for just shy of two years before I started the current gig. I liked that too.

What people have said above regarding the competetiveness of high profile public interest positions, particularly those in the human rights and civil liberties arenas is very true. The most elite of these jobs, including the ACLU, are not in a tight market in the economic sense, as corporate jobs are with the credit markets failing. The elite public interest jobs are in a tight market in the sense that the hiring is extraordinarily competetive, and there will always be more qualified cnadidates than positions, regardless of the economy. The people who seek and get these jobs, in my experience, are those who are completely committed to their cause from the outset and have stellar credentials. If you look at the list of Skadden Fellows that ClaudiaCenter posted above, you'll note that they almost all went to the most elite law schools.

Another reason that the jobs you describe are hard to come by is that the big private law firms do a lot of high profile civil liberties work pro bono. For example, there are hundreds of attorneys working at big corporate firms working on Guantanamo detainee cases.* I'm not suggeting that if you want to save the world you can do it in your spare time at a big firm. It's just that the willingness of these firms to put their manpower and other resources into public necessarily affects the market for full-time public interest attorneys. For reference, when I was in private practice, I billed about 10% of my time to pro bono matters, including appellate cases dealing with enemy combatant issues and international law.

Finally, here are a couple other AskMe threads you might find interesting:
4/25/05: How do I find the 'quality of life' law firm?
5/9/07: Help a lawyer find happiness?
9/18/07: Chasing Paper

* Example: The Ultimate Legal Challenge (great article)
posted by jewishbuddha at 9:57 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a barrister in Australia. I mainly do criminal defence work. The legal system here is obviously more aligned with the UK system than the US, but there may be some points of comparison. My practice is entirely court-based. I'm in court every day, and in a given week may do anything between 5-8 or more briefs. Much of my work is in the Magistrates Court, dealing with less serious matters, but I'm working increasingly in higher jurisdictions.

About 2 years ago I expressed an interest in doing work involving mental impairment. A few solicitors picked me p to represent clients of theirs with psychiatric illnesses or intellectual disabilities. The legislation that governs this area in my state is sufficiently poorly constructed to put a lot of people off, so if you show any aptitude or enthusiasm for the work, you'll get lots of it. I'm not at a point where proabably over 50% of my clients have some sort of psych illness or disability. The work is interesting legally, but it's also very interesting from a human perspective. I tend to spend nearly as much time pressuring health bodies to fund services for my clients that are alternatives to custody as I do arguing those alternatives in court. The work is very rewarding, but very draining. There is a very strong requirement to communicate effectively with and generate rapport with the clients. In many cases, they are utterly terrified of what is happening to them and have no real understanding of how much or indeed how little trouble they are in.

I enjoy my job. I don't think that I'll keep doing it forever, but for the moment I'm very happy to be working in an area that makes a profound difference in the wellbeing of some uniquely vulnerable people in our society.
posted by tim_in_oz at 11:18 PM on January 3, 2008

If your goal is to be a public defender or a district attorney, that's quite attainable for any dedicated person as long as you do the right internships and don't go too far into debt and aren't in a really competitive place like New York. Those are really hard jobs, though, and you have to have the right personality or you'll burn out quickly.

If your goal is to work for Amnesty or the ACLU, then, as others have said, you have to be really good and well-positioned and go to a top-five law school. Those schools all have relatively decent loan repayment programs that will help you (barely) survive, but you'll never be rich.

If you want to work for a civil legal aid organization, you don't have to be quite as high-class as to work at Amnesty or ACLU, but you absolutely do have to have the right internships and a post-law school fellowship like Skadden or Equal Justice Works, because those organizations don't tend to hire newbies otherwise. And oh yeah, the $1200/month debt payments, keeping in mind that your starting salary will probably be in the low forties...

If you get offered a full-ride scholarship at a lesser-ranked school, it's worth considering if you limit your goals to being a public defender/DA/or working at a smaller, regional nonprofit. But you'll have to work even harder to establish your academic & public interest bona fides in order to get hired after school's over. And you'll have to stay in the region where your school is in order to work the connections and have credibility.

If you really want to do this, I'd suggest that you defer admission to law school for a year, preferable two or three. Go get some real experience in a nonprofit (work as an investigator for a DA, a program assistant at a nonprofit, whatever) so you can see what kind of work you might like and, more importantly, establish that you're a bona fide "public interest person." This will help you get into the better schools and, ideally, get some scholarships.

For what it's worth, I love my job at a plaintiffs' employment law firm! But I had to work really hard to get here, and I started out law school with a big leg up because of my pre-law job at an internationally-known nonprofit with tons of connections to my law school.
posted by footnote at 5:51 AM on January 4, 2008

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