Law School Tutor: Big Law vs. Public Interest?

Posted by Rob Barnett on 3/7/15, 1:00 PM

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You don’t have to join…but it can be hard not to.

One of the biggest cultural divides at any top law school is likely to be the divide between the warm-hearted, caring public-interest law community, and the soulless, greedy, cold-hearted big-law-firm crowd.  Or, it might be the divide between the naïve, holier-than-thou do-gooders and the realistic, well-trained, practical law-firm hires. It’s all a matter of perspective!

At Harvard Law School, where I went, this was a constant source of conversation, discussion, tension, etc.  There was a student group called Firmly Refuse, which pasted the school with fliers highlighting the malfeasant corporations which big law firms had represented, and a backlash to this group that seemed equally strong and impassioned.  So, what gives? 

The Facts (or, My Experience)

When I was looking into law schools, I remember law schools telling me ad nauseam about their public interest opportunities.  I heard about clinics, summer funding programs, fellowships, you name it. From what I heard at the admitted students weekends, you’d think that all law schools did is pump out public defenders, legal services lawyers, human rights advocates, and government attorneys!

Of course, the job placement statistics, at least at Harvard and other top schools, tell a different tale.  I don’t know exactly what percent of Harvard graduates go into the private sector (with or without a clerkship)… and I bet Harvard doesn’t want me to know (See preceding paragraph). From personal experience, though, it’s a lot. 

It isn’t just those business-corporate types, either.  I wrote in my first Law School Consultant blog post about the fact that many law school graduates end up doing something that seems completely different from what those graduates intended to do when they matriculated. That’s definitely true along the public/private line.  Both the students who came in wanting to grease the wheels of capitalism and the students who want to derail the trains ended up in corporate law jobs.

How did this happen?  I’m still not totally sure. It just… happened! It was probably sometime over the 1L summer, when students started to get worried about law firm interviews at the start of 2L year.  (Ironically, most Harvard students spend their summers practicing public interest law!) There are a lot of factors pushing students towards early interviewing: summer supervisors who recommend a few years of “training” on a big law firm’s dime, anxiety about facing the uncertain public-interest job market, even the feeling that “everyone else is doing it” and “I may as well try to see what it’s like.”  Then comes the wine and dine, the high-paying job offers, the prestige game, and then, when you start to calculate just how much you owe in loans…before you know it, everyone’s going to a firm!

But, of course, that’s too cynical.  (Can you guess which of the aforementioned communities I was a part of?)  All law firms do interesting work, that’s important to someone, and is often practiced by excellent lawyers and people. To lump “big law firms” into one group – as I have done! – is itself impossible: there are firms which do all sorts of work and the lawyers who go there are as diverse in interests and experiences as in any public-service sphere.  There’s a lot of important work to be done there too.  I know that from having many friends who are in the corporate world.

And… the kicker… many lawyers end up doing both!  Transitions between public and private spheres seem to be a common factor in many careers, and can go both ways.  The public-interested law student who ends up moving to a firm right after graduation might well end up moving back to the nonprofit world a year or two out of law school, while someone who goes right into a public defender or legal-services office could end up at a firm before the five-year reunion.  Knowing that makes this vaunted public-private divide seem a little silly after all.


So, What Does This Mean for Me?

As a law school tutor, I think it’s important for any incoming student to be aware of the pressures that exist in law school, and the way that many students’ interests – or, at least, career preferences/choices – can shift during law school, and to know that job placement statistics don’t always line up with what law schools promote to applicants.  The struggle is real.

But it shouldn’t actually be a struggle!  Or, at least, not the sort of good vs. evil struggle that so many law students seem intent on making the job process out to be.  It’s a journey, to be sure.  (Mine ended with a math teaching job!)  But it’s more complex than it might seem on the surface--or even when you’re in law school.

I think that concludes this season of law tutor posts, as I hope your law school admissions cycles come to their own close.  I wish you all the best of luck, and please feel free to reach out with any questions!

For more relevant law school tips from our law school consultants and tutors in Boston and New York, check out these blog posts: A Law School Admissions Timeline; What Happens After Graduation?; How to Answer the “Why Do You Want to Attend X School?” Question.

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Tags: law school