Public Service Voices
The Path to Fulfillment is Not a Straight Line
By Jorge L. Barón, Executive Director, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project
One of the most fascinating things about public interest lawyers is that virtually all of us followed interesting paths to getting to where we are today. This is one of the things that I mention to law students who are concerned about what their career is going to look like or what jobs they "should" be pursuing: it is hard to really plan your path, and you will most often find yourself following opportunities as they appear at unexpected times.
My own path to my current position as the executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project was certainly not a straight line, whether one thinks in terms of geography, fields or interests. I was born in Bogotá, Colombia and lived there until I was thirteen, when I moved to the United States along with my mom and two brothers. I went to high school in Northern Virginia and later went to college at Duke in North Carolina. At the time, going to law school was not at all in the horizon. I was interested in business and film, the latter interest stemming from the fact that my father has a long career in the television industry in Colombia. After college, I spent five years in Los Angeles, working in the film industry. Yes, I was living the Hollywood dream, working in big film and television productions and driving around in a red convertible.
So I decided to leave the Hollywood life behind and sold the convertible. I decided to go to law school with the idea that I would work on international human rights issues. As I pursued my law degree, however, I quickly realized that there was much work to be done right here in the United States in terms of protecting human rights. I spent both of my summers working at organizations which defend indigent individuals facing the death penalty in the South. And I spent much of my time at Yale Law School working at the immigration law clinic, representing asylum seekers in their cases. After law school, I came out to the Pacific Northwest for a clerkship and then went back east for a fellowship in Connecticut. And then a little over two years ago, my wife and I decided to come back to Seattle, even though neither one of us had a job lined up here. I applied to a number of organizations, but I really wanted to work at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Little did I know at the time when I was merely hoping to get a job at NWIRP that I would be asked to help lead the organization less than two years later!
It almost goes without saying that I have found my experience here at NWIRP to be incredibly fulfilling. No doubt, immigration work can be incredibly frustrating as we and our clients are faced with an unjust legal framework and an often unresponsive bureaucracy. But extreme as the frustration might be, it does not compare with the rewards when, despite the obstacles, we are able to obtain or defend a client’s immigration status. And, of course, immigration status is important not for its own sake but because of what it entails: the ability to remain united with one’s family, the ability to remain free from persecution or abuse, the ability to be able to financially support the people one loves.
For those of us who came to the law with a particular focus on helping to address inequities in our society, it is often difficult to decide which path we should take because there are so many areas which could benefit from a good public interest lawyer. Should I work in immigration law or community organizing? Family law or employment law? Should I be tackling individual cases or pursuing impact litigation? Or should I be working on policy and legislative advocacy? There is of course no right answer to these questions. The only right answer I have found came from one of my clinical law professors (who also drew on someone else’s words). She said that where a public interest lawyer should be is the point where the world’s overwhelming need intersects with the lawyer’s own willingness to serve. And that point might shift over time based on the lawyer’s own experiences and the world’s shifting needs.
For me, the point where my willingness to serve has met the world’s need is right here in Seattle at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. For you it may be far from here or maybe even in our office. The important things to know are that you are not alone in the search for the point where you belong and that the point is different for each of us. Good luck in your search.