Public Service Voices

Crafting a public interest plan for the long-term

I came to the UW law school in 1998 with tunnel-vision focus to work on behalf of incarcerated people. In college I started writing and researching prison issues and began working with prisoners and activists: this interest would propel me to and through law school. I suppose this area of work best feeds my authority complex and it's ceaselessly complex. No lack of opportunities to fight The Man or stretch your brain.

What this means as a career path is something less direct: with a paucity of prisoners' rights work opportunities, I started with a disability rights group in Seattle where I worked with a broader array of folks: from psychiatric hospitals to schools to prisons and jails, the client population was vast. I wandered a bit after that job searching for a better fit (tangents included stints as a criminal defense investigator and a private practice). I would find a good match as a public defender trial lawyer in the Portland, OR, area where I am now.

The work is tremendous, the issues sometimes of great import. How invigorating to successfully defend your client against the formidable powers of the State, and to have a jury agree. But the caseloads are legendary and near obscene. The typical public defender is so overwhelmed with cases she has to triage cases and clients, and someone might lose as a result.

The successes, though, can keep you afloat. In my first year as a defender I got a bizarre case where client was charged with 37 counts of Chihuahua mistreatment. After 10 days of trial the jury decided she really was not the caretaker of the animals and she was acquitted on all counts. To hear "not guilty" over 30 times -- that can sustain a sense of purpose for a while. But for every win, there are true agonies, most of them related to systemic ills outside of any one person's control. And sometimes, the nasty truth is your clients can be awful people who hurt others badly and you have to defend them anyway. Then you have to really remind yourself of your purpose and make sure it still holds true. Working with a huge client base of people with such profound disadvantages is exhausting and requires huge reserves of stamina, resilience and support.

Now 8 years out, I still can't imagine a legal career involving anything other than a public interest focus. That said, it's extremely difficult to sustain a life in this field: the opportunities are very limited and available positions usually offer absurdly low salaries. For folks considering this path, I recommend the obvious: keep your loans as low as possible. Work in a paying gig over the summers, at least, and through the school year, if at all possible. I had a number of great public interest clerkships throughout law school, but with agencies on shoe string budgets (made worse now by the ongoing economic crisis) few of them had available positions after law school, and the positions available offered paltry salaries.

For most of us, law school debt load can derail public interest dreams. If you have over $80 k in debt you simply can't work for $40k a year. Your debt will raise its head at every life decision: having a family, buying a house, travel – it's always there. Given this ugly reality, if you don't have adequate financial support to booster your legal service, focus your available work energies during law school on debt-lessening jobs.

The ability to apply our relative privilege and provide quality representation for disadvantaged people is tremendous, inspiring, painful, thrilling, exhausting life's work. At the end of it, though, how much richer we are for the experience.

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