Part I: Good & Broke
People ask me ALL OF THE TIME what kind of law do I want to go into. Honestly, I don’t know why they’re asking. They don’t really care and it’s just one of those things they feel like is the next logical question after finding out that I am in law school. Kind of like when people ask you you’re doing and keep walking. They’re just exchanging pleasantries.
Anyway, I usually say that I will be doing public interest work. When people hear that, they usually tell me how great that is and how much the work I’ll do will be needed. I heard the same kinds of things when I used to work for a domestic violence agency and when I worked with an ethnic-relations nonprofit. Currently I work with the homeless. Aren’t I just a saint? I told one of my bourgie pals what I was doing for work this summer and he said, “I love you for that.” Yeah, thanks.
See, I feel like most people are impressed when they hear that you do public interest work. It’s good work and needs to be done. There are too many indigent and poor people out there who need legal services and advocacy on their behalf and not enough professionals out there to do the work. I also think they’re impressed because it’s work they would do themselves but for one thing… the MONEY.
There is no money in being a saint. Why do you think monks and nuns live in shitty ass dormitories? Maybe it’s because Jesus was born in a manger and grew up to be a blue-collar worker that we public interest lawyers and nonprofit workers must suffer to do good work.
So while I’m pretty sure most of you are impressed with those of us who do PI/NP work, you’re really just impressed because it’s amazing that a person would spend tens of thousands of dollars+ to obtain advanced degrees, put in tons of hours studying, volunteering and interning, and deal with some of the most heartbreaking clients ever BY CHOICE. That’s why it’s often thought that those who take jobs in PI/NP just weren’t able to cut it in a “real” job. I mean, why else would you turn down $135,000, a nice office and countless perks for $55,000, a mediocre office and some subway tokens?
Man, I ask myself that question more times than I can count.
But I guess I do it because I know that I would hate sitting in that nice office doing corporate work. It seems terribly boring to me and for what? Help company A get more money from company B? Whoo hoo! Nah, I’d rather help pregnant women in prison get prenatal care.
I’m pretty sure that I will be okay making half as much as many of my classmates. Plus I truly believe that, being who I am, I will get to where I want to be financially while still doing the kind of work I care about. Plus I never had any money before in my life anyway. I am already doing better than my family ever has. I was living well (albeit in NC) off of less than 30Gs a year! I live in a bigger city now and have bourgier tastes, but I’m sure I can do pretty damn well and maintain my sexy while making my way toward sainthood.
Part II: Good & Ugly
This brings me to good and ugly. I was at a meeting yesterday with a bunch of summer interns who are all in Philly doing PI work. As I waited for my girl to arrive, I looked around the room and thought to myself: why the hell does everyone who works in PI/NP have to look so BAD? This is not the first time that I had this thought and I know I am not alone.
You can usually spot the people who are going to work in PI/NP. They’re all extra non-conformist (which just means that they’re conforming to some other shit). They always look like they’re fresh from backpacking through Tibet or couch surfing across America. They wear Birkenstocks, Crocs and other kids of ugly ass “sensible” shoes. They look like Jared before Subway.
I know, I know. This is incredibly shallow. You don’t have to look a certain way to be able to deliver great services and be a wonderful attorney. Nope, not at all. Many of the PI/NP folks I work with are brilliant and pleasant.
Still, you CAN be fabglamorous and do the job too. I can advocate for the homeless in heels. I can argue for voting rights of felons in a designer suit. I can have a standing hair appointment and care about my cause. Honestly, I think if more people quit looking like they just rolled out of bed they’d do a BETTER job. Just because your client is poor or mentally ill or even homeless doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a neat-looking attorney. You can’t deny that in our culture, we expect our professionals to look, well, professional. While I don’t agree that there’s one way to do that, there is a dominant way (suits or at least business casual).
A lot of our clients already think they’re getting a subpar lawyer because the service is free or low-cost. What will they think when you roll up on them in flip flops, ripped jeans and a Greenpeace tshirt? [I do realize the flipside, where one could be intimidated by a lawyer in a suit if there are already issues with power dynamics and an imbalance of knowledge/resources. I’m just not talking about that now.]
My point is, it’s great to do PI/NP work and that’s what I want to do, no matter if I don’t make the six figures right out of law school. If I were in it for the money, I would have done something else with my life! I just think I can look like six figures. I can look like I’ve gone to school for many years. I want to look beautiful, confident and competent. For myself and for my clients. For my organization and for my profession. I think we’d elevate the image of the public interest bar that way, if only just a bit.