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Ready for the Real World

Ready for the Real World

By Mary Jean Babic
Illustration by Rachel Ralston

The Path to Public Interest Work

Like many first-year law students, Taylor Garrett, '03, assumed that after graduation he would head off to work at a law firm. He couldn't quite see the path that led there, but he took it as a given that sooner or later he'd end up on it.

Then he learned of the Program for Law and Development in Cambodia at Michigan Law. Intrigued, he applied to the program, and was selected. That summer, Garrett found himself working with a legal aid organization in Phnom Penh and realizing, he says, "that my law degree could do other things." His second summer, through the Program in Refugee and Asylum Law, he worked in Zambia. This was followed by an externship in South Africa.

Now, nearly 10 years out of law school, Garrett has never held one of those traditional law firm jobs he once thought was inevitable. His work with refugee and asylum law has taken him to Thailand, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, through jobs with Jesuit Refugee Service and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since 2009, he's been a foreign service officer with the United States Agency for International Development, working on crisis response, stabilization, and governance programs in Southern Africa, based in Pretoria.

"There are lot of people like myself who go to law school and want to join firms and become partners; that's kind of the goal they see," Garrett says. "I try to tell people that there are other options for them."

For many alumni who practice law in public-interest fields, the real-world experience they gained in law school was critical to their paths. Whether opening their eyes to opportunities they hadn't considered previously, or reaffirming the passions that drove them to law school in the first place, the clinics, externships, and fellowships they participated in link directly to the careers they enjoy today.

While these attorneys found their callings in public interest, practical experience can be a leg up for any recent grad entering a tough job market.

The employment numbers are much better at Michigan than the national average, with 92 percent of those looking for employment finding full-time work that required a law degree nine months after graduation in 2012. Good grades and a top-tier degree will always be advantages, but practical experience can help job-seekers distinguish themselves in a highly competitive market.

"You Owe it to the World to be Your Fullest Self"

Second-year student Andrew Dalack is taking that idea so much to heart that, he jokes, he's losing his hair from his packed schedule. Knowing from his first day of law school that he wanted to do criminal defense work, he's availed himself of as many opportunities as possible to expand his skills. Last semester he participated in the Criminal Appellate Practice Clinic, which gave him the chance to present oral arguments in court, appealing the conviction of a man in an unarmed robbery case. This semester he's externing at the federal public defender's office in Detroit, as well as working at the Detroit civil rights law firm of Goodman & Hurwitz. All this while keeping up a full course load.

"It's necessary to distinguish yourself in some way, just because it is so competitive," says Dalack. Committed as he is to criminal defense work, he admits to pangs of uneasiness about forgoing on-campus interviews and potentially big private-firm salaries. "Some of my peers will end this summer with more money in their respective checking accounts than I've ever had in my savings account," he says. But he's evaluated the risks of his career choice and he says he's OK with them; he accepts that he'll probably just live with some anxiety until he lands his first job.

Jackie Payne, for one, can empathize. She is the director of Move to End Violence, a program within the NoVo Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., whose goal is to stop violence against girls and women. Payne, '97, has built a successful career in women's rights and social justice, but she well remembers the challenges of getting off the ground.

Payne entered law school blazing with passion for social justice; her first summer she worked for an LGBT nonprofit in the San Francisco area. During her second summer, she worked for a major labor law firm in Chicago. At that point, she considered hiring on at a private firm after graduation to pay down her loans more quickly, and switching to the plaintiff side at some point down the road. It seemed, overall, a sensible plan.

All such thoughts, however, fled her mind completely after a transformative externship in South Africa in the fall of her third year. It was 1996. South Africa, having recently dismantled apartheid and elected Nelson Mandela president, was writing its new constitution. Payne helped work out how provisions that protected gender justice and tribal rites would operate together when there was a conflict between the two. She witnessed Mandela's signing the constitution in Soweto.

"The opportunity to work at that moment in history on such an incredible question, it was such a powerful experience," Payne says. Long interested in gender and racial equality, Payne gained insight into how poverty and class also impact justice. "I got caught up in the energy of President Mandela's belief in making things possible. It was course correcting for me, to get out of the law school environment and remind myself what I went there for in the first place."

Rather than going to work at a law firm, as she had initially planned, she decided—based on her experiences in South Africa—to take another path.

Right around graduation day, Payne landed a Legal Aid job in Chicago. After two years in Chicago, she went to D.C. and eventually got a job as policy attorney for NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. She worked there for four years, then hired on as director of government relations for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She's been in her current position since 2009.

"I am so privileged to have worked in jobs that I'm passionate about," she says.

Last year, Payne went back to South Africa, and guided her husband and son around her old stomping grounds. The memory of standing in Nelson Mandela's presence remains an inspiration, and she encourages law students drawn to less traditional paths not to waver.

"You owe it to the world to be your fullest self, and not anything less than that," she says.

"I fell into a wonderful community of public interest students"

Michigan offers a host of public-interest resources, such as clinics, fellowships, career planning services, the Pro Bono Program, the Organization of Public Interest Students, like-minded faculty members, the indispensable Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP).

Evan Cass, a December 2011 grad, is a staff attorney at the Children's Law Center in D.C., representing kids in abuse and neglect cases. He entered Michigan Law after two years of working in social services organizations and was dedicated "to doing something in the public interest," he says. Indeed, Michigan's reputation as a school with much to offer in that regard had attracted Cass in the first place.

"I really tried to get a lot of practical experience, because I knew in public interest work, that was highly valued," says Cass. Making professional connections also didn't hurt. But the benefit of out-of-class work went beyond the tangible. "I needed something to solidify my in-class experience, something to remind me, what is this all about? Why am I here?"

Cass joined the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and worked with the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy. He handled eight cases, went to court about every other week, and co-wrote a brief for the Michigan Supreme Court. "It was an amazingly hands-on, practical experience, and very closely shadows what I'm doing now," Cass says. "Kind of shockingly so."

In Ann Arbor, he "fell into this wonderful community of public-interest students," and lived with two simpatico classmates. "Instead of doing OCIs (on-campus interviews), we went on a camping trip together." He adds, "I've chosen to prioritize my desire to work in a field I am passionate about over the size of my salary. I am incredibly grateful for LRAP because it makes this choice possible." (See related story)

"I'm fortunate my firm supports pro bono work"

One can, of course, still pursue a career at a law firm and also do public interest work. Monica Klosterman (née Costello), '08, came to Michigan Law knowing that she wanted a career in litigation. Work at two clinics confirmed that instinct, while also "expanding my view of the areas that I wanted to focus on in my pro bono work."

A special education teacher before law school, Klosterman learned from her 2L work in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and her 3L experiences in the Poverty Law Clinic that she wanted to engage in pro bono work that focused on kids in the foster care system and those with special needs.

"I'm really fortunate to work at a firm that is so supportive of pro bono work," says Klosterman, an associate in the Los Angeles office of Latham & Watkins LLP, whose practice primarily involves environmental and complex commercial litigation matters. "I've done pro bono work on a variety of matters, including asylum cases, an education reform case, and a number of matters for the Alliance for Children's Rights focused on protecting the rights of impoverished children in the foster care system, one of the most vulnerable populations in need of legal services."

For Klosterman, the coupling of her work at the firm and her pro bono duties is just the right mix. "I love litigation work, and I love the work I'm able to do on behalf of children," she says. "I learned a lot in the clinics at Michigan, and there is a direct link between my clinic experience at Michigan and the work I do today."

"You're given a lot of meaningful work to do"

Sharon Brett, '12, says that decisions regarding career, debt, and salary are complicated and particular to each person. In Brett's case, highly particular. Entering law school, Brett knew not only which area of law she wanted to practice—the rights of people within government justice systems—but where she wanted to practice it: the special litigation section within the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. And this fall, after completing a clerkship with Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola of U.S. District Court in D.C., that's where Brett is headed; she was one of four out of 600 applicants chosen for an honors program that hires new attorneys at the DOJ.

Brett had become acquainted with the special litigation section before law school while working for the Vera Institute of Justice. The section has "an eclectic docket," as Brett puts it. It enforces federal statutes that affect prisons, juvenile facilities, and other state-run institutions; that ensure open entrances to reproductive health clinics; that prevent police misconduct; and other topics. "They were working on issues I cared about it in a really positive and forward-thinking way," Brett says.

Mono-focused to an unusual degree, Brett regarded clinics and externships not as ways to explore what she wanted to do but to get to where she already knew she wanted to go. "As a public-interest student going into law school saying, 'I want to do X,' to get out and not do X would be a failure."

During her first summer, she worked for the ACLU National Prison Project. The second summer, she did an internship for the public defenders' office in D.C. Then at the beginning ofher third year, the opportunity for an externship at the Department of Justice presented itself.

The DOJ externship, she says, proved more significant than her two summer internships. Working in the fall, when most other law students are back in class, "you're given a lot more meaningful work to do," she says. "It taught me a lot about the law, about the office, and it was completely worth my time." She also developed strong relationships with attorneys and supervisors in the office who went to bat for her when she applied to the honors program.

"I Crafted My Own Curriculum to Suit My Career Needs"

Brett's advice to students is to think creatively to get the most out of their law school experience. "I didn't take a lot of 'required' classes in my 2L and 3L years. I took classes that interested me and were in the field I wanted to work in," she says.

"I crafted my own curriculum to suit my career needs, and that was really valuable."

Yet things change over time; what seems important right after law school may be very different a decade out. A high law-firm salary may no longer be worth the enormous time and stress required to make partner. Garrett observes, "Only a couple of people in my section at law school are still at firms. The rest are corporate counsel or doing all kinds of different things."

If firm jobs become scarcer, even for those who want them, many young attorneys may look elsewhere for their livelihoods. "Maybe the only silver lining is that they won't get pushed into something that's not best for them," Payne suggests. "It may be an opportunity, even if it doesn't feel like one."

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