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Finding Middle Ground in the Practice of Law

A few weeks ago, Jeremy Blachman (of Anonymous Lawyer fame) posted about Daniel Brook's new book, The Trap, which discusses the plight of well-educated young people who feel forced to choose between making piles of money or doing work that inspires, but not both. That's certainly an issue that rings true for many new lawyers, who profess to yearn for public interest jobs, but march off to Biglaw to repay loans.

But is the gap between doing well and doing good in law as unsurmountable as it once was? Mark Schmitt suggests not -- at least not as much as there was 20 years ago. Schmitt does acknowledge that in some ways, things have changed for the worse, with student debt far less manageable than it once was. But Schmitt also suggests that there are more opportunities for new college grads to do good. He notes that when he graduated from college, the only options at the career office were jobs at big investment houses. But now there are groups like Teach for America that allow grads to start out doing something good.

Schmitt also notes that nonprofits are paying more, at least for lawyers. He writes:

There's also been a major upgrade in nonprofit pay – at least the nonprofits I'm aware of – as the Baby Boom-generation leaders who had been trained in the Ralph Nader model of asceticism give way to younger leaders who are much more realistic about what people need to make a real career and pay student loans. One of Brook's examples is an ACLU lawyer, but that case proves my point – under its Gen-X president Anthony Romero, the ACLU ramped up its starting pay for lawyers from $36,000 to $59,000, which is not competitive with firms but enough to make it possible to be an ACLU lawyer if you actually want to be an ACLU lawyer, rather than just pretending that you might want to do something socially useful but can't.

I think there's a happy medium for most lawyers, between the extreme of what many regard as soul-less Biglaw on one hand and impoverished public interest on the other. I've certainly found that medium in solo practice, where I earn a good living through my specialization that gives me the ability to choose work -- renewable energy development, civil rights cases or blogging -- that gives me personal satisfaction. But it's taken me nearly 20 years to reach this point. And I think that over time, through trial and error, many lawyers also find their way into a job that enables them to do well and do good, all at the same time.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on October 17, 2007 at 05:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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