The Job Market and Public Interest

By now we are all well aware of the tough job market facing everyone, including law school students and recent law school grads.   While law school students have found it more difficult–and some cases impossible–to find jobs, some others who had been promised jobs have found their offers rescinded, or altered into deferments or other fellowship options.   Of course, these job alterations have collateral consequences, including–but certainly not limited to–the difficulties they create for students who need to repay their student loan debt.  Another collateral consequence is the impact such changes have on public interest and legal aid firms and that job market. 

To be sure, at least some of these changes have been painted as a positive development for such entities.   This is because when firms offer deferment packages, they often offer to pay a reduced salary in exchange for, or at least with the understanding that, deferred associates will seek out employment in the public interest.  According to one Time article, “One undisputed upside to the current trend is that public-interest and legal-aid firms will finally receive some much needed help.”  Like with charitable giving, public interest organizations are suffering dramatic cuts just as the need for their services are on the rise.  As one Legal Aid executive noted, this means that deferred associates will be welcomed with “open arms.”  Moreover, deferred associates get the opportunity to get some legal training while working in a field that not only desperate needs their help, but also in which they might not have otherwise had exposure.  And after such exposure, some of them may even remain in the public interest field.  It all seems like a silver lining to an admittedly difficult job market.  But alas, perhaps this is a case of everything that glitters. . .

In other words, what about those law school students and grads who came to law school with the specific intent of working in the public interest field?  They have no deferred arrangements.  Instead, these law firm arrangements turn out not to be such a silver lining for them.   The current crisis with its resulting budget cuts, has meant fewer public interest positions.  Apparently (and as everyone expected), deferred associates have been taking the jobs that may have otherwise gone to those who would have specifically sought out public interest employment.  These public interest agencies get workers without having to pay their salary, and apparently in some cases, without having to pay their benefits.  Thus, it is an easy call for such agencies.   And it could be that with budget cuts and the downturn, such agencies would not have had the resources to hire anyone–so perhaps it is not appropriate to think of this as a kind of zero sum game.  Then too, it is still the case that associates are filling an important need.  Moreover, it is still the case that whatever is happening, it is a difficult job market for everyone involved.   However, this reveals that the climate is having a variety of unintended consequences.

You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. David S. Cohen says:

    Lisa – this is a big issue for public interest students, but I think the even bigger issue for them is that public interest jobs have been declining for years now. We (law professors and law schools) make such an effort to instill in our students a duty to help others, whether through pro bono requirements, volunteer opportunities, stressing it throughout the students’ three years, etc. I don’t know about you, but I’m on my school’s admissions committee, and students who talk about wanting to work in the public interest and have a convincing story about it always are given attention.

    But are we doing our students a disservice? It would be wonderful if everyone who wanted to work in public interest could, and we all know there’s a need for them. But, if there are no jobs, what good are we doing for our students encouraging them to focus on public interest? My biggest heartbreak in this profession is seeing the student who does all the right things for a public interest career and then graduates into nothing — no public interest jobs and no hope that most other legal employers would hire him/her given the public interest resume.

    If the students are having such a tough time getting into public interest law, are we just making ourselves feel good by trying to train future public interest lawyers?

    I imagine things are different at Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and the like, where their public interest students can get jobs still. But for students almost everywhere else, is it fair to lead them down this path even if, in an ideal world, it would be the just thing to do?

  2. Isn’t So-called Public Interest (SCPI) Law more or less self-defined? As it is, I consider my bit of legal efforts on behalf of the Bush and McCain campaigns to have been in the “Public Interest” (still do!). Were I to pursue SCPI employment on a full-time basis, I’d want to be working with groups like National Right to Work, FIRE or the Pacific Legal Foundation. I suspect, however, that my thoughts about what constitutes SCPI do not mesh with many (most) of the posters here. If the reported dearth of these jobs means that ACORN isn’t hiring, well, so be it. That certainly doesn’t constitute an “unintended consequence” from where I’m sitting.

    Bottom line: We have no inherent right to be employed where and doing what we want…which is why I’m not playing outfield for the Orioles.

  3. David S. Cohen says:

    MC – I’ve had students who’ve wanted jobs at those places too, but they don’t have them either. This isn’t a left/right thing. This is a non-profit thing.

    And it’s not about having an inherent right to whatever job you want. It’s about whether law professors and law schools should be seeking out, cultivating, and encouraging students to devote themselves to something that really has no employment prospects.