In a recent American Bar Association poll, the top reason given by prospective students for attending law school was to pursue “a career in politics, government, or public service.” Also in the top four reasons for attending law school included “an opportunity to be helpful” and a desire to “advocate for social change.”
It is encouraging that so many people go to law school looking to have a positive impact on their community. Given the students’ motivations and what the public interest legal field provides, it would reason that a significant number of new attorneys would seek employment in the field of public service.
However, of the 2019 graduating class, only 8% of students from Marquette University Law School, and 6% of students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School chose to pursue a career in public interest.
The Pipeline Problem
What is causing this diverging path between the time of application and the time of graduation that is shifting the focus of future lawyers away from public service?
There are a lot of possible explanations for that shift, including finances, change of heart, practice preferences, etc.
However, I believe one of the reasons for this public interest lawyer matriculation deficit lies with how our field approaches law students:
We have a mentorship problem.
This is Our Problem
Too often, law students and interns are treated as temporary staff, instead of being treated as the next generation of public interest attorneys. The reasons for this are many, but the bulk of the problem has to do with intentionality.
Jacob Haller, Marquette 2018, is an assistant director with the Reentry Legal Services program of Legal Action of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he focuses on assisting people exiting custody in an effort to reduce the recidivism rate in Wisconsin.
Public service law is a fantastic place for students to gain legal experience, meet with clients face-to-face, and log pro-bono hours. As a result, law schools are eager to provide and promote internship and externship programs at public service firms. Students and volunteers cycle in and out, but too often their presence is merely an afterthought to staff attorneys.
As an attorney, I have been guilty of scrambling to find “work” for an intern, only to provide them with obscure legal research, or what some might consider “busy work,” so that the student can complete their requisite hours.
Instead of investing the time and energy required to encourage a career in public interest, too often students leave their internships without knowing what they accomplished, without making meaningful connections, and without understanding what life as a public interest lawyer would be like.
Corporate law firms understand this dilemma. They know that the work can be difficult and that talented attorneys are valuable. They devote significant resources to developing, training, and encouraging their summer associates. They prioritize and cater to the needs of their interns, and treat them as though they will be future employees at the firm.
Many public service firms don’t have the resources to compete with that approach. But we can make students, volunteers, and interns feel welcome. We can be intentional about what we are teaching and what experience they are gaining. We can show law students that you can make a living in public interest while also giving back to the community.
Moving Toward Intentionality
There is no simple solution, but there are things that each firm can do to help ensure that great lawyers continue to fill the ranks of public interest law.
Some of those practices include:
creating a standardized onboarding program;
conducting entry and exit interviews and incorporating feedback;
discussing grant programs like the Public Student Loan Forgiveness and Loan Repayment Assistance programs;
engaging in nonwork activities or events;
allowing time for networking and relationship building;
ensuring that interns know the value of their work and the impact it has made;
allowing interns to shadow unique experiences;
considering compensation beyond “experience;” and
thanking interns, law students, and seasonal staff, for their contributions.
Welcoming a Future Colleague
The process of mentoring the next generation of lawyers should be a rewarding experience for both the mentor and the mentee. If you find that hasn’t been the case, please consider modifying your current approach to allow for an experience that benefits everyone involved.
You may just be mentoring your future colleague.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.