Tips from the Experts: Serving the Public Interest Throughout a Career

By: Maria Hibbard

I recently had the opportunity to attend The Washington Council of Lawyers’ Summer Pro Bono Forum, an annual event hosted by WCL to introduce law firm summer associates and public interest interns to public interest careers and pro bono opportunities. Some highlights of the event are definitely worth sharing:

  • Why support the public interest? Keynote speaker Judge Ricardo Urbina of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia addressed this question by laying out “the great equation:” time + effort = outcome. Ultimately, he said, this equation will have a direct impact on a career trajectory and individual success. Judge Urbina pointed out that there are so many other variables that impact this equation, however–socioeconomic status, access to quality education, race, gender–and law students and lawyers who support public service careers and pro bono activities can help others navigate variables of “the great equation.”
  • The importance of introducing yourself. All of the attorneys present at the event focused not necessarily on the importance of “networking,” but the need to just introduce oneself to a new person when in an unfamiliar situation. Once the initial introductions are over, the scary idea of “networking” may be easier.  Being proactive with introductions can also make the first hurdle of “making a good first impression” easier. In room full of unfamiliar people, anyone will appreciate the first one who steps up and says their name!
  • Fellowships and clerkships. In the panel that I attended, 4 out of the five attorneys speaking had completed a fellowship or clerkship immediately after law school–and all of them had only positive things to say about the experience.
  • Working for the “right side.” The attorneys in the panel addressed how at different points in their career they have had to work on projects or with organizations that conflicted with their views or “the public interest.” Because of the diverse backgrounds of the panelists, however, the point was clear that whether one can still be a “public interest attorney” at a law firm, at a nonprofit, or in a government agency.
  • Passion. The passionate way in which the attorneys on the panel spoke about their work was inspiring–and the attorneys encouraged the interns not to lose sight of that passion in law school. All of the attorneys clearly loved their work–it is never easy, many said, but they assured us that it is definitely worth it. Alejandro T. Reyes, Counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said “A big motivating part of being a public interest attorney is knowing exactly what and who you are fighting for, and while there are many challenges, you never have a hard time explaining what you do for living.”

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