I just graduated in the top third of my class from a top law school. Most of my friends went off to big firms, where they are now making six figures.
Throughout law school, I was told (and I believed) that working for big firms was morally wrong: that it was the public, not corporations, that needed—and lacked—legal talent. I wanted to make a difference, so I looked for jobs at nonprofits or in government. I had been told that there was a nonprofit “community” interested in helping young people find their place in it, but I’ve discovered that is not the case. Most people never bothered to reply to my e-mails, and one organization still owes me over $1,000 for the work I did for them (my requests for payment have gone unanswered). Worse, most nonprofits refuse to hire anyone who doesn’t have experience working at a big, soulless firm.
As a result, I am working for a government organization on a small stipend from my school. I feel bitter toward the nonprofit “community,” not to mention lied to. I am not sure what to do next, and have been thinking about giving up.
What should I do? Should I sell out to a big firm for a few years, to get the “training” all the nonprofits fetishize? Is it even worth it at this point, given what I’ve discovered about the exploitative nonprofit world? If it is worth it, what can I do to change the nonprofit community so that it is less hypocritical and treats its people better?
— Alienated From His Labor
That sounds frustrating, but the good and bad news is that you are laboring under several layers of misconception.
Jane Greengold Stevens, who has worked as a public-interest lawyer for 47 years and makes hiring decisions in that sector, says it’s “100 percent wrong” that public-interest law firms are looking for private-sector experience. If anything, a corporate résumé counts against applicants, although, Stevens laughs, “We will sometimes tolerate it in an attempt to be open-minded.”
While it’s aggravating to be exploited, your one experience doesn’t represent a broader problem with public-interest firms, which almost never hire law students or independent contractors to do anything (they don’t have the money for that), instead relying on salaried staff, who are certainly paid enough to live on, though not as well as corporate sharks.