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.
Stevens also says you are going about your job search all wrong. As in any other industry, you cannot expect to be hired simply by e-mailing people out of the blue; you have to find out who has openings by looking on places like Idealist.org. In law school, the best way to have prepared for the sector would have been to spend a summer in a public-interest firm, and to have worked for a semester in your law school’s public-interest clinic. Any “top law school,” Stevens says, has a public-interest office that would have given you this advice and helped you to secure such experience—but even as a graduate, you should return to your alma mater and make use of these resources.
Also, build relationships with public-interest lawyers, not by randomly e-mailing them but by reaching out to people you actually know. Stevens, for one, has volunteered to sit down with you and talk about the sector. She says, “I’d be very happy to let this person buy me coffee, and I can tell him just how wrong he is.” While righteous indignation can be briefly invigorating, it is only through such conversations that you’ll find the job you want.
I recruited a friend whom I love and respect to my socialist crew, but now all my other comrades hate her guts, and I sense a coup brewing.
My friend—let’s call her Sasha—is a very committed radical who struggles hard to live her daily commitment to socialism and is willing to take on big, daunting projects: the two best signs of a great communist in the making.
Yet Sasha is underdeveloped and arrogant, and she personalizes political confrontations rather than admitting what she doesn’t know. She takes it very personally when others in the group resist her ideas, and she focuses more on this than on the times when people like her ideas.
Because things are not going well between Sasha and the rest of my comrade crew, she thinks that we need to invest serious organizing work in changing the culture of our group to be more oriented toward relationship building and less oriented toward political strategy.
My comrades are actually great friend-makers, and everyone else seems to be making friends just fine; this is part of a culture that I think our core has intentionally developed over several years. I can attest to this since I’m highly dramatic and require a lot of patience and emotional maintenance (which this crew gives me in spades).
But it’s true that people are actively resisting friend-making with this comrade in particular—they don’t like the way Sasha treats them! This is an especially difficult situation because it has happened to me once before. I lost the first love of my life (also a cocky, difficult communist) this way, in a battle with my other political friends. History is repeating itself, and I want to get things right this time.
I want Sasha to be less of a dick, more comfortable in her own skin, and to find her political home (it doesn’t even have to be the same as my political home).
I want my other friends to invest some effort in Sasha’s membership in our group, but I also don’t want them to be treated poorly. How do I find a collective solution to this problem that I’m mostly feeling individually?
— Drawn to Prickly Communists
Your socialist crew sounds like a warm and caring community. That’s (unfortunately) rare and wonderful in a political organization, and should be protected fiercely. And your friendship with “Sasha” is clearly vital to your happiness. You don’t say what strategies you have already tried, but I wonder if Sasha knows how much anguish her antagonistic relationship with your other comrades is causing you. Sometimes it’s best to be honest and tell someone how much you love her, how much she’s distressing you, and what you need from her. Sasha must learn how to listen to—and learn from—other people. You can also talk with your comrades about how better to manage Sasha: Are there projects you can entrust to her that allow her some independence from the group? Is there a role for her that doesn’t involve going to many meetings? Some people are bad at meetings but have plenty of brainpower and energy to contribute.
If none of this helps, please do yourself, your comrades, and your friendship a favor and encourage Sasha to find another group. Luckily, there’s a mini-explosion of radical organizing right now, so depending on where you live, she probably has some good options. I worry that it’s going to be hard for her to mature into an effective political activist unless she consciously changes her personal style, but there is only so much you can do about that. In this web of precious relationships, the bond between Sasha and your comrades is the least important one, and if it becomes too toxic, you’ll have to intervene and gently try to sacrifice it to save the rest.
Have a question? Ask Liza here.