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How law schools are failing public interest students — and what they can do better

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Jordyn McCarley, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

It’s no secret that many students planning to pursue a career in public interest feel failed by their law schools. To me, this is not an unsolvable problem; it is a problem that requires someone caring about the issue enough to conscientiously rethink it. In my opinion, failure on the part of law schools comes from a lack of creativity and care as well as a very misguided attempt to design the law school experience for a single type of student. In reality, there are many different types of law students, and, given technological advances, there is potential for exponential growth and change in the type of law students to come.

Although this blog post will focus on the struggles of public interest law students, I think it is worth it to note that the way which law schools fail public interest students has similarities to ways law schools fail other groups of students as well. As a public interest student myself, I can also speak firsthand for the strong feelings of frustration and disappointment we experience on a day to day basis at school. This should not be happening. Most law schools have large endowments, donations, and lots of other resources that can prevent this decent sized group of students from falling through the cracks. Although law schools often receive funding for programming from large law firms, this should not negate the duty that law schools have to provide adequate resources for tuition-paying public interest students. So please, read on for some pitfalls and ways to improve the student experience.

Normalize public interest.

Considering the way the public interest track is discussed right off the bat when students start their 1L year, it’s amazing that there are any public interest students at all. The way faculty, staff, and career services speak negatively about non-firm jobs automatically deters a great number of students from pursuing a nontraditional path. Not only does this undoubtedly have negative effects on public interest funding, it perpetuates the belief that being a public interest student is innately more difficult than following a corporate route. This again highlights the problem of law schools trying to design an experience for only one type of student. For example, I came into law school not expecting to make a lot of money afterward. Although I was okay with this notion, the heavily negative conversation around a lack of earning potential for non-firm jobseekers created a lot of internal conflict for me and made me reconsider my career path altogether for a period of time. This shouldn’t be happening to anyone who wants a non-firm job. Although financial considerations are important, they should not be so overwhelming as to overshadow other considerations about job choice.

Hold career service offices to a higher standard.

Frankly, career counselors at law schools are just not held to the same standard when it comes to public interest students versus law firm students. There are countless events sponsored by firms as well as by schools themselves that cater to those solely interested in big law. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing schools for supporting big law students, however when 95% of the resources are funneled toward recruiting students for big law, there is an equity problem. Additionally, career service offices are generally less knowledgeable about public interest job opportunities than law firm opportunities although job information about both is equally accessible to them. Regardless if the direction to focus on law firms comes from higher-ups in the law school, or if it’s just the case that career counselors prefer to spend their time researching firm jobs versus non-firm jobs, the bottom line is that this unequal attention is hurting public interest students.

Funding.

Law schools need to fund more public interest work and more in-school opportunities that benefit public interest students. Although public interest students may never work at a top law firm or make the most money, we go on to greatness. Many individuals who later run for office, own businesses and nonprofits, and advocate for change in communities are our public interest lawyers. I think the lack of funding again stems from a misconception that there is a token public interest student in any given class year. The token student alone or the student accompanied by one or two others is entitled to one large scholarship and the majority of the funding. In order for this to change, law schools must realize that public interest is a legitimate and respectable career track reserved for more than just a few students.

Just as career service offices can reach out to large law firms to receive funding, they also have the capability to reach out to private donors and write grants to provide public interest students with equal opportunities for paid work. Additionally, funding should also be allocated to more experiential credits, such as clinics. Clinics are disproportionately beneficial to public interest students — in fact, some public interest organizations or government offices will not hire public interest students at all unless they have had direct client contact for academic credit.

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