Public interest law… and things

“So what do you do” asks the doctor as I lie on the examining table. “I’m an attorney” I respond. She pauses for a brief moment and glances at me “Oh. What kind of law do you practice.” I tell her “I represent low income children with disabilities with their education access problems at school.”She smiles, “Ah! you’re one of the good ones!” and resumes the exam.

I’ve had this conversation more times than I can count though sometimes the conversation, with friends and colleagues, continues further down the road:

“So have you bought the BMW yet?”
“Now K can retire while you make the big bucks!”
“Ha! All the Coach purses you want now huh?”
“Aw come on just buy it, you’re an attorney now!”

To which though I smile inwardly I feel awkward, “I’m a public interest lawyer. I don’t make a killing.” And then with those very close who I tell how much I make, a look of incredulity often follows with: “Well that’s noble” or “Are you INSANE?!?!”

I won’t lie. I am proud of what I do. From teacher to attorney my professional choices have always been about helping the helpless. I do it because I feel blessed and I feel that to whom much is given much is expected. I believe we can live in a just society and I want to be on the front lines of making this happen. I believe I am fulfilling my faith and I know I am making a difference.

I could end this post there. You’d think I’m a good person who doesn’t care about money who is beyond worldly things. But you see, this isn’t necessarily true. The struggle, it still remains I’ve found.

As a teacher I made little but teacher’s salaries do not vary widely. Not so for lawyers. I have friends who graduated in my class who make four times as much as me. I have certain perks too, most of my weekends and evenings are my own. I have pride in my work and enjoy what I do. Also, contrary to what many think, that if the job doesn’t pay much it was easy to get, I had to fiercely compete for this job so no one can say I’m less worthy than my corporate big wig counterpart.

But when people tease me about K retiring or inquiring when the closet for my designer bags will be built, I feel a strange sense of guilt that I could’ve indeed been quite rich had I chosen a different path. Perhaps I’m struggling like the people on the Brazilian island I visited years ago where its people lived a simple life for centuries as close to heaven as I’ve ever seen, until TV showed them the things they did not have. Then they began to feel unhappy with their circumstance.

This feeling of guilt and confusion over my career choice unsettles me and I have no way of fully reconciling it within myself. I don’t want a thousand dollar purse and I don’t want the corporate life. I’m for the most part happy with what I have and am aware of how fortunate I am. Perhaps its simply living in a society which shows through its ads, movies, credit card pushing lifestyle, that it values things having things acquiring things being judged on how many things and what sort of things you have. Perhaps these concepts have seeped into my subconscious like a virus. Perhaps its a common thought by others in my shoes and if I ride this feeling out, much like the common cold, this feeling will pass.

“It’s a mystery to me. We have a greed, with which we have agreed and you think you have to want more than you need and until you have it all, you won’t be free. Society, have mercy on me I hope you’re not angry if I disagree. Society, crazy and deep I hope you’re not lonely without me.” -Eddie Vedder (Society)

11 thoughts on “Public interest law… and things”

  1. I work in a NYC BigLaw firm. The attorneys for whom I work do make a LOT of money…something that I can’t understand for a 27-year-old fresh out of L school, but then again, this is also a city where a DINKY income of six figures is more or less required to retain a middle-class lifestyle. ANYWAY…I see two important things in your post that make me think that your QOL is much higher than theirs…1) In your own words, “…most of [your] nights and weekends are [your] own.” I feel like the attorneys with whom I work barely see their spouses or children. When I was speaking to the spouse of one of my associates about the crazy hours, she gave me a sad smile and said “Well, we just got a puppy…”2) YOU SEEM TO ENJOY WHAT YOU DO. I don’t want to say that every associate that I’ve met HATES their job — indeed, some of them quite enjoy it (they’re also the ones who don’t require any sleep). However, there does seem to be something awfully wrong when every lawyer whom I’ve told of my future plans (I’m going to be attending Public Health school in the fall) congratulates me on NOT making the decision to go to law school. This is all anecdotal evidence, to be sure, and you’re right – we live in such a consumer-driven society that sometimes it’s easy to get sidetracked by salary and lack thereof. It’s sad that our culture values (literally) a person who can slam a ball through a hoop on a level MULTIPLE orders of magnitude above a teacher or public interest lawyer such as yourself. It’s individuals like you that help spur me on to continue to plan to one day become an attorney — not white collar criminal defense lawyers (though I do really like the lawyers with whom I work and look up to them as role models of hard work and achievement, just not necessarily as having chosen the career path for which I am hoping.)Okay I’m done writing a small book in your comments — your posts just always make me think. 🙂PS – I haven’t been blogging because I am at the office 12+ hours per day…and I’m just a paralegal…


  2. Your post is making me think about my job too but in a different way. I wonder if I am happy with the lifestyle I have.


  3. Was out of town and didn’t read your blog for 2 weeks.It was refreshing to read so many good posts….Thanks…indeed..made my dayWe have similar situation in our work. Academics vs pvt. practice. Academia make a lot less money but they thrive on intellectual and better life style. Can I assure you, long hours at work bring a lot more unhappiness !!


  4. I admire you for doing something you believe in — and though there will be misconceptions, struggles with envy and financial strain, I think you feel it is worth it.Besides, there is nothing saying you can’t go into something more lucrative later. We have God given talents and blessings which we should use to help others, and I think you are doing your fair share — so don’t feel badly later if you choose a different path. You will find a balance, just be proud of the difference you are making with what you’re doing now.By the way, I’m almost finished reading “Dream from My Father” by Barack Obama… You have to read it. (I know, I tell you this about a different book every month. LOL.)Like you, Barack could have gotten a job on Wall Street or as a big time attorney, but instead he worked as a community organizer. A good part of this book talks about how he struggled to help people, bring about change, wondering if he was doing the right thing, the decisions he faced when it came to financial matters, dealing with people’s judgments about him, etc.Another part of the book, when he goes to Kenya to meet his father’s side of the family, talks about poverty and how the people there, just like the example you used about the people on the Brazilian island — they lived in poverty but were happy, because they did not know that they were poor.By the way, and I’m not just saying this because I love Obama — the quality of writing will absolutely blow you away… Just when I think this man can’t impress me anymore… Just wow. You have to read it.


  5. I think what you are doing is great and I find when people work for a paycheck or money they usually are very unhappy people. You are doing something that is helping people and well, that’s just awesome!!!:)


  6. I think most people, no matter how much they love their career, question their choices from time to time. And who knows? Maybe some day you will want to change course. But for now, don’t beat yourself up for wondering “what if?”.I think what you do is terrific. But if you ever do change your mind, I certainly would support you.I start nursing school in August and although I think it’s my calling, I still have days that I feel unsure. Days when I wonder, is this REALLY what I should be doing?As far as greed goes, I hate to admit it but I do want things. Like a dishwasher. In fact I really really want a dishwasher and a nice kitchen. One with new cabinets that close all the way, ones that aren’t forty years old…I suppose it is only human.Jane


  7. Rehtwo- THANK YOU so much for your detailed and heartfelt response, seriously the fact that you took the time out to get into so much detail and share your personal experience means the world. I am surprised to read that you are considering going into Public Health. K does that too (MPH). I thought you were considering going to law school after this. Are you no longer considering this or is this something for the long term future? Thank you again for the detailed response, it has given me a great deal to think about (and to be thankful for)Anon- I’m glad it inspired thought!Mystic- yes I’ve heard doctors have disparities as well, but are yours quite as stark. I feel that doctors regardless of the profession will always be able to be reasonably financially comfortable.Tee, thanks for sharing the part about Barack’s life and the parallels you saw, I really need to read that book, I’m waiting for it to show up at the library (its on hold). And yeah, I can always choose a ifferent course later if I awnt, even if its for a little bit of time. somehow knowing that takes the edge off a bit.Pixie, thanks for the pep talk. You’re right, its about enjoying what you do do too.Ruby, that is very well put. thank you.Jane, long long time no see. Do you still have a website? I’ve tried to link to it but have been unable to. CONGRATS on entering the nursing field. That is TERRIFIC news! I hope you will find it fulfilling and I hope you will be able to get a dishwasher… with kids.. you really need that I can imagine 😦


  8. I am still planning on going to law school – I’m doing an MPH studying public health genetics, concentrating my studies on legal and ethical issues. 🙂


  9. I know this post was written a long time ago, but as someone who is looking into going to law school and more specifically going the public interest route as well, I found it really insightful. I totally agree that giving back is so important when one has been provided more than enough!


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