The choice to start a career in public interest law is personal. The clients of public interest lawyers are usually average people confronted with life’s daily problems, and the issues they deal with reflect broad areas of public concern.
To help expose students to the wide variety of public interest careers — and why they matter —Notre Dame Law School has kicked off Public Interest Month.
On Monday evening (Oct. 3) in the Patrick F. McCartan Courtroom, four NDLS alumni — whose current positions are funded through two-year fellowships — shared what drew them to their work as public interest attorneys and why law students should seriously consider taking on public interest jobs.
“Asylum seekers representing themselves in court are only successful 13 percent of the time,” said Jessica Binzoni, ’15 J.D., a staff attorney with Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. “With an asylum attorney you have an 89 percent chance to win your case. That jump shows that the barrier to receiving asylum is based on access to counsel.”
Binzoni, who is a 2015 Thomas L. Shaffer Public Interest Fellow, said she came to law school knowing she wanted to work with refugees internationally or immigrant populations domestically because of her experience working at a refugee camp as an undergraduate student.
While Binzoni was laser focused on a public interest position — even as a 1L — Audra Passinault, ’15 J.D., said she was more on the fence.
“I was conflicted,” she said. “I got the advice that it was easier to go from private practice to public interest than it is if you start in public interest and try and go to private practice. I worried I would be closing myself off from a lot of opportunities.”
Despite being extended a job offer from the firm where she completed her 2L summer internship, Passinault, also a 2015 Thomas L. Shaffer Public Interest Fellow, made the decision to work as an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation, an organization that provides free legal services in non-criminal matters to people living in poverty in metropolitan Chicago. And she said the advice she received as a student doesn’t appear to be the case.
“The private attorneys I work with, who know my fellowship is ending in a year, are saying ‘email your resume to my firm. You’d be an asset to my firm,’” Passinault said.
The group described the common idea that public interest jobs are less valuable and viable as “the law school poison.” Although many students, particularly at Notre Dame Law, enter law school with the goal of helping those in need – including through public interest work, outside pressures leave many thinking big law firms are the better and more sensible career choice.
“After your 1L grades come out, and if they are above a certain caliber, you will be courted to participate in on-campus interviews,” Binzoni said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve expressed an interest in doing public interest, there will be classmates, and even professors, telling you to go to a firm.”
Working for a firm is exactly what Jason Sethen, ’15 J.D., said he did not want to do. While participating in the Law School’s Chicago Program, Sethen said he developed an interest in government affairs.
Sethen, a 2015 Bank of America Foundation Community Sustainability Fellow, works as in-house counsel at the Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund. As the only lawyer on the organization’s staff, he said he gets the chance to handle just about every legal issue the nonprofit encounters.
“I’ve had to become somewhat of a generalist and that’s been good,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about a number of different areas of the law that I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to.”
While each of their motivations to work as public interest lawyers were different, all of the panelists agreed that a fear of student loan debt and repayment should not be the determining factor on whether or not to work in the public interest area.
“We have a loan repayment assistance program, which is totally saving me right now,” said Rachel Winkler, ’15 J.D., who works for the International Institute of the Bay Area. Winkler is also a 2015 Bank of America Foundation Community Sustainability Fellow. “It’s not realistic to live in the Bay Area and have to pay back student loans monthly on a public-interest salary. The Law School has stepped in and made that a possibility for me. They have completely facilitated me being able to pay back my student loan debt over the next 10 years.”
The Thomas L. Shaffer Fellowship and Bank of America Community Sustainability Fellowships are two major fellowships offered through the Law School. Every year, Notre Dame awards two Shaffer fellowships in a competitive process to Notre Dame 3Ls, allowing them to create their own positions with virtually any public-interest organization in the country. The fellowship is named after Thomas L. Shaffer, Robert and Marion Short professor emeritus of law. During his tenure at NDLS he was a supervising attorney in the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic, teaching clinical ethics and guiding the legal practice of the law students who serve the low-income persons of the South Bend area. Shaffer was deeply committed to serving the poor and devoted his life to taking direct action for their benefit. Notre Dame funds fellows to work at these organizations for two years, with full benefits and a salary of $46,000 per year.
Beginning in 2015, the Law School partnered with the Bank of America Foundation to award two-year fellowships to two 3Ls committed to pursuing careers in public service advancing community sustainability. With fellows focusing on workforce development, education, basic human services and community development, the BOAF will fund the fellows’ work at a non-profit, 501©(3), organization or city agency that works to advance community sustainability for two years, with full benefits and a salary of $46,000 per year.
Throughout the month of October, the Career Development Office will host Public Interest Month, consisting of a series of afternoon discussions that will expose students to careers in the non-profit and government sectors as well as how to integrate pro-bono work into private firm practice.