Many students go to law school with the dream of working for a non-profit, fighting for the little guy, or defending those who cannot defend themselves. Unfortunately, most of the time, these jobs aren’t paying enough to let attorneys make ends meet. Some graduates will be faced with as much as $200,000 in student loan debt. Recent graduates, many of whom probably went to law school to “make a difference,” may struggle to find a job that is both fulfilling and financially supportive.
Saddled with debt, new attorneys may be forced to look at other legal job opportunities. This could include in-house counsel for multi-billion dollar companies or huge “big-box” law firms that employ hundreds of attorneys. The legal work may not be morally engaging or even remotely interesting, but these positions tend to pay well. Fortunately, there may be a way to make lemonade out of lemons.
Recently-minted attorneys who want to find good-paying legal jobs but who also want to do meaningful work should look for positions with firms and companies that embrace pro bono work. There is no currently no requirement for all attorneys or law firms to do pro bono work. However, it is highly encouraged. Rule 6.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct explicitly states that attorneys “should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico services per year.” The Rules convey a responsibility upon attorneys to give back to the community by essentially donating their legal skills to those in need.
An estimated 80 percent of individuals with “fundamental civil legal needs” cannot afford to hire an attorney. Students who went to law school to help that 80 percent population may be hesitant to take a corporate position. Working for a firm or company that has a pro bono program can help recent graduates earn a living and give back to society. Candidates who are interested in helping the firm or company log more pro bono hours each year may also be more attractive to hiring managers.
How can recent law school graduates find jobs that allow them to live comfortably and give back? A quick search online can yield a lot of results for law firms with pro bono programs. The American Bar Association and law school websites are a great first resource. Company and law firm websites can also be helpful. Many companies and firms will want to advertise that they have strong pro bono programs to attract clients. A candidate can use the results of this search to narrow down companies and firms where they may fit in best.
Once the field of possible companies and firms has been determined, a candidate should evaluate the strength of the respective pro bono programs. Steps that may be helpful in determining whether a company or firm has a strong pro bono program include:
- Asking a copy of the firm or company’s pro bono program;
- Searching for information about a department coordinator;
- Reviewing past pro bono cases handled by the firm or company;
- Asking if the pro bono work is voluntary or mandatory;
- Finding out if the firm or company sponsors any public interest internships;
- Asking if the firm participates in the Pro Bono Institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge; and
- Reading any journal or media articles about the company or firm’s past pro bono work.
Companies and firms who continually offer extraordinary pro bono legal services may also be ranked in the American Lawyer pro bono charts.
Finding a handful of firms who have strong pro bono legal services programs can make a new attorney’s job hunt less stressful. Pro bono departments and pro bono programs give attorneys an opportunity to work in generally well-paying positions while contributing some of their time to meaningful causes. While the primary position may not be ideal, it can be a great way to sharpen and hone legal skills, learn about different aspects of the legal profession, and offer exposure to opportunities that may not have otherwise presented themselves. Once the student loan debt burden has been lifted, an attorney can then turn their attention to other opportunities that may be more personally fulfilling.