Career Crush: What It’s Like to Be a Social Justice Lawyer (Shared Article from Harvard Business Review)

by Kelsey Alpaio

Career Crush Youtube Video

Most of what I know about lawyers comes from watching reruns of Law & Order. So yeah, I know very little. What I do know is that lawyers are resilient, they work incredibly hard, and they’re really good at reading enormous stacks of paper.

But over the last year, I’ve been eager to learn more about what it takes to be a lawyer. Organizations like the ACLU, and the people who work for them, have been in the headlines more than ever as they continue to fight for free speech, LGBTQ+ rights, and police accountability. I’m passionate about these causes. I can attend protests and sign petitions all day long, but in the end, it is the attorneys working in public interest law that will help turn the changes I want to see into realities.

To learn more about what it’s like to do that work, I spoke with Jessica Lewis, a Staff Attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Jessica shared with me the details about her career — from interning at the White House, to attending Harvard Law School, to working at the Southern Poverty Law Center, to becoming an attorney at the ACLU. We also talked about the pay discrepancy between “big law” and public interest law, the pros and cons of following your passion, and what it really takes to change the world.

I want to start off by asking you a question about something I saw on your LinkedIn, where you refer to yourself as a “Social Justice Warrior.” What does that mean to you?

It means I needed something to put on my cover letter. No, I’m kidding.

In the shop, we spend a lot of time really working to fight other people’s battles, and really making that our priority. That’s one way to think about it. I think the best example of that is, I did a clinic with a legal services organization. I did work with survivors of domestic abuse. And we received a call from one of our clients saying that she wasn’t able to send her children to school because she was sick and that her ex-husband wasn’t paying child support. She didn’t have any money to send them to school on her own.

So I stepped in and called the ex-husband just to remind him of the child support payments. And then he told me, “This is none of your business.” I was able to reply, “This is literally my job, this is all that I do. So yes, this is my business. I’m stepping in here.”

I think that’s the thing about being a social justice warrior. You’re really in there, and you’re really fighting for people and what they need.

Tell me a little bit more about your job. What does the day-to-day look like for you?

I’m going to give you the cliche answer: There is no day-to-day. I think it depends on the case. Sometimes I have clients that require face-to-face meetings. We’re meeting with people to advocate for them or their needs, meeting with higher-ups, etc.

Most of the time, I’m just sitting at my desk doing research on legal issues, writing briefs, and talking on the phone with people. I’m doing that more and more because of the pandemic.

And sometimes, very rarely, I’m actually in court. Either we submitted a brief in a case and we’re just observing the court hearing to see how it goes, or we’re there to speak with the lawyer who’s arguing it, or we’re arguing it ourselves. Although, I have yet to actually argue a case on my own.

That’s the day-to-day: Wake up, check emails, and then whatever the needs of the case are, that dictates what you’re going to be doing.

Is there a specific area that you work in at the ACLU?

I am a junior lawyer. I’ve been at the ACLU for two years. I graduated law school in 2017, so when I came into the organization, I had about a year and a half of lawyering under my belt. The way that they structured my position was that I was going to do more to get my hands on each kind of subject area.

Some of our lawyers do mainly police accountability, or First Amendment, or immigration. My cases are kind of sprinkled across all of them. Right now, a hot-button issue is that there are a lot of ordinances or codes restricting what people can put on their lawns. There may be like a “no Black Lives Matter” rule or no “Trump sign” rule. We’ve been working a lot on getting rid of those types of ordinances.

Were you always interested in pursuing this particular career path? Did you always know you wanted to become an attorney or work at the ACLU?

No, but when I knew that I wanted to become an attorney, I knew that I wanted to work at the ACLU. It was part of my 10-year plan, so it happened a lot sooner than I anticipated.

When I was younger I wanted to be a scientist. I didn’t want to be an astronaut, but I did want to be an astronomer, an aeronautical engineer, or a chemical engineer. It kind of changed every year. My parents really supported each hobby that I fell into. But it was always closely aligned with the sciences.

Around the time that I got into calculus and entered Georgia public schools, my teachers were less supportive of me. And it tended to fall along racial lines — the things that they said were pretty horrible. So I started thinking to myself, I really want to fix that, and I want to enter the education field so I can make sure that other students and people don’t experience the same setbacks that I did in terms of people disparaging or otherwise discouraging their dreams.

That’s when I shifted to wanting to be a lawyer. But I still think to myself that I’m going to turn 40 or something and I’m going to shift into a new career path. Maybe I’ll go back to being a scientist.

Can you tell us a little bit about what the process of applying and getting into law school is like?

Yeah. You basically suck up your soul and you hand it to admissions officers.

Obviously your undergraduate grades are pretty important. And then you spend a lot of time studying for the LSAT, which is important. The first time I ever took the LSAT, I didn’t study for it. I got, like, a 159, which was pretty bad. But the second time, I studied and got a good score.

Once the LSAT is out of the way, you also have to give your personal statements. And most schools also allow you to submit a diversity statement. I didn’t want to do one. But I actually talked to an admissions officer and one of the things that they told me was that I can choose not to send a diversity statement, but it might look weird. So I also did that.

And then some schools have different things that you need to write as well. Like, some schools require you to write an additional essay. That’s why I didn’t apply to Yale. I got very lazy toward the end of applying. And then you have your recommendations and things like that.

There are online communities that I used a lot that helped me with this process in terms of setting up a study schedule for myself, knowing what’s normal in terms of the timing for admissions and notifications for acceptance letters. It was nerve wracking because some people will start getting their acceptance letters and then you’re constantly refreshing your inbox, like, “Why am I not getting one?” Getting input from other people really helped with the process.

My idea of law school is it’s the hardest thing you could possibly do. Is that what it’s actually like?

Some people like law school. I judge those people.

Before I went to law school, I wanted to prepare myself for the worst possible experience so that no matter what happened, it would be better than that. Which I think was a good strategy. But law school wasn’t bad.

You don’t have any exams or anything like that until the very end. So the first couple of months, you’re just really learning and studying. It’s hard in the beginning because you’re basically learning to speak a new language. You’re reading cases that use words that you can’t even pronounce.

You’re getting like 100 pages of reading per night, per class. It’s slow going at first. You certainly get better as you learn how to think and learn like a lawyer. When you get to the final exam period — it’s absolutely stressful and terrifying. That period of law school every semester was hell.

And yes, you have cold calls. It’s not at all like “How to Get Away with Murder.” You don’t stand up and give your answer. You can sit and be terrified in your chair. I sucked at cold calling. People would call on me and I knew the answer, and the moment that they called on me, I just didn’t anymore.

So how did you end up at the ACLU? What were the steps you took to get there?

Public interest law operates a little bit differently than private law. At least at Harvard and most other schools. Right after your first year, private law firms come to campus and do one-hour interviews with students. That’s how you get your summer internships, and then those turn into job offers.

For public interest folks, that work doesn’t actually start until after your second year of law school. Harvard is pretty supportive in terms of helping people find fellowships and jobs. But at most law schools, you’re kind of your own for public interest, and there’s not really a set system in place right now to help people find fellowships.

So all summer, you’re calling people at organizations that you’re interested in trying to get informal interviews at. You’re trying to get to the next person that’s going to help you get sponsorships for a fellowship. You can apply for the EJW or Skadden fellowships and those will pay for one or two years of your work at a non-profit doing a civic project that you choose to work on.

Or some organizations have their own fellowships and they pay for you to be a fellow there. I’m talking about fellowships because the most traditional route to public interest work is to do a one- or two-year fellowship or clerkship, or both. And then you can transition into being a full-time staff person.

I was a fellow at Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery doing work in their LGBT Rights and Special Litigation Group. After that, I transitioned to being a full-time staff attorney at ACLU.

So if I want to become an attorney, what would you say are the major skills or the mindset I should have going into this career path?

It’s important to just develop an interest in the field. Public interest is hard work depending on what interests you have. Like if you’re a criminal defense attorney, you’re working with people whose life is in your hands.

It’s hard to separate yourself from your clients sometimes. Like, when I did the domestic violence clinic, it was hard because these women were experiencing awful things. They were experiencing great hardships in their life, and you’re only there for a small portion of it. And as a lawyer, you only have the skills to help address some of their issues. You can’t fix it all, and you can’t take it all on. And that’s something that I had to learn — how to step back.

ACLU doesn’t do a lot of direct services work. We’re able to focus our interest more on protecting a person’s rights, as opposed to being involved in their life. It’s easier to take a step back. This work can really take an emotional toll, especially if you’re a very empathetic person.

So before you decide to follow this career path, you really do need to have an interest in doing this type of work. You should also be able to pinpoint what it is that you’re interested in. That will help you find the organization or field that’s going to really match with your interest, your civic goals, and your worldview.

For example, at SPLC, we were more interested in doing work against hate groups and limiting hate speech online. The ACLU obviously takes a very different approach — it’s more of a purist organization where we want to protect the rights of all people to speak no matter the content, because we think that it’s important for the government not to be the ones who draw that line in terms of what is acceptable or not acceptable. You have some other organizations like LDF, which does more racial justice work.

So I think knowing who you are as a person before you enter this work is important. As is being able to grow along the way. When I was in law school, I did not want to do criminal justice work. I did a clinic with the United States attorney’s office. I did not want to be a prosecutor after that clinic because I did not want to be responsible for putting someone in prison. I did not want to be a criminal defense lawyer because I did not want to be responsible for keeping people out of prison.

Now that I’m at ACLU, I do a lot of criminal justice work. But it’s a little easier because we kind of just helicopter into a case and then we kind of just step back out of it. It’s not as high stakes as it is if you’re just enmeshed in the criminal justice system.

What are some of the misconceptions about this career path?

One of the biggest misconceptions about being a lawyer is that we know everything about the law. I have people asking all the time about criminal defense work, and I don’t know anything. Every lawyer is super specialized. I have a friend who does mergers and acquisitions, but only in the international market. I have a friend who does contracts, but only for IPOs. Especially with court cases coming out all the time, the law is constantly changing and shifting. So you have to really stay on top of your particular field so that you can have a general baseline knowledge.

For public interest law, one of the big misconceptions, and probably something that gets a lot of young lawyers in trouble, is the idea that you’re going to change the world through your work. Some people do. There are great examples all throughout history of people really making a difference.

But I think it’s rare. And I think a lot of people get very discouraged when they enter this field and they have these big lofty ideas and it doesn’t really happen. And that disconnect can lead to alcohol abuse, depression, and the like. A lot of my jobs have focused on either incremental changes or just holding the line depending on who’s in charge.

What are some pros and cons of pursuing your passion versus going somewhere where you’ll make more money?

That’s a very personal choice, and sometimes it does just come down to a matter of resources. I know a lot of people who choose to go into civic law in order to pay off their loans, or they have family obligations or things like that. And they may spend three to five years in civic law and then transition to being a public interest lawyer. That’s one common route.

I just dove right into public interest. I did a summer with a big law firm, and I loved it. There were a lot of perks. They took us out to five star restaurants all the time or we went to the Hamptons and hung out. It was fabulous.

But I could not wake up every day knowing that my goal was just to make other people money. It just wasn’t my thing. I was happiest there when I did a rotation through the pro bono side. I just loved being able to help other people and know that I was waking up every day with a purpose — to make other people’s lives better.

When you started working in public interest law, did you think you were going to change the world? Was that something you had to learn the hard way?

I didn’t actually go into all of this thinking that I’m going to be the person that changes the world. I did have a very discrete goal about what constitutional change that I wanted to impact or cause. But it was a very small thing, and I thought it would take like 20 years. So I was kind of realistic about that.

That said, during my fellowship, I did realize that I thought of the world differently than what it was. I entered into the civil rights arena thinking that I was going to be insulated from racism and sexism in the workplace, and it was a very hard and harsh reality to experience it. That did cause depression for me.

So I didn’t necessarily think that I was going to change the world, but I did think that because I was going to be fighting for people’s rights that I would be in a workplace around people who would fight for mine as well. Or be able to look at themselves and know saying the N-word is not OK, or know that sexual assault is not OK. But that was not necessarily true.

Now, luckily, I am in a very supportive environment.

What were those constitutional changes that you were interested in? What were your goals?

I wanted to make an impact in education law. Basically, the way that we teach history in middle school and high school is very Eurocentric, and we only really ever learn about other cultures through the lens of how white Americans hurt them. So Black people are only mentioned for slavery or being hosed down, but not our impact on culture or the shaping of America.

When our history is taught, it’s very fragmented. You don’t actually see that continuous narrative of how we got from one place to where we are today. And for a lot of people, that causes them to say, “What are they still complaining about? Slavery happened a long time ago.” Because it’s just taught very poorly.

We just don’t get a very accurate picture of what America is in this country, and that’s largely because of how we’re taught history. We’re just taught America’s white. I’ve always wanted to change that and make a constitutional argument that that is racial discrimination and harmful to a person’s identity. I’m not working on that right now. One day I will. It’s in my 10-year plan now. Lofty goals.

What are some of the obstacles and challenges of this industry? What are the things that you wish you could change about this industry?

An obstacle for public interest law is it’s really hard to get a position because the funding is not always there. Getting your foot in the door is also a challenge, and you have to go through the fellowship process. That’s why internships are important, so that you can meet the right people and have a good rapport among your colleagues. Especially in Boston. It’s a small place. The civil rights community is very small. And so people do know you by your reputation.

Something that I’d like to change is — the legal system is very antiquated in terms of the role of women. I remember I had one internship where they encouraged women to wear skirts, and by encouraged I pretty much mean it was a requirement. We were told if we want to express our individuality, we can wear a nice brooch. I also had a colleague who had a judge that kept pointing out that she wasn’t smiling.

And you can’t say anything because you’re advocating for someone else. You can’t choose not to wear a skirt because some jurors have expressed bias against women wearing pants. Or there was one instance where a judge stopped proceedings and had the attorney go change. It’s all very messed up.

Like, I sometimes wear pink when I’m in court hearings, because I was once told that I’m angry. So I thought if I looked very feminine, no one is going to think I’m angry.

Changing course a bit here, but what should I expect to get paid if I’m going into this career path?

It varies by field. As a fellow, my starting salary was $60,000. Which was, I think, very generous. The ACLU in Massachusetts recently unionized, so our floor for incoming staff attorneys is $70,000.

But on the other side of this is big law. The starting salary for first-year attorneys is $190,000. I would never make that in my current career path. But my friend also, his starting salary was $225,000, so literally twice the amount of money I can ever expect to make in my current career path.

But in my career path, Harvard helps pay off my loans. I just have to make a certain contribution depending on my income. I think right now I have to pay $600 every month, and Harvard pays the other $3,000. That varies depending on what law school you go to.

But my friends in big law are completely responsible for the totality of their loans.

You’ve mentioned “big law” a couple of times. What does that mean?

There are a couple of firms that are dubbed big law. They’re mostly New York firms, or Chicago. They’re your big law firms. Like 500 plus employees in their station, in major cities, very large starting salaries.

Their clients are like big Fortune 500 companies and they do a range of services for them, whether it be intellectual property, litigation, contract work, mergers and acquisitions, IPOs. It depends on the firm and what they specialize in, but it’s going to be some area that caters to or serves the interests of these big companies.

Can you talk a little bit more about loan repayment? Do most law schools offer assistance for public interest lawyers?

Harvard and maybe Yale have pretty generous loan repayment programs. Harvard’s is just income-based. As long as you are making a certain amount of money, Harvard will pay back your loans. And the amount of money that you pay each month depends on your level of income. They do set a cap. So if I ever make about $130,000, I will have to pay the full amount of my loans. But I’m never going to make that, so whatever.

They do it over a 10-year period. And in most law schools, you have to be doing a certain public interest job in order to qualify for the loan repayment program. You have to do it for all 10 years, which means that at any time during those 10 years you switch to another field, you have basically nulled the first couple of years that you were receiving loan repayments and you’re now obligated to pay those back.

What is the work-life balance of your job? How many hours are you spending “in the office?”

We have a pretty good balance. My workload is very case-dependent, so the week before filing, we put in longer hours. I have a project right now that’s kind of a passion project. It’s more focused on racial justice and community organizing, which is not really part of my job as a staff attorney. So I spent some weekends doing that.

We also have a lot of vacation days. I spend a lot of time traveling — every year I go somewhere new. So it’s a pretty good balance, especially compared to some of my friends who did big law for their first couple of years. Like once, I was visiting a friend and I just remember I would go to sleep at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, and she’d be at her desk typing. And I’d wake up at 6:00 or 7:00, and she’d be at her desk typing. I couldn’t do that. I need to step away and go on a walk or just chill for a day.

They really do encourage work-life balance, especially at the ACLU. I just remember there was a period where people were working too late and then we all got an email reminding us that we’re expected and encouraged to leave at 5:00 to spend time with our family or go out to dinner. There were a host of suggestions of things that you can do outside of work. So it was an expectation that you worked from 9:30 to 5:30. And there was discussion that if people aren’t finishing their work during that time, then do we need to readjust our staff and our expectations? What can we do as an organization to make sure that you are able to strike the balance.

What do you love about the work that you do today?

I love the cases that we get to work on. Even if it’s not a case our office worked on, I get to be like — we just litigated gay marriage and won. That’s something I love. The work we do and being able to send it out to my friends like, “Hey, I’m working on this case. It’s a really cool constitutional issue that’s going to impact people.”

Has there been a particular case that really did impact you personally?

Not necessarily impacted me personally. But our office litigated the drug cases that dealt with the fallout of Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan’s misconduct in the Massachusetts state drug labs. They tested drug samples, but their results were not reliable for various reasons, and that means that a lot of criminal cases were tainted. You couldn’t tell whether or not the evidence that was presented against them at trial was actually verifiable or that they actually did possess drugs.

So the legal director, the ACLU of Massachusetts, and several other organizations really litigated the fact that all these cases needed to be overturned and tossed out as wrongful convictions. To the extent that we’re aware, it was the largest number of cases being overturned in history.

Being part of the solution to this terrible thing that happened has been really great.

Over the last year, I’ve definitely seen the ACLU in the news more than ever. Has that impacted the work that you’ve been doing?

I started at the ACLU in 2019, so a year into my tenure here the pandemic happened and then we had the summer protests. I do think it really helps doing this work if there is public pressure, public support behind the goals that we’re trying to achieve. And to some extent, our work is really informed by that movement. Recently, the ACLU got behind the defund movement. Obviously, that’s something that came out of the protests and really the demands that were happening, and that has also informed our work as well. That goal is our work around racial profiling and things like that.

Have you ever had to work on a case where you didn’t personally agree with what you were fighting for?

I do fall on the First Amendment purist line, so I support people’s right to say whatever they want. I’m very afraid of the government having the power to determine what is and is not hate speech or what is and is not allowed. I think if we allow or advocate for the government to be the one to enter that field, in terms of censoring our speech, it’s dangerous. Giving anyone that power to determine what we can and cannot say or how we express ourselves is dangerous. Obviously, that has its limits in terms of what we saw with the presidential election. That was awful. And I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know if the fix is to limit people’s speech. But I’m pretty sure I would never defend someone’s right to say the N-word.

I haven’t been put in a position where I have had to choose my own values versus the work. You can be asked to work on something that you don’t necessarily believe in. But the law is flexible enough to where you can make an argument about why this particular case is different. There is room to breathe and flexibility of law if you’re asked to work on something that you just don’t really agree with. You can make the legal argument for why this can be different. Or you can just push back on your employer and say that you don’t want to work on it.

Okay, last question: Who is your career crush?

I don’t aspire to be president, but I’m going to say Obama. It’s powerful to be able to inspire a country. I just think being able to create your own movement and be a very positive change or a beacon of hope for a lot of people — being able to establish yourself and really have that kind of support and momentum behind you to make that real change in the world, I think that’s very powerful.

By Meaghan Wood (She/Her)
Meaghan Wood (She/Her) Career Coach Meaghan Wood (She/Her)