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When some women talk about “career sacrifice,” they don’t mean less time with their kids. They mean they’ve traded off money and prestige to embrace passion and belief. They’re not chasing the big bucks; they’re following their conscience. Lori Wallach calls it “smoking the Brown v. Board of Education drug.” The public service buzz comes with its own rewards — sometimes through the ballot box. Last week, Linda Singer, executive director of the D.C.-based nonprofit Appleseed, was named the District’s next attorney general by Mayor-Elect Adrian Fenty. And Wallach, the D.C. lawyer who, some say, single-handedly reconfigured the debate on global trade, is also celebrating the recent election returns. In her role as head of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, Wallach is the anti-free-trade movement’s chief rabble-rouser and hyperarticulate spokeswoman. When she started this work in 1991, she says, “people laughed me out of the room. They said, �You’re from a consumer group, go away.’ “ But instead, Wallach brags, “We’ve changed the whole damn debate” on trade, pushing the developed countries to recognize that Third World nations can actually be hurt by an unrestricted global marketplace. And the midterm election results show that her work has paid off: As many as seven Senate and 27 House seats were won by what Wallach calls “proponents of fair trade.” How did Wallach discover trade as her issue? She was already working at Public Citizen when she began to see how the gospel of free trade was not working for poor people around the world. “It was as if I was assigned to be the bank guard. But someone was ripping off the bank through another door.” THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED Of course, you can’t have everything when you’re trying to save the world. You risk being shunned as the morally superior drudge who manages to spoil the mood of every cocktail party by bringing up Darfur. And you sometimes have to dispel the notion that going into this line of work means you weren’t bright enough or ambitious enough to land a high-paying job at a big law firm. Wallach, 42, still remembers her father’s comment when she landed her first $17,500-a-year public interest job in 1990: “For this you went to Harvard Law School?” She says there were just three in her law school class who graduated without a job in hand: Wallach, a man who had health problems, and an Orthodox Jewish woman who was about to give birth to her seventh child. Singer agrees that there’s a stigma. The best and the brightest — Singer, 40, is another Harvard Law grad — are expected to follow a fairly traditional path: law review, clerkship, and then on to the big law firm. Choosing any other route may be seen as a sign that something went wrong. So there’s a certain sense of swimming upstream, fighting the current, among public interest lawyers, particularly those who went to top-notch law schools. Part of the problem is the focus that law schools themselves put on funneling students into the firms. U.S. News & World Report ranks law schools based on, among other things, the percentage of their students employed nine months after graduation. Because advocacy groups don’t have an extensive system of locking in new grads as summer associates, those going into public interest law are often slower to line up jobs. Also pushing law students into private practice is the burden of paying off those hefty loans. The annual tuition alone at Harvard Law School today is $37,100. For human rights lawyer Christine Tefft, 33, it was the size of those law school loans from the University of Virginia that persuaded her to take a job with the New York office of now-defunct Coudert Brothers. Four years later, she finally left to work for Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. A FUTURE TOLD IN CRAYON The ones who forgo the pay-off-the-loans-first route often have what some might tactfully call a certain stubbornness. Take Wallach. She claims she was only thrown out of school once — in fourth grade, for passing around a petition to prevent her favorite teacher from being transferred to another school. When the playground monitor confronted her, Wallach announced that she had learned in civics class “that we have the right to petition our government, even if it was with construction paper and a bunch of crayons.” Wallach was suspended for a day because when the playground monitor tried to grab the petition, Wallach pushed her. It was at that point, Wallach says, that her parents realized they would have to start saving money, “whether it would be for bail or for law school tuition — they weren’t sure,” she says with a laugh. Singer found her path a little later. At Harvard Law, she realized she wanted two things out of her career: work that was meaningful and work that was interesting. Even so, she says, the current was strong. According to Singer, about half the students entering Harvard Law say they want to go into public service work, but only 5 percent end up actually doing so. (The situation at other law schools is similar.) Singer was able to fight that current because she found two stellar mentors, professors Charles Ogletree and Derrick Bell, both leaders in civil rights and public interest work. She also had what she describes as a “tight circle, which was a big source of support.” That circle included several friends who went on to win the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants. Singer has also been sustained by the work itself. She started out as a legal aid lawyer in Manhattan but soon moved to Appleseed, where she’s been for the past 13 years, helping build networks of lawyers doing pro bono work to build “a just society.” She says, “Not having to make the ultimate compromise is an enormous source of energy.” Singer describes her new role as attorney general as “a great way to build on the work we’ve done and use it in a whole new context.” Tefft has more mixed feelings about choosing the public interest route. She just finished a year and a half with the American Bar Association’s Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative — which she describes as “kind of like the Peace Corps for lawyers” — and she has “tremendous pride” in her work with women’s advocates in Tajikistan. “But you balance the pride with some personal risk you take. You’re off the corporate track. I think you do have the ability to go back, but the longer you’re away, the less likely you’ll have that opportunity.” Tefft adds, “It’s not a clear path.” THE �AHA’ MOMENT Even so, as Tefft talks, she remembers one of the highlights of her time in Tajikistan. She conducted judicial training for about 60 judges on ways to reduce discrimination against women. At the start of the session, several judges told her that they didn’t think their country had any discrimination against women. Afterward, they agreed that there might be a problem if, for example, women are deprived of their property in a divorce. “You get the �aha’ moment in two hours,” she says. “Just one of those �aha’ moments may be worth my entire year and a half.” And here’s Singer’s favorite story from her early days in legal aid. She was working late at night in a Manhattan office building when a mouse ran across her desk. She screamed and called for building security to do something about the mouse. The security guard came up to her office holding two cats. Years later, Singer sees a lesson: “Doing public interest work is like trying to change the world with two cats. It takes creativity.” And good time management. Although Singer now manages to plan her day so that she can pick up her kids from school, her life as a public interest advocate shares a striking similarity with that of her brethren in private practice: “I never thought my life would be this busy,” she says. “My life is scheduled in 30-minute increments.” But she wouldn’t change a thing, Singer adds. And she vows that the new D.C. administration will be as “family friendly” as Appleseed. In some ways, Singer’s appointment is a vindication of the choices she has made, even if they’re not exactly choices any more. “At some level, what else am I going to do?” she asks. “It becomes part of who you are.”
Balancing Act, a column exploring the lives of women in the law, appears in Legal Times each month. Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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