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Law firm salaries may be rising to astronomical proportions in some quarters, but public interest law is still attracting do-gooder interns from across the country to Chicago. The Public Interest Law Initiative, reports it actually is seeing an increase in top-notch applicants, many of whom are among the brightest and attending the nation’s best law schools. For most of the interns, it’s an introduction to what they hope will be a strong commitment to pro bono work. For others, it’s the beginning of a career. “People want to lead integrated lives; they want jobs that express their own true values,” explained Maureen Dolan, PILI’s assistant director. That certainly seems to be the case for Miriam Friedland, a 2L at Washington, D.C.’s American University who is active in the law school’s equal justice program. “I already had a pretty strong commitment to being involved in public interest work when I came into law school,” said Friedland. She worked with summer at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc. drafting memos on diverse topics, including anti-gay ballot initiatives. Friedland said it’s a natural career move for her to seek out internships at agencies where she would like to make her living someday. And being a New York native, she wanted to check out the environment in Chicago, which she found out she likes. Though she has little desire to try big firm work, she said she is open working at a smaller, or mid-sized firm where she could get the practical experience she still needs to feel comfortable doing public interest work full time. Friedland was one of 53 interns and 47 law firm fellows placed this year by PILI at one of 36 agencies in Chicago. PILI gets between 300 and 400 applications each year, Dolan said. Founded in 1977 (with four interns back then), PILI is supported primarily by the private legal community, law schools and area foundations. Interns are paid a $4,000 stipend for 10 weeks. But as one intern mentioned, the amount pales in comparison to recently announced summer associate salaries in some of the city’s biggest law firms. That’s why many law students head to PILI after their first year, with every intention of aggressively seeking a summer associate slot the following year. Take Pherabe Kolb, a 1L at Northwestern University who worked this summer at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest helping do research for the proposed founding of an all-girl charter school. “I could not have designed a better job for me,” said Kolb, a women’s history major and former reporter for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C. But while Kolb said this has been “the best semi-unpaid job I’ve ever had” and reminded her why she went to law school in the first place, she hopes to work for a firm next year. She considers the summer PILI internship her last chance to do public interest work for a while, at least until she pays off her mounting law school loans. Law students need to focus in their second summer on finding a feeder job, the one that will lead to a paycheck at the end of law school, Kolb said. Though Kolb acknowledged it’s possible to do public interest work straight out of school, she said, “I’m not willing to make the sacrifices.” “Just because I go to a firm doesn’t mean I’m totally selling my soul to the devil,” she said, adding that she expects she will only look at firms that consider pro bono is valued. Dolan said PILI is hopeful all law students with a passion for public interest law will do just that when they look for law firm jobs. “I think sometimes people don’t realize how much power they have in the interview,” Dolan said. Nancy H. Dove, a 2L at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said if she does go to a law firm, it would have to make pro bono a priority. A former vice president of marketing at the Museum of Science and Industry, Dove has spent nearly 20 years working for not-for-profits and can’t imagine going too far afield now. Dove spent her summer at the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing where she got to actually represent clients in court. “It’s very rewarding [work],” she said. “In a lot of cases we’re the line between a roof over their heads and being on the streets.” As for the $125,000 to $140,000 salaries she may be missing, Dove said, “My experience has been that once you’ve had a job really helping people make a difference, it’s really hard to go back.” Dove said it also makes a difference that she’s been working so many years and doesn’t have as much debt as other traditional students. “I might feel differently if I had as much debt hanging overhead,” she said. Still, Dove insists there are lifestyle advantages, though not necessarily less take-home work. Dove said she finds herself staying late to call clients when they’re home from work and taking plenty of files home. “It could be a nine-to-five job, but for a lot of us it isn’t,” she said. In addition to opening the door to internships at specific public interest law firms, PILI hosts seminars so students can get a feel for what it’s like to work in other areas of law. Seminar topics this year ranged from transactional work for nonprofits and asylum law, to being an advocate for the elderly and police brutality. “PILI does a really good job of exposing you to different types of public interest work and pro bono activities,” said St. Louis, Mo., resident Lindsay N. Marshall, a 1L at Northwestern University who spent her 10 weeks at the Better Government Association. Like Kolb, Marshall plans to go to a firm next year. But the experience of this summer, she said, has been invaluable. Most of Marshall’s work involved suing Governor George Ryan as part of the Better Government Association’s quest to investigate the licenses for bribes scandal at the Secretary of State’s office that Ryan once controlled. Federal prosecutors have tied bribes to at least $170,000 in Ryan’s campaign coffers. And though Marshall’s efforts haven’t met with much success in state or federal court, she has no complaints. “If I’d been at a firm I could have spent a lot of time just researching or just writing memos,” she said, noting she instead got to do research, help write briefs and prepare for oral arguments. About losing, Marshall said, “That’s just part of the learning experience.”

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