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Of the many things I could say about a public interest career, I will say this: It is impossible to engage in one for any length of time without making someone’s life a little better. My life as a staff attorney with the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm in Baltimore, Md., is both challenging and rewarding and I am hard-pressed to find much fault with it. As with every other career, however, mine has its sunny side and its not so sunny side. THE SUNNY SIDE I have learned three things since I chose a career in the public interest: variety, variety, variety. First, there is no such thing as “a” public interest career. Many public interest professionals are lawyers. But there are also advocates and lobbyists and educators and counselors and medical professionals and even (gasp) politicians. If you choose public interest, you will meet all of these wonderful people and learn to take on the world as a community. Second, there is no such thing as “a” public interest lawyer. Many public interest lawyers advocate for the civil rights of individuals. Just as many, however, advocate for the rights of entities, like helping community organizations become incorporated or protecting small minority-owned businesses from discriminatory lending practices. Furthermore, keep in mind that our laws afford a plethora of rights in a variety of areas. Therefore, if you can identify the wrong, you can be the public interest lawyer who fights to right it. Third, there is more than one way to “do” public interest. In other words, there is life outside of litigation. There is legislative advocacy, community education and coalition building. But when we do litigate, boy, do we litigate! Because of the people we represent — the underrepresented — we often pursue cases of first impression or cases where the relevant area of law is undeveloped. Such scenarios give us an opportunity to abolish bad or obscure law and refine or create good law. THE NOT SO SUNNY SIDE Representing the underrepresented is fulfilling. Many public interest lawyers, however, rapidly burn out because they realize too late that the nature of public interest work requires their energy in ways that are not obvious. For instance, you probably know that your public interest client is likely to lack a general understanding about how the legal system works. You may not, however, appreciate that this means that you will spend a lot of time educating your client — explaining why it is imperative that he attend his deposition, produce certain information or show up for a hearing at a specific time. Compound that with the fact that your client is likely to be less economically stable; she becomes even more difficult to work with because she may not have access to even simple conveniences like a working phone (which means you spend valuable time tracking her down) or reliable transportation (which means that she misses appointments). On top of all of this, most public interest clients have so many collateral things going on in their lives — unemployment, inadequate housing, domestic dilemmas — you end up competing with those problems for their attention and cooperation. As a result, the work can be emotionally and physically draining. Moreover, depending on the size of the organization that you work for, you may learn that you have limited access to necessary resources because there simply is not enough money or staff to do all that needs to be done. In addition to a small staff and recycled office materials, you may not have access to the latest technology, which is frustrating when you have grown accustomed to jumping online and doing all of your research on Westlaw and Lexis — for free. THE MONEY SIDE Granted, the money side is part and parcel of the not so sunny side. Money, however, is so relevant to public interest law, it deserves its own section. For too many lawyers and law students, money is the reason they ultimately decide not to practice public interest law. It is the rare public interest office that offers stock options, IRAs, finder’s fees and other such incentives to its employees who ultimately work the same long hours as their private counterparts, but for much less pay. The answer to this dilemma, however, is not avoidance. The answer is vigorous research so that you may take advantage of the alternatives. For instance, you may qualify for loan forgiveness from the federal government. If you are not eligible for loan forgiveness, seek loan repayment assistance. That’s what I did. Many states offer loan repayment assistance to the alumni of their state colleges and universities. These grants are need-based and may not cover the balance of your loan, but anything is better than nothing. In addition, state legal aid bureaus and public defender offices are known to offer assistance to new hires. Or consider a fellowship. NAPIL, Skadden Arps, Soros Justice and other such fellowships allow you to work on a project that you designed while they pay your salary and help you pay back your loans. We currently have two such fellows working in our office. Regardless of which option works for you, start planning — now.Figure out what your monthly loan payments are going to be. Educate yourself on grace periods, deferments, forbearances and consolidation. Establish a budget. Consider whether you need to move or even relocate. Pay down or pay off your other debts — credit cards, car notes, etc. And, if at all possible, do not create any new debts. BACK TO THE SUNNY SIDE That all being said, I end the way I began: Life as a public interest lawyer is both challenging and rewarding. I am not as wealthy as I would like to be. And where my work is concerned, I may not always be able to do what I want to do the way I want it done. But the fact still remains that at the end of the day, someone’s life is a little better because I am willing to make some sacrifices. And it’s worth it. Tara Andrews is a staff attorney with the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm in Baltimore, Md. She graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law. To find out more about the Public Justice Center, visit their Web site at www.publicjustice.org.

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