Want to make a difference in the fight for liberty? Consider law school.
In no other arena can an individual have a greater impact for freedom. After all, the courts were intended to safeguard individual rights by holding the other two branches of government to their constitutional boundaries. And unlike politics, law tends to be black or white—you win or you lose—rather than shades of compromise. Look how dramatically cases like Brown v. Board of Education have changed the world.
A law degree can provide a potent tool in a wide variety of professions, including public-interest law, government, or politics. Even lawyers who pursue traditional career paths can make a difference through pro bono work.
Here are some tips for maximizing your chances for a law career that will position you to change the world:
• Think about doing something else first. Many of the most successful law students do not go directly from college to law school. Law school can be intimidating. Getting real-world experience—and setting aside some money, because scholarships for law school are rare—can help you overcome law school challenges.
• Attend the best possible school. Unlike colleges, which are pretty fungible in terms of future opportunities, where you attend law school will largely determine which doors are open when you graduate. Do you want to clerk for a judge? Become a law professor? Get a high-paid job? Work for the Justice Department? Or even land the best public-interest jobs? Get the best law school credential you can.
• Choose the most congenial environment. Once you’ve narrowed your choices to the best possible schools to which you’ve been admitted, identify the most positive environment. That can include weather, physical surroundings, intellectual atmosphere, tolerance of libertarians and conservatives, simpatico professors, and access to clerkships. Law school can be a miserable experience—or a stimulating, positive three years where you build lasting relationships.
• Keep an eye on debt. Some law students graduate with debt the size of a mortgage. That can force you to pursue mind-numbing high-paying jobs. Don’t trade school quality for financial aid—it won’t pay over the long run, especially in a depressed legal market that may never fully recover. But some law schools (like University of Chicago) have loan-forgiveness programs for students who pursue public-interest law. If debt is a concern, factor that in to the equation of where to apply.
• Be in the top ten percent of your class . . . Again, if you think you might want a big-firm job, a prestigious clerkship, or a teaching position, top graduating in the top ten percent is a prerequisite.
• . . . or do something interesting. If you’re one of the many—in fact, the 90 percent—who are not in the top ten percent, you absolutely have to make your resume stand out. Write on to law review, excel in moot court, pursue interesting clerkships, travel the world—anything to make you useful and interesting to professional employers. And if you can’t get a paying job, volunteer every chance you get to fill out your resume with varied and worthwhile experiences and to develop contacts.
• Spend one summer in a public-interest law firm. This is the way to get your foot in the door and to do some truly interesting and meaningful work. Warning: once you do this, it will be hard to go back to the stultifying though often highly compensated world of mainstream law.
• But spend your other summer doing something boring. It is important to hedge your bets and preserve your options. Work for a regular law firm or some other mainstream legal entity or you’ll be typecast as someone who only wants to be a “cause” lawyer—even if you do.
I will have more tips in part 2 of this post.
Did I follow my own advice en route to a career as a public-interest lawyer? Half and half. I didn’t choose the best law school (selecting U.C.-Davis over Duke—ack!) and my grades were dreadful. But I got away from law school as much as I could, ran for public office, volunteered for a terrific judge, developed an interesting resume, and found some fantastic mentors. Happily, I managed through luck and perspicacity to build the career in constitutional law that motivated me to go to law school. I wouldn’t trade the work I get to do for any other career in law.
I hope this advice is helpful and that it will lead some bright young college and law students to work at the Goldwater Institute—if you can handle the Arizona summer heat, you can handle anything.
I saved the most important advice for last. They’ll try to teach you lots of Latin in law school. But there are only two Latin words that matter: carpe diem. Welcome to the world of freedom advocacy!
Clint Bolick is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute and a member of AFF’s Advisory Board.