Private Interest in the Public Interest

By: David (legal, non-IL related)


My peers don't know it, but I envy them. 

I'm in Georgetown Law's Public Interest Law Scholars (PILS) program. It's for students interested in public interest law, and it's highly competitive to get in. Each year about 8 or 9 students are selected, and the benefits include a scholarship (it now covers up to 100% of tuition), being assigned to a faculty mentor (it's the only program I'm aware of that does so), being assigned a practicing lawyer mentor (again, not every student gets one at Georgetown), an extensive alumni network, and some level of prestige. Also inherent within PILS as with any other organization, there is a support network from the built-in relationships among current members. It's a truly incredible program and I'm immensely grateful I was selected as one of the members. 

Most PILS members (probably over 80%) spend their summer internships with really cool nonprofits that tackle stuff like affordable housing, LGBT rights, other civil rights, youth advocacy, homelessness, immigration, working with public defenders, etc. All of those organizations provide vital services that make lives livable for people who have the least political power. Consequently, those jobs also pay little or nothing at all. Working for them, in my view, is astonishingly noble. Especially when any one of my fellow PILS could easily land a job at a big law firm and make over $2,500 a week for the summer, and $180,000 a year upon graduation. 

When I came to law school, I had every intention of working on education policy issues. I wanted to be in the nitty gritty, fighting in the trenches along with those who have no alternatives but to fight or be swept aside. But then my thinking evolved. With the election of Trump in my first semester and his subsequent appointment of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education, as well as his proposal to slash the Department of Education's budget by literally billions, I couldn't help but think slogging through litigation and policy fights would not be the most efficient way to help the people who need help today. 

To be clear, improvements to policy and impact litigation (as a last resort) are essential to ensuring our system of education and governance works. People who dedicate their lives to those endeavors are vital. But it's not the approach I wanted to take. I want to reach millions of children in the very near future, not battle through court for an uncertain victory several years from now, or tweak a policy that may or may not have the intentional effects in practice (and which will also likely take years to pass). I want to work with a technology company that can work around the government's inefficiencies. And this is where the feelings of guilt and envy began. 


LinkedIn Logo.png

My first summer, rather than work for a nonprofit or school district, I worked at LinkedIn's headquarters in Silicon Valley. On the surface, I can understand how such an internship seems like a complete abrogation of my values and even my application to get into the PILS program. But I like to think I'm playing the long game. 

LinkedIn helps connect people with employment and other opportunities. It's the job search tool I used the most, and it's how I stumbled upon the LinkedIn internship. What I find so compelling about the company is that its mission is all about improving market efficiencies. By helping people with certain ambitions and/or skills find jobs, it removes the slack in our economic system that used to limit one's perspective. For instance, not long ago people would have trouble finding a job more than an hour away from where they lived. The expense of doing so would be immense because it'd take cultivating social connections, calling businesses one by one to ask about any potential openings, and perusing the classified ads (assuming the companies even listed vacancies). I remember looking for a summer job in 2008 and simply calling every place in the Yellow Pages that interested me because it was the most efficient way to see who was hiring. 

LinkedIn lowers the barrier to entry in the marketplace by making creating both a job posting and a resume/online professional profile simple. Searching for jobs is also easy, and users can quickly broaden or narrow their focus as desired based on industry, geography, salary, etc. Now a craftsman in Cleveland isn't forced into unemployment for lack of jobs in Cleveland. He can see that there are openings in Cincinnati or Columbus, or wherever, and pursue those opportunities. This, in turn, makes the market more efficient. The craftsman is neither sitting idle in his house nor is he forced to learn an entirely new occupation. (Of course, the changing economy will require many people to learn new skills, but in this example, it's unnecessary given job openings demanding his current skill set.)

The effects grow from there. By increasing employment, more money goes into the economy. More money in the economy leads to a higher standard of living. 

But there are valid criticisms. LinkedIn is not a great platform for people with low or no skills. It's a platform designed for professionals. They are partnering with gig economy platforms like Rover and Lyft, but such a solution isn't satiating to me because if you have few skills and are a Lyft driver (assuming you can afford a car), you aren't gaining new skills the same way a computer engineer gains the ability to use new programming languages and solves new problems over time. Most jobs have opportunities for advancement. Most gig jobs don't. 

But there was great value in the internship. I did contribute to a system that helps millions of people find jobs that are more fulfilling, and that was cool. But I also learned about the patent process, litigation (LinkedIn was sued while I was there), privacy issues, trademark, contracts, and compliance, to name a few projects I worked on. For someone who wants to eventually work with education technology companies (EdTech), my experience at one of the biggest technology companies in the world was hugely beneficial.

Law Career Path

My path through law school is not common. When I spoke with career counselors they were only able to give general advice and passed me on to others. The reason is that most law students follow one of two paths.

A minority of students go into public interest law. Public interest law is a loosely-defined term that includes furthering the interests shared by the entire public or significant segments of it. The clients and issues handled by a public interest lawyer reflect broad areas of public concern, such as illegal discrimination, environmental protection, child welfare, and domestic violence.

The problem with such a broad definition (if we want to call it a problem) is that it's not clear what's not in the public interest. Even handling contracts for a big oil company is in the public interest, because without such contracts, the company cannot function. If it cannot function, then literally hundreds of millions of people would be without power and sources of transportation, and therefore without jobs or food.

But such a reductionist view isn't helpful. Generally, public interest law focuses on people or organizations or companies that work toward social justice (another term without a clear definition, but I assume you are smart enough to understand what I mean in context) and that don't have the political power or capital of a large corporation. 

The vast majority of students, on the other hand, go into law firms. Their energies will go to whoever can afford them, and like any rational person, students tend to go with the highest bidder in a field they find at least somewhat interesting. 

My pathway is different in that I'm willing to work for companies that may not have a clear social justice mission, but whose outcome is sustainable and positive. I don't want to work for a company whose mission runs counter to my values. For example, I would never work for an oil company because though I realize they are essential, I also realize that they are at least as much a part of the problem (global warming, pollution, etc.) as they are of the solution (increasing GDP, and therefore the standard of living).

I'd happily work for Tesla because I believe their goal of shifting our energy system to a completely self-sustaining and clean one is of remarkable importance. That Tesla happens to be valued at billions of dollars is inconsequential to whether I would work there or not, aside from that capital providing them a unique capability of achieving their mission than, say, a small nonprofit protesting the EPA's recent decisions. The same can be said for large nonprofits like the Gates Foundation. I would love to work with them, as opposed to many other foundations, not because their mission is better, but because they have the resources to bring about meaningful change in a relatively short period of time. 

In fact, I believe that for-profit companies working toward the social good are the best approach to improving society. In addition to LinkedIn and Tesla, that would include Google (access to information, access to internet in areas without the infrastructure through Project Loon, developing autonomous driving which will save more lives than most health initiatives, etc.), Hyperloop One (increasing mobility so people can more easily access opportunities), and so on. It's also why I'm generally not nuts about Facebook or Apple. I want to work for a place that does more than get people addicted to its website or pumps out mildly more innovative products. 

For-profit companies are appealing because 1) they can pay their workers better than most nonprofits, which is important on an economic level because it boosts both employment and quality of living, 2) they provide a solution that is self-sustaining, rather than dependent on donors or volunteers, and 3) they have every reason to continuously improve and advance because if there is profit to be had, other companies will compete for that money.

Additionally, most for-profit companies trying to solve complex social problems also encourage volunteering among their employees. LinkedIn, for instance, lets its lawyers go volunteer with nonprofits once a month. Wouldn't it be great if every company allowed employees to do this at least once a month? Who wouldn't want to get paid Silicon Valley wages while working with a nonprofit? And how many nonprofits wouldn't want highly capable lawyers to help them out and possibly connect them to others who can also assist?

What my pathway requires, then, is in-house counsel experience. A small fraction of students put all their eggs in one basic as I have. I didn't attend the on-campus interview week for law firms like most of my friends. It was in-house or bust. Fortunately, it has worked out so far. A company called Cloudflare contacted me last December and made a summer internship offer in early January. I was thrilled to work in such a dynamic organization.

The easiest way I can explain Cloudflare is that they help provide the infrastructure for the internet. They handle over 10% of internet requests worldwide and are therefore extremely important for helping people connect to information. You can't have technology companies without the internet. (Or hardly any companies, nowadays. Even nonprofit direct legal services offices require internet today.)

But working with them also provided another cool experience because unlike LinkedIn, which has dozens of lawyers, Cloudflare has fewer than 10. My work with them helped me understand the internet better (knowledge I wanted so I can better understand the problems of technology companies), and because the legal department was so small, I got to work on a wide range of legal issues. Much wider than peers who go to a law firm and work on a specialty (labor and employment, insurance, tax, etc.). I loved the challenge of being versatile and agile, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the backend of the internet.

Most importantly, the experience continued preparing me for a job in EdTech. It's worth pointing out that it would be difficult to gain such diverse experiences through a D.C. nonprofit. Even one that focuses on technology issues. They tend to focus on particular policies, and therefore would help me get deep into a few ideas, but I'd gain little experience handling the types of legal issues an EdTech company is likely to face. Business are a very different animal from government entities. Furthermore, I've already had a peek at policy life through my internships with the U.S. Senate and working with a D.C. State Board of Education member. 

2L Year

Having explained all that, my pathway through 2L year might make more sense. In the fall I took Poverty law, Information Privacy, Education Law and Policy, and Corporations. Clearly, my interest in benefiting the underserved--and particularly through improvements in access to high-quality education--are still at the forefront of my mind. But I'm also trying to create new useful knowledge as well. So in the spring I took Intellectual Property for Start-Ups, Tech Law and Policy (platforms), Poverty Law, Entrepreneurship and the Law, Small Business Law, and Emerging Growth Companies and Venture Capital. Note that I'm not taking typical courses like Evidence. This was intentional. I can think of no purpose an evidence class would serve if I work for a social justice-type start-up or for an impact investing venture capital firm. 

The problem is that law school wasn't built for students like me and the handful of others who want to do something besides traditional public interest law or work in a law firm. To get around that problem, I joined two organizations at the business school. One is the InSITE Fellowship. InSITE Fellows work with companies (mostly start-ups) and we consult on various problems the founders identify. This includes deciding where they should branch out to next and how to market their product. I also competed in an impact investing competition (my Georgetown team went to nationals, where we promptly lost in the first round). We sourced companies, settled on one, performed due diligence, and then pitched it to a real venture capital firm. Both organizations provided a tremendous amount of hands-on experience that allows me to really dig in and learn by doing. 

With my business appetite whetted, I decided to look for business jobs prior to getting an offer from Cloudflare. I figured that though the job may say it's for MBA students, perhaps they'd take a law student with business experience. As part of the process, I asked the Georgetown Business School's career office to please add me to their mailing list so I could see job postings. To my surprise, they said no. So I asked the law center's career office to see if they could get me on, and they, too, said no. Though both the law and business schools are part of Georgetown University, they don't allow students outside their particular programs to see job postings. It's a stupid rule. So I had friends at the business school forward their emails to me. Before I heard back from any business opportunities, though, Cloudflare contacted me and I happily said yes. 

The point is that Georgetown's approach to helping people find fulfilling jobs is about as antiquated as the teaching methods used by professors. And, like the teaching methods, the reasons for not adjusting are either unknown or stupid. To whose advantage is it to not share job postings with students of the same university? How can students in positions similar to me, seeking a job that includes producing and creating as much as it does advising and mitigating, find such jobs? Especially when the denial of sharing is easily--if annoyingly--circumvented? But I digress. 

Closing Argument

The reason I wrote this was not to complain about the Office of Career Strategy, but to suggest there are other ways to serve the public interest than doing direct service. I do feel embarrassed when my PILS friends say what they did for the summer and then ask me. It feels like my indirect approach to the problem is cheating. That to serve the public interest, I should be doing a job that is emotionally draining and under-funded. But it's just the feels.

Logically, helping indirectly indisputably helps more people on a grander scale. Indeed, the growth of our GDP over the centuries—due to technological innovations—is primarily how the standard of living got to be as good as it is, not because of individual legal cases. Though, I want to emphasize again that direct services is an important element of our society, it helps real people, and it has led to landmark judicial decisions that have benefited millions of people who had previously suffered. Anyone who works in direct services is serving a noble purpose and I deeply admire them for their efforts. Moreover, there is no way to fund legal services for the indigent aside from government funding and donations, so for-profit approaches are not always the answer.

My argument is that technology has the capacity to affect hundreds of millions of people in a much shorter time frame. Not every boat will rise, but far and away most will. For instance, if someone develops a technology to provide high-quality education to the masses at an affordable rate, the ramifications will be far larger than helping students in one school or one school district. Similarly, if in ten years a large portion of houses use solar roofs rather than traditional shingles, the reduction in our carbon footprint will be meaningful and it will affect not just Americans, but the entire world. These are the problems I'm interested in solving. I want to tackle the big, thick, hairy problems, rather than nibble around the edges. I want to develop solutions that the market adopts and supports not only because it's good for social justice reasons, but because it's the best economic decision and is therefore a self-sustaining way to help people while employing people. I want to learn how to work efficiently alongside MBAs, computer engineers, and policy wonks because a tetrad of business, technology, public policy, and legal is orders of magnitude more powerful than the sum of its parts. 

While I will likely remain sheepish when my PILS friends ask what I want to do when I graduate because I know explaining my reasoning will take too long and I know they are willingly and happily diving into tough workplaces to do the work of saints, I also know that inside I've made peace with my decision.