The Drift From Public to Private: What Happens at the Split Road?

Illustrated By: Minji Reem
Illustrated By: Minji Reem

The job search had been over for months for Naz Ahmad, a 2014 graduate going into national security public interest work. She had kept herself busy with internships her 3L year, distracting herself from the stress of finding a paying job in the public or nonprofit sector. She had seen classmates struggle with the very real economic incentive to start their careers in the private sector; still, it stood out to her when a judge this summer asked her whether there was “a socialization to go to firms at Columbia.”

Naz disagreed, but with a caveat.

“A lot of people don’t know what they want to do,” she said. “Firms can tell a 24-year-old, ‘Hey you don’t have to know what to do, but we’ll give you money and time to figure it out.’ We shouldn’t discount that fact.”

It’s a familiar theme: many students go to top law schools expecting to save, or at least impact the world. But by their 3L years, they opt for the security and stability that big firms provide. The statistics at CLS hint at a similar story – 30.8% of the Class of 2014 worked in the private sector this summer as 1Ls, compared to 82.9% as 2Ls.

These numbers have their obvious limits: for example, many 1Ls at CLS are on Guaranteed Summer Funding (GSF) because paid positions are simply not widely available for first-year students. Still, historical data shows that this drift is not a new phenomenon among top law schools in the nation. It was around even in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the incentives to go to the private sector were lower, given that law school tuitions were lower, public interest positions were more plentiful, and the salary gap between Biglaw and public service was lower. For example, one survey showed that as many as 70% of Harvard 1Ls in 1986 planned to go into public interest jobs, but that by graduation less than 2% of the class planned to go into legal services positions.[1]

And so the question remains: how do we explain this drift?


Potential External and Internal Structural Influences

Much of this drift could be due to external structural incentives such as financial stability, a less-stressful (and much earlier) job search, and the need to pay off student loans. Less in the limelight, however, is whether and how students are affected by internal influences at CLS.

Consider the two separate career services offices at CLS: the Office of Career Services (OCS) and Social Justice Initiatives (SJI). Students know well that OCS focuses on private sector placement and that SJI focuses on government and nonprofit jobs. Less known, however, is how the two offices help students make informed choices about their careers – especially for students who find themselves in the gore between public and private, with the pressures of decision-making honking at them from behind.

OCS Dean Petal Modeste said that her office primarily provides information, bidding advice, and interview preparation for the Early Interview Program (EIP) and other On-Campus Interview fairs (OCI); for substantive career advice, including that on which firms to choose, OCS recommends that students contact the advisers at SJI. According to Madeleine Kurtz, the Director of Public Interest Professional Development, SJI advises these students to look into how much pro bono work a firm does or whether its practice areas overlap with the students’ public interest goals.

Both OCS and SJI limit themselves, however, to giving advice and resources. Neither office actively encourages students to “switch sides” between the private sector and public interest.

“To the extent it may require different planning for each field, that’s about being realistic, but it’s not about trying to create sides,” Kurtz said.


Private vs. Public, Short Run vs. Long Run

Nowadays, not every federal government agency or national nonprofit requires big firm experience, yet it gives students pause that some do. At the other extreme, there are other public sector agencies that would much rather not hire students with Biglaw experience. In still other areas, such as environmental law, it is simply unclear whether big firm experience hurts or helps candidates, as noted by SJI advisers during a career-planning event in April on “Moving Forward for 1Ls (Public Interest and Government).”

And so, students are often stuck with this overarching question: Where do I want to be ultimately, and what do I have to do to get there?

Biglaw All the Way: There Doesn’t Have to Be a Split (…or Does There?)

During their summer experiences at Biglaw firms, students who are committed to the private sector sometimes find how relationships with nonprofits can nurture and enhance the scope of private sector work.

“I don’t think there has to be a split,” said Taylor Hartstein, a rising 3L planning to stay in the private sector. “Law firm partners encourage pro bono work as an opportunity to build courtroom skills.”

During his summer at Shearman & Sterling, Taylor saw firsthand the importance of building relationships between lawyers in nonprofits and the private sector. For example, many pro bono opportunities for Shearman’s summer associates stemmed from the relationship a capital markets partner at Shearman had with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) – when the NRDC needed lawyers this summer to help with immigration issues relating to seasonal workers for domestic agriculture, Shearman’s summer associates were able to work on the case pro bono.

Still, the vast range of practice areas and pro bono opportunities at Biglaw firms may be a double-edged sword. SJI does advise public interest-oriented students to choose firms that complete a large number of pro bono hours. But beyond that, as Taylor noted, it is difficult to compare the specifics of different firms’ pro bono practice, both during EIP and as a summer associate.

At some firms, associates can certainly take on and bill for a large number of pro bono projects. For some associates, the diversity of pro bono projects provides them with opportunities to find which areas correspond best to their skills and passions and to keep in perspective where their true commitments lie.

In many cases, however, this is easier said than done – associates have only so many hours in a day, and even if they are at a firm with a passion for a particular public interest issue, the associates’ schedules may simply not align with the specific projects they would like to do.

The Revolving Door: Planning Ahead for Mid-Career Transitions

Agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) are known for their “revolving door” with the private sector. Their attorneys often sit across the table from senior partners at Biglaw firms, making them value the insights into corporate decision-making that private sector lawyers can bring.

Not surprisingly, internships and externships at these government agencies are popular, both with students who plan to stay in the private sector and those who hope to make mid-career transitions from Biglaw firms back to the agencies.

“Working at a major federal agency was … a valuable networking opportunity,” said Eileen Kuo, a rising 3L who spent her 1L summer at the SEC and is now following her original plan to stay in the private sector. “[M]ost SEC attorneys were trained in Biglaw and many also leave the agency to return to the private sector in positions of leadership.”

Students planning mid-career transitions from private to public must keep in mind, however, that nonprofits and government agencies often look for lawyers who are committed to a specific cause. Thus, in a saturated job market, it is not always enough to have a general interest in social justice in order to make the transition.

Public Sector All the Way: Exploring the Terrains of Specialized Resume-Crafting

When looking for a commitment to their cause, some government agencies and nonprofits avoid candidates with big firm experience. The most well-known are groups that align themselves with labor unions, such as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) under Democratic presidential administrations. As noted by SJI advisers at the SPIN meeting last semester, students who go to firms but want to transition to representing unions should avoid representing corporations in labor disputes.

Then there are the greyer areas. As noted by Taly Matiteyahu–a rising 3L who split her summer between Fried Frank and the New York County District Attorney’s Office (Manhattan DA), and who worked in the Manhattan DA hiring department prior to law school–the Manhattan DA’s I Office looks for “a commitment to public service and an academic pursuit of criminal law.” Thus, one of the big stressors for students going straight into public interest is that unlike their peers at Biglaw firms, they do not have an opportunity to “rotate” between practice areas during their summers. Since these students can often only explore different public sector practice areas through externships and summer internships, experiences during law school are key – ones that would enable them to choose a practice area early on, and to show a deep commitment to public service on their resumes to receive sufficient guidance and training on their practice area of choice.

Students often find that the most important training for public interest careers comes from law school clinical experiences, through which they work at a level of responsibility that Biglaw associates do not always receive. “I never bought into the idea that you’ll get better training at a firm,” Naz said. “For me it’s more important who am I learning from and what specifically they can teach me.”

This was especially true for Sarah Mechlovitz-Saadoun, a 2014 graduate who will be focusing on report-writing and advocacy – skills that are not as prominent in Biglaw litigation departments, which focus on doctrinal research, discovery, and settlement negotiations. For the Human Rights Clinic at CLS, Sarah went to India with Professor Peter Rosenblum to do research for a project on tea plantations. “That was probably the most important training I received for doing the type of work I will do,” Sarah said.

All in all, through all the hurdles and uncertainties that come with striving towards careers in the public sector, what compels CLS students to pursue these careers is often the sense of pride in being part of the broader fight for social justice. Ultimately, even for those who aspire to make mid-career transitions from Biglaw to government, the pursuit of public service-oriented experiences during law school can lead to smoother transitions and allow them to maintain faith in their own commitment towards the greater good.

“I’m not super down on going to a firm, since I know a lot of people who transition,” Naz said. “It’s just, I consider myself lucky to have found something, doing something that I really want to do, and being able to say down the line that I’m really interested in social justice.”


[1] Law Student Idealism and Job Choice: Some New Data on Old Question, 30 Law & Soc’y Rev. 851, 851 (1996).

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