How a Non-Profit Attorney Who Provides Legal Services to Low-Income NYC Residents Does Money

I'm a first year attorney at a non-profit legal services organization, in New York.

Debating the Value of a Public Service Career

B. is a graduate student at a major American university studying humanitarian organizations in the Middle East. (She remains anonymous because she is considering leaving academia, but doesn’t want to tell the whole world yet.) In considering a possible change in professional direction, she wrote to me to ask about my work as a public defender, and a conversation about career choices in the realm of social justice ensued. We thought it might be interesting for other people considering the (never lucrative, sometimes rewarding) world of public interest work, so we are sharing it, lightly edited for clarity, with you:

How’s That $148,000 Law Degree Working Out for You

A quick chat with a new lawyer.

The Lawyer-to-Be (A Poem)


Teachers make no money, And for “causes” I lack passion. I simply am too risk-averse For media or fashion. I thought I’d be a doctor, But I failed organic chem. When my friends went off to law school, I thought, “Why don’t I join them? Here is a profession Where you go to school and then You have employment guaranteed Once at the other end.” And so I’ve spent three lengthy years With Latin words and torts, Amassing debt and studying To one day work in courts. But now—thank you, economy— I’m temping and in debt. There’s lots of us and too few jobs, And I’m left with regret.


Emma D. Miller vandalized lockers with rhyming poems in high school. Now she works at a film festival in Durham, NC. She tweets mostly about documentaries.

An Unreasonably Frugal Person Tries to Figure It Out

I used to be an unreasonably frugal. What were once rational, economically efficient decisions—limiting "impulse purchases" to the change at the bottom of my bag—became, on the aggregate, absurd.

Is There Anyone on Earth With As Much Debt As Me?

Thanks to my grandparents, I finished undergrad with zero debt. But then I went to grad school and got two degrees. One is a law degree (quite useful), the other is basically a conversation piece. (My boss: “Did you actually earn that degree, or did you buy the diploma on eBay?”) For these, I have just over $239,000 in student loan debt, down from the approximately $253,000 I started with.

I have a lot of feelings about my debt. Mostly I am ashamed that I complain about it. Because as huge as it is, my personal privilege is correspondingly huge. I didn’t waste my money. I bought myself a present and now I am paying for it by leveraging the present—I have a job! And my job is REALLY GOOD. My job makes even my ludicrous debt totally manageable with money to spare to live comfortably. So I am ashamed that I feel the burden at all when compared to what so most people face, I live in the penthouse at Number One Easy Street. And yet I still bitch and moan.

It’s a Good Time to Go to Law School? Really?, the website we know & love for its consistently contrarian attitude, has upped its game, declaring that we should once again consider applying to law school. Really! Forget everything you’ve heard over the past five years about how it’s a terrible field to try to break into because there’s a surplus of struggling, desperate wannabes competing for every spot. Read crisis as opportunity.

Here is the key number to keep in mind: 36,000. That is roughly the number of new J.D.s we should expect to graduate in 2016. Getting to that figure is pretty straightforward: In the fall of 2013, 39,700 students enrolled in law school. Given that about 10 percent of each law school class generally drops out, we should expect no more than 36,000 to reach commencement. (I’m actually rounding up the number a bit to be conservative.) In comparison, 46,776 law students graduated in 2013. So we’re talking about a potential 23 percent plunge. With less competition it should be far easier for graduates to find decent work.

As the daughter of two lawyers, the sister to another, and the wife of a fourth, not to mention a friend to countless others, let me assure you, law is hardly “decent work.” You want to spend 80 hours a week protecting the interests of cigarette companies and oil conglomerates? Surely there’s a way to do that without going six figures into debt first.

The Atlantic backs me up with a tart and timely article today subtitled, “For work that doesn’t feel meaningful, become a lawyer.” Slate ignores us both, though, gets all wonky with some data, and concludes that ACTUALLY, despite appearances, we’re back in the rosy Clinton years. (Goody! We have the Bush II years to look forward to!)

How I’m Going to Law School for Free

I’m a law student entering my second year of law school and I am attending on a full scholarship, which is saving me from accumulating about $110,000 in debt.

‘I Set Out to Get as Many Scholarships as Possible’

How did you pay for your education, H.G.?