BY ANDREA SAENZ
“Do what you love,” advised attorney Ken Zimmerman at the World of Law nonprofit panel on September 28th. “The most depressing thing to me is talking to forty-five year old lawyers who do stuff they hate, who don’t like getting up in the morning.”
It wasn’t exactly the “World Series,” but a healthy crowd still showed up to hear from Zimmerman (HLS ’88) and three other attorneys who were the guests at a dinner and panel discussion marking the start of the World of Law series for the year. The Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA) and the Office of Career Services (OCS) co-host the series in order to introduce students to different areas of legal practice. The nonprofit panel consisted of Zimmerman, of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; Judith Browne, of the Advancement Project; Daniel Lindsey, of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (HLS ’90); and Kerry O’Brien, of the D.C. Justice Employment Center. OPIA Director Alexa Shabecoff “played Oprah,” as she called it, asking the panel about their career histories, average days in the office, and even finances. Sadly, Shabecoff failed to give the studio audience cars or make any panelist cry.
Despite the panelists’ varied careers, two themes emerged. One was the immediate and important nature of their work. All four spoke about the passion they had for their practice areas-from housing law to policy research to race and democracy work-and the ways they felt they had made a difference. Lindsey took the audience through his average day, which included such unglamorous tasks as deleting emails from spammers and looking for toner for the printer, but ended with great satisfaction. “Knowing that I kept people in their homes just one day longer,” said Lindsey, imitating the Mastercard commercials, “Priceless.” Browne spoke of crying in front of the television at footage of Hurricane Katrina victims, and then getting to spend her work days addressing the problem, from organizing care packages for Jefferson County, Mississippi, to advising Bad Boy Productions on how to best direct their $1 million donation to hurricane relief.
The second theme was that of the leadership and responsibility that nonprofit lawyers take on early in their careers. Zimmerman spoke of spending his very first year out of law school suing FEMA after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. O’Brien saw a need for employment legal services in D.C., and finding no organization that fit the bill, started one herself. Browne, who had spent time working in a large law firm, contrasted the responsibility she and her staff take on regularly with the early years of being a law firm associate, which she described as involving a lot of document review, little or no deposition experience, and “making a lot of binders.”
On the topic of training, all four panelists agreed that nonprofit work provided direct experience and client contact that firm life rarely trained lawyers for. When Shabecoff brought up the common question of whether it was necessary to work at a firm to receive training before entering the nonprofit sector, all four attorneys cut her off to say in emphatic unison, “No!” The panelists also reassured students that choosing either the private or public sector out of law school did not foreclose the possibility of switching to the other later, as long as lawyers continued to show a commitment to the causes they believed in. “The first job you get isn’t the last job you’ll have,” said Zimmerman. “So it’s good to keep a vision of what it is that you’re interested in.”
It might not be as exciting as the other World Series that happens in October, and there will be no peanuts or rally monkeys, but in the long run, the World of Law series might prove more useful. The next panel is October 19th and features attorneys working in the government.