Expertise from the World of Nonprofits


The panelists at World of Law

A crowd gathered in Pound Hall on October 4th to see four successful nonprofit lawyers talk about public service, work-life balance, and “the best loss ever.” The World of Law: Nonprofits panel, hosted by the Bernard Koteen Office for Public Interest Advising, was moderated by Legal Aid Bureau instructor David Grossman, and featured a lively and honest discussion of the realities of working in the nonprofit center.

The panelists unanimously agreed on the benefit of doing work that has a social impact and makes other people’s lives better. Jameel Jaffer ’99, Deputy Director of the National Security Program, ACLU National Legal Department, was the lead counsel in Doe v. Ashcroft, which challenged privacy incursions under the PATRIOT Act. Jaffer talked about working in a large law firm, reading the New York Times editorial page every day, and going to work frustrated that he wasn’t doing anything about the problems he was reading about. Once he made the switch to the ACLU, he said, “if I read an op-ed about security, I can go to work and do something about it. It’s really rewarding.” There is a downside, though: “Now it’s personal,” Jaffer said. “When I lose, I can’t sleep.”

Dana Berliner, Senior Attorney at the Institute for Justice, also knew the pain of a personal loss: She represented the homeowners in the high-profile case of Kelo v. New London, in which the Supreme Court expanded the power of eminent domain to seize private property for economic development. Berliner expected a loss in the case, but told of how she screamed in frustration when she heard the vote was a razor-thin 5-4. In the, end, though, Kelo ended up being the “best loss ever” – outraged by the decision, 28 states ended up passing their own statutes to limit eminent domain – with another handful due to vote soon.

Berliner humorously described her job arguing against government laws that infringe on personal liberty and don’t pass rational basis review. “For the first year students who haven’t taken Con Law,” said moderator Grossman, “maybe you could explain that.”

“Okay,” said Berliner. “Sometimes we say that the government law is really, really, really stupid. And we have to gather facts to show how really stupid they are.”

Panelist David Singleton ’91, Executive Director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, also spoke of losses that end up being wins in the long run. Singleton’s organization, which works for criminal justice reform in Ohio, represented a registered sex offender who was being evicted from his home because a new law forbade him from living within 1000 feet of a school – and he was 983 feet away. “We knew we were going to lose,” said Singleton, “but we worked around the clock and showed up at court with two huge boxes of documents. And the client said, ‘All that was for me?'” Singleton reminded the audience that in public interest work, “you’re speaking for the client when sometimes no one else will speak for them,” and that is rewarding in its own right.

The panelists also emphasized how much of public interest work happens outside the courtroom. Jennifer Goldberg ’98, Director of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, spoke of doing community education to let people know their rights and options, and working with other organizations doing lobbying and policy work. Jaffer estimated that 50% of his time is devoted to something other than direct litigation issues – including public speaking about their cases and working with the media and other organizations to promote their cases. Singleton encouraged students to “think outside the law” to address systemic problems by using media and education. At the same time, though, said Jaffer, there are issues that can only be won in the courts. Speaking of the Military Commissions Act, Jaffer said, “We think that’s the worst legislation has passed since the Alien and Sedition Act. We can’t count on Congress to fix it – its their fault. So we need a victory in the courts.”

The attorneys also addressed that eternal battle – work-life balance – and mostly concluded that such a thing is easier to find in the public sector. “Legal services people are fun and passionate,” said Goldberg, who works on elder law and public benefits cases. “They care about what they do but they realize they need to have a life.” Goldberg said that she works a family-friendly 40 hours a week or less. To be good for the clients and “emotionally available to them,” said Goldberg, “I need to have another part in my life.” Berliner agreed, saying that students entering large firm work should be clear about the true demands of the job. “I tell first year clerks that working at a firm is like working two 40-hour jobs for half of that big salary each,” she said.

The issue of firm work also raised the question of the lower salaries paid to public sector lawyers. Jaffer cautioned students against thinking that all nonprofit jobs pay poorly or the same as each other. “The ACLU has considerably raised salaries so they are now about 10% behind federal government salaries,” he said. He took a large pay cut coming from a firm, but “the job satisfaction more than makes up for it.” Berliner told the audience, “I get to travel and see friends and buy a lot of books – it’s a good life. You don’t measure it against what other people are making, you measure it as, Can you have the things that matter?”

Goldberg praised Harvard’s Low Income Protection program – after eight years, both Goldberg and her husband, who does health care advocacy work, are still beneficiaries of the loan repayment program. Singleton, who did one 10-month stint at a large firm late in his career found himself “miserable and bored,” offered some economic perspective. “I now make $50,000,” he said, “and that’s not a lot compared to my classmates. But compared to most people in the U.S., I make a lot of money.”

Finally, the panelists took questions and offered some advice to the audience. Jaffer endorsed clerking, which brought good legal writing experience. Goldberg encouraged clinical work, saying substantive courses didn’t matter as much for hiring purposes, and said she thinks students should “use summers and clinicals to figure out if they like direct legal services,” advocacy, or another area. Panelists also suggested students look outside New York and D.C. to find communities in need of good lawyering.

Singleton summed up the panel’s encouragements to the audience to do the work that mean the most to them. “I think it’s most important to do something that energizes you, that makes you feel spiritual if that’s important to you,” he said. “I think that’s right,” said Jaffer, “You should do what you really want and figure out how to pay for it later.” The audience laughed. “No, really,” he said.

The World of Law series continues throughout the year, hosted by OPIA and OCS. World of Law: Private International is on October 16th, followed by World of Law: Public International on November 8th.

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