Going to a Firm? Take the Public Interest Pledge

When Trump won the election, I spun out a little. To avoid months of anxiety before Election Day, I had refused to believe he could win even though a pit in my stomach told me otherwise.

But he won. I took a couple hours to grieve, and then I started asking myself (and, honestly, anyone who would listen): “What do we do?!”

The best answer has been to prepare ourselves. We need to get out of our feelings, focus, and plan, especially as lawyers-in-training who are in close proximity to the institutions that sanctioned this mess. The weeks and months ahead will be filled with bias and bigotry. We need to get comfortable now with constant activism and dissent. We need to be empathetic, to keep having difficult conversations with family and friends, and to organize.

Some friends have even given up their firm jobs for the public sector. But I’m keeping mine — my high-salary, New York City law firm job. I came to law school to change the world, like so many of us, and with minimal effort became a Harvard cliché.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons why people with public interest aspirations wind up in BigLaw. People have family obligations, find they prefer corporate work, or find a public interest career doesn’t live up to their expectations. My reasons to keep my job are personal, but not unique. I have spent my entire adult life (except law school) in New York City, and plan to live there for the foreseeable future. I’ll graduate with the maximum student loan debt this fine school allows with interest accruing daily. While I care more about racial justice and civil rights, reproductive justice and women’s rights, housing law, police reform, consumer protection, immigration law, and voting rights than corporate law, my public interests never narrowed. Finding a non-profit job in New York City requires focus and obsession, and I need more time to develop that. The corporate world allows me to generalize for a while longer. Yet it has been hard to see myself as anything other than a hypocrite.

I still want to be involved in any way I can. I’ll be taking advantage of my firm’s generous pro bono policy. And I’ll continue to sign petitions, boycott businesses, call my congressional representatives, and go to protests.

But what non-profits and legal services organizations really need is money. It allows them to hire additional staff, cover more legal issues, use expert testimony and research, write white papers, and expand outreach and communications efforts. Money gives non-profits the freedom to innovate. From my temporary corporate perch, I’ll have that one thing that non-profits always need.

The HLS Public Interest Pledge asks that students and recent graduates going into the private sector pledge to donate one day’s pay. Students donate to organizations such as the ACLU, CAIR, SPLC, and Education Law Center. Donating to more local organizations or direct service providers lacking the media attention of the ACLU is also encouraged. Their website links to a list of organizations.

Making the pledge is easy. I’ve already pledged. For now, it’s just a promise to make an affordable commitment. More than that, it’s a reminder to put everything I can into the fight — time, education, and money.

During my corporate interlude, I refuse to disassociate from the social justice fight. I may not be devoting this part of my career to fighting our current administration or the intolerance that is surfacing. But I will contribute what I can.

Resisting a Trump administration will take the coordinated effort of thousands (if not millions) of activists, voters, lawyers, politicians, and everyday Americans. The HLS Public Interest Pledge is only a start to show that Harvard Law students are more than the cliché.

Leena Charlton is a 3L.

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