The Paradox of Ambition and Public Interest Law

Andrew Spink
J.D. Candidate 2015, UCI Law

UCI Law is a law school that really wants us to get good jobs when we get out.

I’m sure all law schools are like that, but this is especially true of UCI, since it is new and really feels like it has something to prove. This is good in many ways because the school really focuses on giving students the resources they need to succeed. But the drive for success, and the self-promotion that it requires, makes for an uneasy tension for those of us who want to practice public interest law. Is it always possible to simultaneously serve the public and serve one’s own career?

I came to UCI because it places great emphasis on service and pro bono work, and it really supports its public interest students. UCI has been everything I had imagined it would be, and now in my second year my desire to practice public interest law remains as strong as ever. Who wouldn’t want to have a job helping people? It sounds simple enough, right? It’s true that public interest lawyers do not make as much money as other lawyers, but the job satisfaction usually more than makes up for it. In a strange way, it feels good to say, “I’m taking a pay cut to help save the world.”

So what is the problem then? It is hard to grapple with the law school culture of ambition, and this does not go away even if one wants to be a public interest lawyer. Public interest students have ambitions just like anyone else. If you can get the “good job,” you can make huge positive differences in the world. Some cynical observers might say this is just as much about maximizing one’s own moral superiority as it is about serving the public. And while I would disagree strongly with such an accusation, it still lurks underneath. Public interest law is about serving the public, but many of us perhaps unintentionally serve ourselves in the process because doing this kind of work is what makes us feel good. Is it contradictory for us all to be clamoring for all the great jobs, while at the same time saying that we’re just in this because we want to serve others? I often ask myself, “If I feel like other people would be better difference-makers than me, wouldn’t it make sense to just yield and let them go and achieve a better outcome for society?”

There are not that many public interest jobs out there. Public interest organizations do not have a lot of money, and there is a great deal of competition to do this kind of work. Offices are also constrained not by having a lack of clients, but rather by a lack of funds to hire everyone they would want to hire to serve those clients. For every person that gets hired, that’s one qualified person that doesn’t. So to get the jobs we want, are we supposed to just step on whomever may be in the way?

To quote Robert Duvall’s character from the movie Thank You For Smoking, “if you want an easy job, go work for the Red Cross.” Indeed, it is a luxury to feel good about yourself and your job. When I worked at a grocery store, I didn’t feel like I was saving the world, but I did feel proud of myself for keeping the recycling room at the store clean. And so anyone who says that the only jobs worth doing are the ones where you help people demeans all of the people who are working hard at whatever job they can just to get by. I was lucky because my parents did fine financially and my grocery store income was just supplemental. Many people are not so lucky. Everyone wants to be that person who took that case all the way up to the 9th Circuit or the Supreme Court and won a great ruling that will help everyone. Not everyone wants to just be good at whatever job they have. But this is really what is more important. Justice Benjamin Cardozo once said, “In truth, I am nothing but a plodding mediocrity—please observe, a plodding mediocrity—for a mere mediocrity does not go very far, but a plodding one gets quite a distance. There is joy in that success, and a distinction can come from courage, fidelity and industry.” The plodding mediocrities are the people who make the world go round.

I wish that the law culture gave us room to be mediocre. And by this I don’t mean lazy. I want nothing more than the opportunity to work as hard as I can, and to define success on my own terms, rather than be boxed in to someone else’s definition of success. Is it possible to have a job that helps people, while at the same time turning away from the culture of ambition that is so prevalent at law schools? Is it possible to get where you want to go, but not have to step on anyone to get there? Ask me in five years.