You’re different. You disdain the crass blandishments of biglaw. You have a soul. Let the giant firms seduce your naïve classmates with their shameless wheedling. You’re made of sterner stuff.
Your ultimate goal? Something better. A place where you might actually do good. Few lawyers receive that opportunity. Many, exposed to goodness, would burst into flames.
That’s why you’re taking the high road, escaping the pervasive cynicism and greed. You’ve got your sights set on a not-for-profit institution, dedicated to the promise of a better tomorrow.
Will it work? Can a lawyer escape pervasive cynicism and greed?
Let’s talk about the the not-for-profit track – its ups, downs and in-betweens.
Right off the bat, we have to discuss salary. I know – you want to escape all that – the obsession with filthy lucre. But there’s a stark reality you must grasp before reporting for duty at a not-for-profit: You will earn bupkis.
Maybe that’s okay with you – like Hebrew National, you answer to a higher authority. On the other hand, if – like most young lawyers – you’re sitting on a zillion dollars in bankruptcy-proof loans, an extended period of earning zilch could prove…inconvenient.
This aforesaid stark reality also explains one of the dirty little secrets of the not-for-profit world: It’s a magnet for rich kids. If Mom and Dad have already paid off the $200k you blew on an undergraduate degree and law school, then bought you the cutest little one-bedroom in Chelsea and a brand new Prius…well, the logical next step is to save the world. It’ll be fun!
Not-for-profits are bursting at the seams with eager-beaver trust-afarians – and it doesn’t stop there. Sometimes Mom and Dad (and their friends) sit on the board. Sometimes the charismatic founder and Executive Director is a grinning, twenty-something former college lacrosse star, just back from Burning Man. You can’t hold it against him if he wants to donate a snippet of grandaddy’s styrofoam factory fortune to making the world a better place. But his white-boy dread locks and penchant for calling you “bro” in the hallway make you wince.
I’m merely acknowledging a reality. It can grate a bit, in the not-for-profit world, if you’re not in possession of a trust fund. It can feel disempowering when the Director of the One Love Institute for International Human Rights flies business class to a conference in Burkina Faso on theories of poverty and doesn’t appear to grasp that her plane ticket could feed a village there for a year. It doesn’t help when, upon her return, as she’s hopping a flight to her family’s cottage on Martha’s Vineyard, she gushes about how she adores Coney Island – a topic you awkwardly brought up because that’s where you go to the beach, via subway.
The situation might not rise to the level of “class warfare,” but working with rich kids can grow annoying – and make almost anything other than working for rich kids start to seem not so bad.
Yes, your friends in biglaw are tormented by sadistic partners and slave night and day to do the bidding of plutocrats. Yes, they despise their lives.
On the other hand, associates in biglaw can afford to take cabs, have dry cleaning done, eat out in grown-up restaurants, and buy grown-up clothes. You can’t.
Typically, your great hope for financial salvation – if you’re at a not-for-profit and not-rich – is qualifying for a loan repayment program. The mission – if you decide to accept it – is to stay continuously un-gainfully employed and cope with life as a pauper for about a decade. If you make it, your loans disappear and you achieve every young lawyer’s ultimate dream – zero net worth.
Sounds good. But there’s a leap of faith implied in this set-up.
First, not-for-profit jobs are hard to snag. It doesn’t seem like they should be. These outfits pay next to nothing, and beggars can’t be choosers. They should be drooling at the prospect of hiring someone like you – and a few years ago, they might have been. Even with the rich kids, openings existed for talented young people bringing a wealth (of commitment) to the job. But the dynamics changed after the crash of ’08. Now half the profession is out of work, and it no longer requires much wheedling for biglaw to seduce its victims – they’re lining up for mistreatment like mendicants with bowls out. Yes, your peers – and you – are the beggars who can’t be choosing. Even a $45k not-for-profit job looks good, juxtaposed against living on the street.
Second, even if you can find a not-for-profit job, you have to manage to keep it, and not-for-profits rarely provide steady, reliable employment. As I understand it, you need at least three years at a not-for-profit to qualify for loan repayment. That can be tough to pull off. Over and above the issue of nasty office politics (i.e., it’s easy to get fired), there’s another factor: Not-for-profits are typically funded by grants, which run for a stated period. If the grant runs out, or the project is finished, or there’s “mission drift,” or they decide to head in a different direction, or the weather turns rainy – you can wind up out of a job.
At that point, you join the miserable hordes of the lawyer-underemployed, which is all fine and good – misery loves company and, like everyone else, you can try to dig up some doc review work or give up on law and tend bar…except for that other factor: Your hopes for loan repayment are on the line.
To put matters baldly, if you bet all your chips on a not-for-profit (and loan repayment), you may find yourself up a creek in sore need of paddling apparatus.
At this point it’s worth addressing an even profounder question. If you can actually pull off the feat of situating yourself in a not-for-profit and live with the attendant financial risks, what will you actually be doing there?
That’s easy. Protecting the rights of the little people – the prisoners and the disabled and the schoolchildren from poor neighborhoods, the international victims of international human rights whatchamacallit – those people. In other words, you will be doing big things. Big, change-the-world things. That’s the best part of working in not-for-profit. Instead of writing a brief defending evil, polluting, discriminating, harassing mega-corporations, you write a brief for the good guys. That means a lot.
Unfortunately, it also raises a potential pitfall of the not-for-profit world – stupid ideas. Even when you mean well, and are working for the good guys, when you’re trying to accomplish big things and change the future of humanity, it’s possible to go off the rails. Every so often – and if you’ve worked in not-for-profit-land you know what I’m talking about – you get saddled with a truly misguided project. Once it’s funded – once someone’s written the thousand page grant proposal and (against the odds) won the grant – the whole thing is frozen in concrete. Even if it kinda doesn’t really make any sense.
That’s when you find yourself opening the outreach center in the neighborhood that doesn’t really need an outreach center – or searching for plaintiffs to defend the rights of people who have more serious rights to worry about defending, or don’t need to go to court to defend them since they’d be better off protesting or meeting with the appropriate people and working out a deal (lawyers don’t work out deals – they sue people.)
You have to do what it says in the grant. You can’t go to your boss and say this isn’t working, it doesn’t make sense. You have to shut up and do it. She probably knows it doesn’t make sense, just like you – but grants are what makes the wheels go round. Maybe she’s not a trust fund baby either and that grant for a misguided project is paying her rent.
Another not-so-inspiring situation arrives when the ideas aren’t stupid, but the clients are corrupt and awful. When you’re a public defender working with street criminals you can’t expect to like each and every client. But there’s something about working for peanuts and putting in long hours to lend your voice to a struggle – then finding out the person you’re struggling for is annoying or stupid or in it for the money and exploiting you. It can be a turn-off, and it happens. Not all the time – but it can be useful to admit, it happens.
All of this stuff contributes to a key attribute of not-for-profits. For want of a better word, I’ll term it bitchiness. Not-for-profits have a reputation for being…bitchy. I don’t mean that in a sexist sense – the men at not-for-profits are bitchy too.
Why are not-for-profits often such damned unpleasant places to work? It might be because everyone there is hungry for attention. After all – if you work at a not-for-profit, you possess some not-inconsiderable claim to sainthood. You’re ignoring the temptations of biglaw, with its fatcat salaries and fancy offices and black cars home at night. You’re working hard for almost nothing – sacrificing all because you care about the little people. If the world were a just place, someone should hand you a plaque. At least they could feature you in the donor newsletter. But they didn’t. And that pisses you off. Because that other guy at your level, who hasn’t been there as long, got in the newsletter. Which is why you hate him.
It can get to you, working for the good of the planet with no one paying attention. Your Executive Director is a community hero – the focus of a stream of accolades. But you’ve seen her in action, and everyone knows she’s a useless, spoiled princess…
Welcome to not-for-profit bitchery. It resides in a league all its own.
And don’t think the usual office bullshit – sexual harassment, competitiveness, interdepartmental chill – doesn’t exist at not-for-profits. It only grows more intense, and snippier, in these claustrophobic confines. There are times when everyone there seems to have gone martyr at once, and you wish you could go “for-profit,” double all their salaries and tell them to knock it off with the whining.
Not-for-profit administration is typically a nightmare. That’s because no one wants to be the admin at a not-for-profit. They want to save the world – not manage the budget and benefits and vacation schedules and ordering office supplies and making sure the mail server is working. If you want to do that stuff for a living, you’re probably already doing it at a for-profit company and earning more.
To heighten the delights, not-for-profits compete with one another like sons of bitches, and they’re all fighting for the same dollars. If someone manages to do something major – win a case or get some piece of legislation passed, then everyone else swoops in to gobble up the credit, like sharks feasting on a bait ball.
Then there are the donors – the real bosses. I remember my summer at the Gay and Lesbian Rights Project at the ACLU, circa 1995. Word had it Barbara Streisand’s assistant phoned in each week for a lengthy personal update from the Executive Director. Babs was paying the bills, so Babs got a personal update. At least Yoko Ono and Phil Donahue laid low after cutting their checks.
Raising money is the raison d’etre for not-for-profits. Without the money, there is no institution – the cart is placed firmly in front of the horse. Everything – everything – becomes about appearances. If you do something impressive, you have to convert it into marketing materials and flood the airwaves with it to raise cash. If something doesn’t pan out – a project turns out to be useless or misguided – well, you still have to make it look impressive and heroic and world-changing. You have no choice. It’s that – or everyone’s out of a job.
Yes, there are committed people out there doing good, and enjoying fulfilling careers working at not-for-profits.
But the not-for-profit world isn’t an all-purpose answer to the problem of unhappy lawyers. It presents challenges of its own. You might find yourself gazing wistfully at the other, for-profit side of the fence, where the grass begins to assume a verdant hue.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)