I’ve been getting this question often enough that I decided to make this into a blog post for anyone else who might be thinking about going to law school for future in social justice, human rights or other public interest reasons.
Do I need to go to law school to work in social justice?
You need to be a lawyer if you want to litigate social justice issues in court, because you have to be a lawyer to practice law.
Otherwise, there are many ways to work in social justice without a law degree. You can be an educator, a researcher, an analyst, an organizer, an activist, or a writer. So no, you don’t need to go to law school.
Also, keep in mind that just because you have a law degree doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easy for you to find work in social justice.
However, having a law degree can certainly help. Law school teaches you to analyze and reason in a manner way that can be very useful for social justice work. All of the social justice jobs that I have worked after law school have required a law degree, even though the work does not necessarily involve the formal practice of law. And I won’t lie: people assume that you’re smart, so the credentials make you look good as a job candidate.
So even though you don’t need to, should you go to law school?
My best advice to think carefully about your reasons for considering law school. Here are some things to think about in particular:
- Law school is competitive. I don’t mean that law school is hard to get into; I mean that once you get in, law students are graded on a bell curve. Your grade is your ranking. No matter how hard you and everyone else have tried, only a certain number of people get A’s, most people get B’s and a certain number of people always have to get the C. Even if everyone is brilliant. So you are, in a sense, competing against your own classmate friends. I used to describe it as being like the Hunger Games, although that’s obviously an exaggeration. This is important because people who want to work in social justice often are empathetic and very sensitive (you care about people, right?), and working in a tough environment like law school can feel soul-crushing at times, and sometimes takes a toll on your mental health.
- Law school is expensive. Even if you’ve managed to deal with student loans from your undergraduate degree, law school is three more years of school. If you’re already in debt, having a bit more debt doesn’t seem so bad now, but many lawyers will tell you that once you graduate and have to start repayment, you are going to start to wonder if you can actually afford to take that low-paying public interest job when that Bay Street articling position pays so much better. Don’t fool yourself: swimming in debt feels awful and it may prevent you from taking the career path you want to take.
Whatever you decide, don’t go to law school just because your parents want you to, or because you don’t know what else to do. Those are the kinds of people who often struggle once they get to law school.
I especially encourage you to go to law school if you come from an underrepresented community. For example, Nunavut needs more Inuit lawyers who understand the particular cultures and values of the land far better than any lawyer who grew up in Ontario will. Go for it and change the world! And don’t let the bastards grind you down.
Again, don’t go into a lot of debt if you can. Not everyone is privileged enough to avoid debt, but do your best to mitigate it. Work for a few years to save up before you go to law school. Choose a law school that has lower tuition: Canada is not like the States, in that all of the Canadian law schools will give you an acceptable legal education that will prepare you to become a lawyer. Work summer jobs. Budget carefully.
Get practical experience in the area you want, even before you graduate law school. There is a lot of need for social justice lawyers out there, but generally it’s experienced lawyers that are needed. Chances are that you will work with vulnerable populations, and they deserve someone who is competent and experienced too. Getting practical experience, whether it’s through summer jobs, clinical programs, or volunteer work, will put you so far ahead of others in getting a job after law school in the area you want. Law school teaches you how to read and analyze the law, but it does not necessarily teach you how to manage client relationships, handle multiple files, write in a manner that is easy for the public to understand, network effectively with important stakeholders, and these are all skills that look great for someone looking to hire you into a social justice position. Do not wait until after law school to get practical experience; it will just be all that much harder for you,
Make your own opportunities. The best advice I ever received from a public interest lawyer was to find your own funding and then propose a project to the organization you want to work for. Why wouldn’t they hire you? There are a lot of funding sources out there; some law schools even offer funding awards for public interest projects you propose. Be creative. Network like crazy. Start up your own charity or business, if you have a great idea that no one else has thought of.
Educate yourself with as many different perspectives as possible. This is especially the case if you come from a privileged background. It doesn’t matter if you want to work for women’s rights; you should still learn about disability issues, refugees, environmental justice, colonialism, etc. It’s called intersectionality, and the broader perspective you get, the better person you will be as a social justice activist. Plus the social justice world doesn’t need any more ignorant assholes. So check your attitude and open your ears. I especially encourage you to maintain relationships and friendships with people who are NOT lawyers or law students, so you don't get stuck in the goldfish bowl of law school.
Don’t sell out. You will be tempted to stray from the social justice path. It is so tempting. Those Seven Sisters wine and cheese receptions are just so impressive. And you’ve been a student for so long…wouldn’t it be nice to be able to afford to buy yourself something nice for once if you had a nice job? But you should always be mindful of your goal, the reason why you went to law school in the first place. The legal community has an ongoing joke about the stereotypical student that put “social justice” and “saving the world” in their law school application personal statements, only to end up working for private law firms in corporate law. It’s easy to stray. Don’t stray! (Also, keep in mind that there are social justice jobs out there that do pay decently. Not necessarily as much as my Bay Street friends, but it is possible to live comfortably if you can find the right opportunity.)
Well, it’s okay to sell out a little. If you have the opportunity to get valuable work experience in the area that you want to work in, then give it a try. For example, maybe you want to be a refugee lawyer helping people with their claims, or an Aboriginal lawyer working on First Nations land claims. Working for the government in these areas will actually give you great relevant experience and valuable perspectives, even if that’s not what you want to do forever. Be creative about where you can get experience.
If your reason for going to law school was to work in social justice and not necessarily to be a lawyer, then remember that there are a lot of great alternative law jobs out there. Stuff where it is useful to have a law degree, but you aren’t necessarily practicing law, in the eyes of the law society.
Working in social justice is hard. It’s emotionally-draining at times, and at all time you are carving your own path. If you want to be a corporate lawyer, Bay Street firms will come to your campus to schmooze you and the law schools will set up on-campus interviews. All of that is set up for you. This is not the case for social justice. It’s a constant uphill battle, often frustrating, discouraging, and exhausting. But it’s also rewarding. It may not always feel like it, but you are doing meaningful work and you are helping people.