This essay is part of a student-led, first-person writing project called Bridges. Learn more about the program and read other essays in the series.
Some people come to law school knowing what they want, even down to the practice area like mergers and acquisition, juvenile justice, or family law. Me, I barely knew what law school was a few years ago.
Public service initially drew me here. I liked the idea of trying to be the person I needed when I was young. But before I finished my first year, it became clear my parents had other ideas. They wanted me to join a major law firm or “Big Law,” where salaries often start at $190,000 per year. Once they learned about the money, their minds were set. And how could I tell them no? They scrapped our family’s way from homelessness. They did everything for my brother and me—even selling their wedding rings so we could stay in a motel and off the streets for a few days.
Navigating my 1L year meant managing this pressure and walking a fraught path between Big Law and public interest law. At first, I thought I had to choose one or the other. Big Law or public interest? My family’s first shot at financial security or my first shot at following my dreams?
This choice seemed most stark when I began asking around about becoming a public defender. As I soon learned, public defenders demand commitment. Big Law for my summer? What would that say about any commitment to indigent defense? The shiny golden star seemed like golden handcuffs to me. For a time, pursuing public interest seemed incompatible with pursuing Big Law—until I reached out to Professor Alison Siegler.
I first encountered Professor Siegler at Admitted Students Weekend, where she talked about her work as the founder and director of the Law School’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic. She left quite the impression on me, as I must admit to tearing up a bit when she described her clinic’s five-year “fake stash house” litigation, which saved dozens of clients hundreds of years in prison and helped forge a path for litigating racial discrimination by the police. So, when we finally met toward the end of the winter quarter, I was quite nervous. We talked about her clinic, her Criminal Procedure II Class (wittily called “From Bail to Jail”), and her path to becoming a public defender. I told her about my own interest in public defense, and this inevitably led to a discussion about my plans for a summer job at a big law firm. Once we talked about my financial reasons for doing so, Professor Siegler helped me chart a path forward.
Over several discussions, she helped me figure out a way to split the difference between these two worlds. She said I could try to split my summer to work at both a big law firm and a public interest organization and look for additional opportunities to earn my public defender stripes. I could work with a public defender office during spring break and spring quarter and seek out pro bono work related to criminal law throughout the year.
I contacted (cold emailed?) some public defenders offices with Professor Siegler’s help. Eventually, the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois accepted me as an intern for August and September, after I had worked 10 weeks in a summer associate position with my firm and in-house with a firm client. This meant forgoing any summer break. Oof.
Splitting my summer was exhausting. But it was fun to work in-house on some international assignments, and I felt invigorated in the public defender’s office. I loved working with clients and managing my own case load. Still, I worried about money. My family needed me. My supervisor recommended that I pursue government work since it isn’t unusual to go from private practice to government service. I thought I might try to see if this could work.
"Slowly I learned to focus on what is important to me."
Applying for 2L summer jobs, then, I thought might be different. I was elated when I received an offer for a government position and called my parents. My mom’s first reaction? “That job doesn’t pay enough.” My parents expressed their concern about my debt and being able to afford everything. I knew what they meant: How could I support myself and the family? Flashbacks to moldy motels, cramped apartments, and a strained marriage came to mind. If money had always been the source of my family’s problems, how could I deny my parents the security that a high-paying job would mean? The freedom from poverty that it would offer? The hope and comfort for my family it would bring? Elation turned into shame.
Then shame into . . . acceptance.
A few weeks later, another call. Another offer. This time, the big law firm. And this one paid really well. I called my parents—numb. They picked up and I told them the news. They immediately cried and said, “God has blessed you.” But again, I knew what they meant: “God has blessed us.”
I accepted the offer and accepted my path, but without the dejection and disappointment. Instead, through discussions with Professor Siegler about possible paths to public defense and with Professors Douglas Baird and Lior Strahilevitz about eventually pursuing academia, determination and distillation emerged within me. Slowly I learned to focus on what is important to me. Once I figured that out, I could work backwards to map out my steps and chart my path. In this case, that meant working in public defense any chance I could and beginning to leave the breadcrumb trail that would one day lead me back to public defense.
Leaving a breadcrumb trail from Big Law isn’t quite how I imagined my path to public defense would start. As it turns out, I didn’t imagine I’d also be trying to leave another path to take later to academia. At least in the meantime, Big Law will give me some bread to spare. For most of my life, I couldn’t imagine having that. And the Big Law job satisfies my family—my first and forever client. It’s given them hope. It finally means we can complete our American Dream once we pay off my family’s home. After that, I’ll work as a public defender, trying to help others secure the same feelings of hope, freedom, and comfort that I know my family now feels.
And after that, well, we’ll see where my breadcrumb trail takes me as I find my path.