Dinner with Professor Buss

Last week, I was attended a dinner at a professor’s home. This was a dinner for students at my school who were in Chicago but were not participating in the On Campus Interviewing program. These were students who were set on pursuing a public interest legal career (with nonprofits or government, not private practice.) We met at Professor Buss’s beautiful home in Hyde Park. We ate on the patio, near a garden filled with flowers. We talked about career paths, about her experience conducting legal research in the pre-Internet age, about The Bachelor (I had no idea that the show could be so meta.)

We also talked about gender and race dynamics in public interest work. From our group of ten people, I was the only male and the only person of Asian descent. This mirrors some of the demographics of public interest legal work more generally, at least for nonprofits. We discussed why that may be the case. For example, children of immigrants may feel some financial pressure. Their parents have left everything to come to a new country; for these children, their parents’ financial security may hinge on their productivity. Asian families put a high priority on stability, sometimes over self-expression and fulfillment, and children learn that economic constancy is more important than career satisfaction.

Similar dynamics may play out in the realm of gender. Men may believe that they need to be the breadwinners, and so pursue more lucrative career options (BigLaw attorneys start out at $160,000, while many public interest attorneys start out around $40,000.) Public interest work tends to attract people with a more nurturing personality (clients are generally needy people, not companies), which also plays a factor.

What this means for me is that I am entering a field in which there are not as many people who look like me or have similar backgrounds to mine. On one level, this can feel somewhat lonely, but it does encourage me to expand my sights and embrace peers and mentors from a variety of perspectives. Even in law school, I have learned a lot from people like Hannah Lazar​ and Rachel Zemke​ and Jackie Newsome​. I am also excited that I can encourage other people, of all backgrounds, to enter into this work. It is difficult, and it is taxing, but I’ve seen how it can be so worthwhile.

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