I am not the cheery sort, which is why writing about the careers of a reliably unhappy group--lawyers--comes naturally to me.
Lately, there's loads of misery in lawyerland. Unemployed lawyers, of course, top the list. But those with jobs are glum too. By now, you've probably heard about the latest American Lawyer survey of midlevel associates, and how disgruntled they are; even those force-fed with globs of bonus money are squawking.
I'd love to generalize that all lawyers are miserable, complaining drones, but I have to confess that I do run into exceptions. Curiously, some of the most content lawyers I know work dreadful hours--and for a relative pittance.
Such is the case with the lawyers at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a group that advocates for reproductive freedom internationally, which draws many of its 33 lawyers (31 are women) from big firms. Besides taking a big salary cut from their private-sector jobs and getting little work/life balance in return, they're on the front lines of a cause that some find distasteful: abortion rights.
So why would anyone want to give up a nice big law firm job to be a pariah at the country club? Simple: They believe in the cause.
"I feel passionate about women and reproductive rights," says Julie Rikelman, a senior staff attorney at the center, who recently left her job as a vice president of the legal department at NBC Universal. A former associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Rikelman serves as the lead lawyer in a suit against Texas, challenging a state law that requires doctors to show ultrasounds of the fetus to a woman prior to an abortion. (Texas is appealing a ruling that found parts of the law to be unconstitutional.)
"My daughters played a major role in my decision [to leave the private sector]," says Rikelman. "Having two girls, I wanted them to be proud of me." She adds that she always knew she wanted to go into civil rights: "I'm about to turn 40, and life is short."
Another lawyer who recently joined the Center is Johanna Fine, a former project finance lawyer at White & Case. Fine says she picked White & Case because it had an international network that she thought could be enlisted for pro bono work in reproductive rights. Eventually, Fine got 15 of White & Case's offices (plus 85 of the firm's lawyers) to work on matters for the center. (Fine had worked with the center in Kenya, representing HIV-positive women, prior to joining the firm).
That kind of single-minded dedication is crucial to working at a place like the center. "You have to be passionate about the mission," says Nancy Northup, the center's president. "We look for people who have excelled and demonstrated commitment to reproductive rights in volunteer work, pro bono work, internships in public interest." She adds: "Most of our cases are of first impression, and you have to think of new ways to expand jurisprudence . . . you need to be a top-notch lawyer."
The center can afford to be choosy about its hires."It's pretty tough getting a job here," says Northup, noting that even unpaid internships draw "hundreds of applicants." But plenty of people (okay, it's almost all women; the applicant pool is "substantially unbalanced," laments Northup) are willing to brave those odds.
Though the work can be terrific, the lifestyle is less so. "The hours are not that much better than firms; we try to be supportive of working moms, but it's a challenge," says Northup. "But the personal satisfaction is significant."
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