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It's the Cause, Stupid

Vivia Chen

September 7, 2011


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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 Photo: Warren K. Leffler/Wikipedia


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Good read, thanks for the post

Let's face it - those disgruntled, albeit well-paid mid-levels got in it and stay in it for the money, the prestige and the potential for partnership- when they were accepted as summer associates and then as first years, they couldn't have been more thrilled - they just didn't understand what it meant to sell your life to a law firm. This careerist post is especially important for the fact that all disgruntled lawyers need to understand there are decent paying positions out there that offer substantial job satisfaction and a workable quality of life in the non-profit and governmental sectors. Disgruntled mid-levels need to realistically assess their priorities, and then shut up about it already.

Thanks SO MUCH for this. I've been feeling pretty downhearted recently about the GOP's attacks on women's reproductive rights. REALLY downhearted. OK, not just downhearted. REALLY ANGRY. But as Gloria Steinem said, "the truth shall set you free. But first it will piss you off." Much gratitude to the women who have unlocked their golden handcuffs (I personally know how hard that is to do) and are fighting the good fight for women to be treated like adults. (Say, let's require men to take a look at an x-ray of their clogged arteries before we let them purchase a Big Mac again - I believe the Bible says something about the body being a holy temple that shouldn't be sullied and those men, well, they need to be educated about their own bodies before they're allowed to make another choice affecting them)

Thank you for writing about the organization's important work in this crucial cause.

They have performed some marvelous work in Indiana on behalf of women's access to abortion. Thanks for highlighting their work.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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