Inspiring Students Toward Meaningful Work
by Zachary Mountain
CU/DU law schools host Public Interest Career Fair
Along line of law students snaked down a hallway at the University of Colorado Wolf Law Building, into to the jam-packed cafeteria. A din of lively conversations echoed through the building. Normally, one could surmise from such circumstances that students were just following free food and beer. These students, however, were not looking for a free handout — instead, they were looking for an opportunity to give back.
More than 175 law students attended the annual Public Interest Career Fair, sponsored by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the University of Colorado Law School on Nov. 6, according to Karen Trojanowski, associate director of public sector and externships at CU’s office of Career Development. (Trojanowski also serves on the Denver Bar Association Board of Trustees.)
Many of the employers hosting booths at the fair noted that there were more public-interest-minded students than when they were in law school. Lindsey Webb, Director of Public Interest in DU’s Career Development Center, said that student involvement in the career fair has grown substantially in the past two years.
Most students will graduate from law school with large amounts of debt, some wondered whether it was possible to take lower-paying public interest jobs. Indeed, students often struggle with whether they should take work that they are passionate about, or work that will help pay back their considerable bills.
Jennifer Hunt of Hill & Robbins, who co-hosted the fair booth for Colorado Lawyers Committee, said that the two options are not mutually exclusive. "If you want to go into private practice, there are other ways of being involved in public interest work," she said. CLC assists with projects that influence public policy to assist children and the underprivledged, for example.
Hunt represented one of the 45 public interest organizations from around the Rocky Mountain region who took the opportunity met the lawyers of tomorrow at the 2008 Public Interest Career Fair. Government regulatory agencies were placed next to legal service providers, and district attorneys and public defenders were mixed in with pro bono clearinghouses.
Dianne Van Voorhees, Executive Director of Metro Volunteer Lawyers, said she was at the fair to help students find their own path. As the pro bono department of the DBA, MVL pairs indigent clients with volunteer lawyers and operates family law clinics.
"I’m here because I want students to know that there are attorneys out there who can help students navigate the practical aspects of practicing law," said Van Voorhees.
Gaining practical experience is vital in helping students understand how the law works, said Van Voorhees, who encouraged students to explore their options.
"Get out and get as much experience as you can — it will help you practice, get a job, and learn how things work," said Van Voorhees.
Furthermore, new federal legislation was passed in 2007 to assist attorneys with student loan debt reduction when they work in the public sector, noted Van Voorhees.
Many of the students at the fair were 1Ls, who were being offered their first opportunity to explore career opportunities since beginning law school. Andreas Wokutch, a first-year law student at CU, said he is interested in working in the government eventually, so he took the opportunity to speak with governmental agencies, such as the Colorado Attorney General’s office. However, he also explored other options. "I came here for a better understanding of what opportunities are out there, especially for this coming summer," Wokutch said.
For others, the career fair was more than just an opportunity to explore — it was a chance to secure a position. Joel Matthews graduated from DU in May, and was at the fair to find a job. "It can be tough to get jobs out of law school," he remarked as scanned the tables. "Debt makes it tough," he said.
Charles Garcia of the Access to Justice Commission said he was particularly excited about efforts at the law schools, such as CU’s new Public Service Pledge program. He noted that developing passion for this line of work doesn’t happen immediately, and that it is necessary to reach students at an early age. "It is important to start laying the groundwork early," said Garcia.
Although students continue to feel the pinch of increasing debt, the turnout at the fair demonstrated that public interest work is important to them. The influx in student interest represents a great opportunity to pass on the public interest flame.
"I hope that the event — a room full of lawyers working for the public good — is inspirational to the students who attend," said Webb.