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May 10, 2015

Serving as a Lawyer for the People

Hannah Hayes

Public sector law, whether in the government, the nonprofit, or the private sector, has long attracted women. For some, this legal arena affords the opportunity for a more balanced lifestyle than working for a private sector law firm, with guaranteed vacation days and without the stress of billable hours. For others, it offers a clear path full of leadership opportunities. But, for most, it offers a range of opportunities encompassing the highest legal office in the state to the struggling nonprofit in the community.

Whether you aim for a political office, a government legal department, or a storefront legal aid office in the community, every public sector lawyer shares a common goal: to be a lawyer for the people.

“I always felt that as a lawyer I could work more effectively to fight injustice and to improve people’s lives,” says Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the most senior woman state attorney general in the country. Prior to her election in 2002, Madigan got her feet wet in public service working in former U.S. Senator Paul Simon’s office while attending college at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. After volunteering at an all-girls high school in South Africa during apartheid, she returned to Chicago and went to law school at night while working at a city college.

Today, 10 of the 50 state attorneys general are women. Like Madigan, Ellen Rosenblum was the first woman elected attorney general of her home state of Oregon in 2012. “I thought the purpose of law and a legal career was to change the world for the better, and I went to law school with that in mind,” says Rosenblum, who was retired when she decided to run for office.

Rosenblum started her legal career in a small firm in Oregon developing a practice focused on consumer issues, women, and small businesses. She then worked as a federal prosecutor for eight years before she was tapped to become a state trial judge. She held that position for 22 years.

When the opportunity arose for the post of attorney general, Rosenblum dived right in. “I knew almost right away that this was the job I had been preparing for my entire career,” Rosenblum says. “A public law career is extremely satisfying for so many reasons. As a public lawyer, you are helping thousands of people and ensuring that the laws are being properly interpreted and enforced by [government] agencies.”

The Passion Within

Not every woman aims to be the top lawyer in the state. But those who enter this practice area are united by a common sense of wanting to do public service, whether as a city lawyer, as a public defender, or in a nonprofit.

As the daughter of Caribbean immigrants growing up in New York City, Kristen Clarke had a strong sense of who had access to opportunities and who didn’t. “I went to boarding school in Connecticut and Harvard University, and I grew up knowing what impact access to opportunities can have on one’s life trajectory.”

Clarke says she had “tunnel vision” when it came to working to overcome discrimination. Today, she heads the Civil Rights Bureau at the New York Attorney General’s Office.

“People who are drawn to public interest law have a sense that the world is not fair,” says Karen Cacace, a supervising attorney for the Employment Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society in New York. “Justice is sometimes only achieved by people who can afford lawyers; public interest organizations are attracting people who see that and want to do something about it.”

Cacace’s foray into public interest law was less direct than most. Her interest was sparked while at University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she worked in the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia. But public interest jobs were tight when she moved to California, where she took a position in the San Francisco office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

“It turned out to be very useful to work in a firm with such high-quality lawyers, and it was helpful to see things from a defense perspective,” Cacace says, although she knew the job was not where her heart was.

After a year, she transferred to Skadden’s New York office and took advantage of the firm’s extern program at The Legal Aid Society in the Harlem office. However, when an opportunity came to work in employment law at Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, P.C., in New York City, she took it. She stayed for nine years, honing her skills as an employment lawyer until the position at The Legal Aid Society opened up.

Jenae Naumann, on the other hand, graduated from college thinking she’d be a pharmacist. Today, she is an assistant city attorney for the city of Tempe, Arizona. “I was the first in my family to go to college, so I took the LSATs and thought that maybe I’d like working in a big law firm.”

Naumann, who developed an expertise in information technology and telecommunications, saw public law as an opportunity to balance a busy life that included being active in the state and national bar associations and spearheading a 10-year study on the progress of women in Arizona law firms.

Those who seek the courtroom find opportunities as a public defender or in the state’s attorney office. Pauline Weaver worked for 30 years in the Alameda County (California) Public Defender’s Office from 1982 to 2011. “I wanted to get into court early, do trial work, and not spend time in the law library. I loved being in court.”

The responsibility and independence that come with the job also appealed to Weaver. “If my client wanted to resolve a case, it was my decision,” she says. “So you have a lot of responsibility and you face big decisions early in your career.”

Finding Your Path

Weaver points out that most county governments actively seek diversity in their staffs. “Most government offices are aware of gender bias and diversity issues, which is something you may not get in private practice.”

She adds that there are a lot of career paths available for people who want to do public interest work, whether at the federal or state level, in the nonprofit sector, or at nationally based civil rights organizations. “You may take on different roles, but it’s the same goal and same end,” Clarke says.

Cacace agrees that there are many avenues for lawyers in private practice to make the same switch she did. “We have a lot of lawyers doing pro bono work or volunteering, and that gives them great training.”

Many law schools offer loan repayment plans for graduates working in the public interest sector, while others offer internships in the state’s attorney or attorney general’s office. Making the switch from a big law firm can be aided by doing pro bono work or opting for an externship.

Seeking a mentor in these fields can present a challenge because government offices and nonprofits generally lack the resources available in the private sector. “In a public law setting, you should pick someone who has been around for a while and just ask them,” Weaver notes.

Leadership Opportunities

Many women find public law a very compelling track for rising to leadership positions. However, as in other areas of the profession, men appear to get fast-tracked. What’s more, many boards of nonprofits and civil rights organizations are male dominated even though it’s a female-dominated industry.

Rosenblum points out that while “the public sector is generally very friendly toward and supportive of women, there is a lack of women in certain areas of the public sector.” For example, the number of women attorneys general has risen slowly since 1984 when Arlene Violet was elected in Rhode Island—the first time a woman held this position in the United States. “There aren’t enough to reflect the population,” Rosenblum says, “and we definitely suffer a loss of an important perspective when women are not at the table in the public sector.”

Madigan observes that women bring something different to the table. “As attorney general,” she explains, “I have an extraordinary opportunity to focus public policy on issues that directly impact women.”

Madigan worked to pass the first law in the country requiring law enforcement to submit every rape kit for testing. “I was shocked to learn that at least 4,000 rape kits—the evidence collected after a sexual assault—were sitting in police departments [in Illinois] ignored and untested,” she says. “Every one of those kits represented a person whose life had been damaged by sexual assault and a crime that was not prosecuted. They represented perpetrators who were allowed to stay in the community, escaping punishment and likely to offend again.”

While public law covers a vast array of issues, many of them address injustice and inequality. “As long as that is the case, there is the need for strong advocates, whether in federal or state government or in the nonprofit sector,” Clarke says. “We need to ensure that the workforce reflects the diversity represented in the issues we take on.”

Rosenblum notes that throughout her career, she was often the “token woman” in the room. “While I always tried to make up for the lack of additional voices,” she notes, “it makes a substantial difference when we can talk to each other and our colleagues in numbers.”

Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.