chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Student Lawyer

Professional Development

You Need to Create the Legal Job You Want

Clive Stafford Smith


  • Clive Stafford Smith discusses his experience in law school and the challenges faced by those seeking a career in public interest work.
  • Stafford Smith highlights the lack of relevant career advice in law school and the importance of identifying one's true passion and creating opportunities to pursue it. You must be proactive and resourceful in building a career in public interest law.
You Need to Create the Legal Job You Want ignjatovic

Jump to:

When I was in law school, I wish I’d known that, for the most part, if you want to go into public interest work, you need to go it alone. 

What Law School Lacks

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Columbia Law School as much as I’ve enjoyed most things in life. But I went there only because, as an undergraduate, I’d written a book about a man on death row. That had convinced me that prisoners needed legal assistance more than juvenilia by me that would never see the publishing light of day.

The Columbia law courses bore no relationship to anything I’d ever do. While I sweated my way near to the top of my class, that was a waste of time because nobody had ever asked me what my grades were. The only qualification for the job I wanted was a passion to do it.

But the biggest problem was the career advice given by a British guy with an eighties center parting whom I used to play in the annual revue. He gave the wrong answer to the wrong question, telling me that to get a job in a death penalty nongovernmental organization (NGO), I needed to obtain experience with a corporate law firm first.

I’ve hired many NGO folk over the past four decades, and it’s a solid strike against you if you’ve dabbled in commercial law. It’s seen as a lack of commitment.

Creating the Legal Job You Want

He didn’t approach the two salient issues that probably confront those with a penchant for doing something useful with their JD: first, how to identify your true passion, and second, how to create (not ask for) the job that will satisfy it.

I was fortunate that I knew the answer to the first question. I simply wanted to get back to Georgia with some kind of qualification to defend people on death row—to stand, as my mother would have put it, between those most hated by society and the ones doing the hating.

But for me, the second task was hard. As a recent graduate who knew nothing, I couldn’t march up to an underfunded NGO and demand a salary to chase my dream. Rather, I needed to devise a plan to raise sufficient funds to offer my services for free for at least the first year after graduation. In retrospect, if we spend just a few of the 168 hours each week trying, we’d find it quite easy.

I eventually figured this out, but I’d left it rather late, so I had to exist for that year on the rather meager sum of $3,500. Steve Bright was generous enough to take me on, sight unseen, at the Southern Center for Human Rights, and I spent 12 months trying to make myself indispensable.

Find Your Passion; I Can Help

I hope your life will be a bit easier four decades on. While Columbia had no post-graduate grants when I was there, I see that 42 students got some kind of fellowship funding upon graduation last year. But law school still fails students in helping them figure out what their passion is, which is central to finding the extraordinarily satisfying career I’ve enjoyed.

While most of my published books are used to prop up the computer screens of my colleagues, my next tome—An Extraordinary Life (yours, not mine)—will have a more direct object: to help direct you toward this.

Until I get around to finishing it, you’re welcome to email me, and I’ll do my best to work through it with you.