Public Interest Drift Reimagined

Pushed Away from Public Interest

Public Interest’s Role in Driving Students to Big Law

Vinny Byju

March 4, 2024

Here is a story we have all heard before: a young, idealistic student goes to the prestigious Harvard Law School (HLS) with the dream of becoming a public interest lawyer. Perhaps they have spent their entire life wanting to become a public defender and serve the most vulnerable members of our society. Or maybe they are passionate about environmental law and want to dedicate their career to fighting climate injustice. You might already know where this is going…

As our hypothetical student navigates through law school, they are quickly turned from passionate to pragmatic. Saddled by tens of thousands of dollars of student debt and disillusioned by their study of the law, they find themselves drawn to the allure of corporate law. After a brief foray into the private sector through an internship with a large law firm (“Big Law”), the student is pulled deeper into the corporate legal world by the gravitational attraction of accelerated job application timelines, secure and easy on-campus recruiting, enticing return offers, and of course, the eye-popping salary. With the famous last words of promising to only do Big Law for a few years and then make the transition to the public sector, our once uncompromising future lawyer succumbs to their nightmare of becoming yet another cog in the machine.

But what if there was a key piece missing in this account of the all-too-familiar law school story?

1. A One-Sided Explanation

The typical rationale for this widespread trend of law students turning away from public interest and towards a long-term career in Big Law, also known as “public interest drift,” paints the decision as a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t a student chase the stability, wealth, and prestige that a Big Law career offers? To borrow terms from the anthropological study of migration, we tend to focus on the pull factors toward Big Law that students face. Just as the enticements of better healthcare or political freedom might tempt a would-be immigrant, traditional theories of public interest drift center on the benefits of Big Law redirecting a student previously inclined to public interest. Yet, this overlooks a crucial aspect of what affects legal career trajectories. 

There exist for law students significant and overlooked push factors away from public interest careers. In the same way that there are various factors that make a Big Law career seemingly irresistible, there are several separate elements of the public interest space that make such a career equally unattractive. By pushing students away from the career they initially enter law school wanting to do, these factors exacerbate the strength of the incentives that draw them to Big Law. Ultimately, the phenomenon of public interest drift is not only a story of law students moving towards the appeal of Big Law, but is also a tale of them running away from the uninviting perception of public interest work. Ignoring these public interest push factors not only misses a key consideration that law students face on the ground, but also presents an obstacle to real reform.

There exist for law students significant and overlooked push factors away from public interest careers. In the same way that there are various factors that make a Big Law career seemingly irresistible, there are several separate elements of the public interest space that make such a career equally unattractive.

Unfortunately, it is undeniably true that the traditional explanation of public interest drift is at least describing an empirically accurate phenomenon. Various surveys have documented the initial level of students’ interest in public interest careers when starting law school. At HLS, some scholars have measured this phenomenon as high as 70% of incoming students expressing a desire to do public interest work. Sadly, students’ career choices upon graduation do not reflect these initial aspirations to do good with one’s law degree. Looking at employment data from HLS’ Class of 2022, excluding clerkships, just 9% of students took jobs in public interest careers, compared to 72% who went to work for law firms with over 250 attorneys. While perhaps elevated at HLS, this phenomenon of law students separating from their passions for legal service and justice is well documented at other schools as well. The California Bar reported in 2019, that by their third year, 57% of California public interest oriented law students had drifted away from that dream.

Graph showing employment data statistics.

HLS Class of 2022 Employment Statistics. Source: Harvard Law School Recent Employment Data.

As for the parting claim of the many destined for Big Law that they will soon return to their public interest passions after paying off their student debt, the data continues to tell a different story. According to the “After the J.D.” study by the American Bar Association, of those law graduates working in Big Law three years after graduation, only 7.2% made the transition to public interest careers nine years later. The existence of career change is even more dismal for transitions to legal services or public defense, with only .2% of respondents making the move. Diving deeper into the assorted factors students face during law school reveals the under-investigated dynamics for these bleak employment outcomes.   

2. The Financial Influence

Looming large over any discussion of student career choice are the financial incentives students face. The average total cost of law school is now over $220,000 and rising at a rate of $1,400 per year. At HLS, tuition has reached a mind-boggling $75,000 for the 2023-24 school year. Nevertheless, according to estimates of student finances, HLS is a place of equally immense privilege, with over 75% of students coming from families that make more than $95,000 annually and have more than $175,000 in net wealth. At other elite law schools this economic inequality is similar, with three quarters of students at the top 20 law schools representing the upper quartile of income distribution, and more than half of the student body belonging to the top 10%. 

But, even in the face of such privilege, the role financial incentives play in career choice cannot be ignored. Despite their wealth, 71% of HLS students still borrow to fund their education, with an average loan disbursement of $169,000. The burden of student debt is an oft-cited cause of public interest drift, with many hypothesizing that this debt helps Big Law firms pull students toward them by promising an easy path to repayment.