Debating the Value of a Public Service Career

by Joshua Michtom

B. is a graduate student at a major American university studying humanitarian organizations in the Middle East. (She remains anonymous because she is considering leaving academia, but doesn’t want to tell the whole world yet.) In considering a possible change in professional direction, she wrote to me to ask about my work as a public defender, and a conversation about career choices in the realm of social justice ensued. We thought it might be interesting for other people considering the (never lucrative, sometimes rewarding) world of public interest work, so we are sharing it, lightly edited for clarity, with you:

B: I love my research but don’t want to continue in academia. I’ve volunteered with some of the humanitarian organizations I studied in Israel and Palestine, mainly doing writing and translation work for medical aid organizations and for economic activism organizations that expose the companies that profit from the occupation.

For a while, I wanted to become an aid worker/researcher after I graduated. But the aid industry is a complicated moral sphere, and the more time I spent among aid workers, the more bummed out I felt. Besides, it is notoriously difficult to break into if you actually want to get paid, as I learned the hard way. I then considered studying law to focus on human rights law, but over time saw how frustrated and impotent the foreign human rights lawyers I met in Palestine seemed to be — they seemed to me more like observers and relayers of treaties and UN statistics than people who could make a difference in how Palestinian land claims and protests turned out. Human rights law and international refugee law seemed to me like bureaucracies without teeth or enforcing power. The overwhelmed social workers I knew at least seemed to be doing more than the human rights lawyers, since they were actually finding people treatments and places to sleep, even if only one or two people at a time.

So I gave up on studying law, until I saw your Billfold pieces and started wondering again about it. Do you feel the same way about your job every day? Do you feel you’re helping champion the interests of the poor and marginalized?

Josh: I think anyone who sets out to work for justice for the poor and marginalized will often feel ineffective, like they are charged with moving the whole ocean with a bucket. International human rights law is probably more like that than a lot of other endeavors, but criminal defense, social work, and even politics guided by idealism are not short on disillusionment. People burn out a lot in non-profit jobs, even when the pay is adequate, because the emotional toll can be high.

Luckily for me, I like what I do a lot. I lose most of my trials and I lose most of the appeals I handle, and that’s OK. Once in a while, I win, and once in a very long while, I win in a way that matters. And even when I lose, I sometimes push the law in the right direction and almost always can walk away knowing that I’ve given my clients the best representation possible, and maybe even given them some faith that there are people working within the system who are thoughtful, respectful, and care about them.

B: A personal impact on the defendant, I can understand, but how you can also make a legal impact even if you lose a case?

Josh: Sometimes, a case will go up on appeal and the outcome for the particular client will be bad. Imagine a mother whose child is removed permanently by child protective services, and she appeals because there was some procedural irregularity in the case. The appellate court might rule that there was a procedural irregularity, that trial courts should correct that irregularity, but that the facts in this particular case are such that the mother would have lost anyway.

Sometimes, just the fact that an appeal is taken, that the state has to respond and muster resources to defend an outcome, will push the state toward better procedures in the future. The threat of bad publicity or a court case that lays bare some bad or unjust way of operating can really affect how government agencies do what they do.

And sometimes, an appellate case — even a loss — draws attention to an issue in a way that spurs the legislature to change the law for the better. A lot of times, when you talk to legislators about some minor potential change in juvenile delinquency law (for example), their eyes glaze over. Understandably, they simply have too much to think about for an abstract detail in the law to get traction. But when you have a real, flesh-and-blood 15-year-old suffering some evident injustice, people take notice.

Of course, there are a lot of cases where I just lose and that’s the end of it.

So, to answer your earlier question, I feel good about my job every day. I know that I’m probably chipping away at the margins, and maybe (arguably!) propping up an unjust system by giving it a veneer of fairness. But for now, it’s the best I can do, and at least I am, Hippocratically, doing no harm.

B: I’m glad to hear you say you feel good about your work even when/if you lose cases, and that you’re still happy to make small differences, and to put a human face on an impersonal legal system that is often unkind to the weak. It’s interesting that you say this while knowing full well that some people could interpret your work as a fig leaf on a corrupt system.

That is the biggest question I’ve been wrestling with. For example, apart from law, I’ve also considered studying social work after my Ph.D., because the aid workers I admired most in Israel and Palestine were effectively doing social work-type stuff — trying to drum up medication and treatments for people out of almost nothing, or to find them solutions for food, sleep, and medication. Even though they suffered a great deal in their jobs, their persistence and self-sacrifice impressed me deeply. But my parents warned me that I was being too idealistic, and that social workers in American hospitals aren’t those rogue humanitarians I might imagine as working in Israel/Palestine in gray bureaucratic areas with lots of agency. Social workers in the U.S. are often low-level bureaucrats who have no choice but to back up a hospital’s policy, sometimes to the detriment of patients. They’re not saviors. I recognize this on some level, but I’m still so attached to a naive idea of doing good that I worry I would burn out fast if I tried going in that direction.

Josh: As far as being window dressing or a fig leaf, all I can say is that it is surely an issue, but I don’t know how to resolve it. If I lived in a world that didn’t demand that I provide for my children, and particularly a world where more direct confrontation with unjust systems seemed to present any compelling possibility of success, I might want to do something else. But that is not the world we live in, and practically speaking, I’m disinclined to abandon everything for a revolution with dubious prospects. I have friends who are anarchists and socialists, and for all of their strident and articulate politics, they are mostly irrelevant beyond preaching to the converted on Facebook. I would certainly love to upend completely the class system that sits permanently on my clients’ shoulders and stifles their chances for contentment. But right now, I don’t see how to do that, so I have to content myself with doing good work well.

There’s also room, I think (I hope!), for people of good conscience to push change by what they say and how they live. I’m trying to do this with my everyday choices, in terms of consumption, neighborhood, etc., and by being very forthright and public about it (via my writing here, inter alia). I know it’s another small project that is incidental to the great forces that move lives, but it’s what is within my power.

I think social work is like the law in this way — it’s mostly about helping individuals at the margins, with a small and infrequent chance to make bigger changes. Teaching is also this way, as is art, as is politics, even. What can we do? We have to live.

B: Is it worth the potentially enormous financial debt?

Josh: I suppose it depends a lot on your hopes and aspirations, and upon the resources you have available to you. As you know, I started off on a bad financial foot, both in terms of the choices I made (buying a house, for example) and the moment when I made them (at the top of the housing bubble, having just graduated into a market flooded with underemployed lawyers). Things may change by the time you get into and then out of law school. You may also be rich, or come into money, or marry a wealthy person, any of which would alleviate some of the financial pressures usually attendant on a public interest lawyer.

The biggest variable, though, when we talk about whether something is “worth it,” is the one that is hardest to quantify: that part of job satisfaction not related to the substance of a person’s work, but to the work environment. (I think this applies to all the jobs, not just the public interest ones.) For example: I used to work for a non-profit law firm doing stuff that was really compelling and important, and I was having a lot of great successes there, but I was unhappy because I had a miserable commute and a difficult relationship with my boss (who was great and not fundamentally a bad boss, I should hasten to add! We just weren’t a good fit), and I ended up leaving after several years for a job that paid less but had a more manageable commute (and a potentially easier boss relationship, because the job itself was less dynamic and innovative, so the expectations were better defined). Now I’m doing work that is righteous and good, but probably less world-changing. But! I ride my bicycle five minutes to work and I have a great relationship with my boss, and when I have to leave early because my kids are sick, everyone understands (plus, I’m not routinely over an hour away from my kids’ school), and as a result, I love my job and never want to leave.

The problem, of course, is that until you’ve been there a while, it’s awfully hard to know which job will make you happy and which will make you crazy. No one tells you about the meshugas at the job interview.

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.

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