Turn Your Passion for Social Justice Into a Law Career

February 16, 2021
Turn Your Passion for Social Justice Into a Law Career

[Learn more about how Bloomberg Law can help law students excel in class and jump-start their careers.]

As the social justice movement continues to gain momentum, many law students and young attorneys are eager to roll up their sleeves and use their skills to fight for change.

But knowing you want your legal career to have an impact is only half the battle. Finding the right position, standing out from the crowd, and making the most of transitional opportunities are the first steps. Then comes the very real challenge of understanding long-standing social problems and having what it takes to effect change.

Bloomberg Law convened three leading social justice attorneys to share their personal experiences and advice to those looking to follow in their footsteps – or carve out their own path to a meaningful law career.

There’s this saying that ‘The arc of history bends towards justice. It doesn't bend. We need to bend it. And it’s very, very hard to bend.'
Efrén Olivares
Deputy Legal Director
Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project

[Learn more about how a Bloomberg Law Academic Account can help you excel in class and give you the tools you need to start your career.]

Identify the right opportunity for you

When pursuing a career in social justice, experts say law students should lean into issues close to them and look for inspiration from their own life or experiences. That’s not to say you have to be an immigrant to do immigrant rights work, but you’ll need to be personally connected to or motivated by the work if you’re going to succeed. And if you don’t have the answer right now, try different types of work to figure out what moves you and what doesn’t.

“Something will call you and then you’ll make a life out of it,” said Efrén Olivares, who currently serves as the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. He previously served as legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s racial and economic justice program, where he represented immigrant communities in Texas and along the border, including fighting family separation.

[For more insights on developing your social justice practice, watch our webinar on “Legal Jobs in Social Justice: How to Turn Passion Into a Career.”]

When choosing how to make the most impact in the social justice arena, you are not limited to working at a nonprofit organization – you can seek opportunities at law firms as well – according to Moy Ogilvie, Hartford office managing partner at McCarter & English, LLP.

Knowing how important it was for her and her colleagues to have opportunities to use their skills to improve their communities, Ogilvie helped her firm launch a social justice project in July 2020.

“We wanted to do work that tackled the fact that racial inequalities and other inequalities have historically created consequences that have held back a lot of individuals and groups in our society,” Ogilvie said. “We decided we would start with criminal justice, housing, and community economic development, and figure out ways we can use our skills as attorneys to help in all those arenas. We know that this project is going to be ongoing for years.”

Stand out from the crowd

When applying for jobs, spend a few extra minutes on an organization’s website to learn about its mission statement, then craft a cover letter and resume that demonstrate how your values align with the company’s.

It is important to demonstrate dedication to a movement by thinking explicitly about what change you are trying to achieve, and what tools, strategies, and steps will help you get there. Just as important is weaving your personal narrative into the work.

“Try to find your own story of self and how that fits into the work,” Olivares said. “Use that opportunity to represent yourself as a critical part of the movement that you’re trying to be a part of.”

During the interview process, candidates should show themselves as critical thinkers and lifelong learners. And while a strong academic record is important, a track record of community engagement is critical for employers looking to strengthen their teams.

“Where you went to school is not really as important to me as what you did there,” said Jason Starr, litigation director at Human Rights Campaign. “What else about you as a human being demonstrates a real passion and a real willingness to dig in, and an understanding that these battles are long? Those are things that really stand out to me among strong candidates’ employment.”

Your Essential Career Toolkit

Bloomberg Law offers tips for the transition from law student to lawyer. Learn how to stand out in class, find the perfect role, and nail your job interview.

You’ll also want to bolster your application with practical experience, even if it’s not directly related to the role you’re after. Internships and volunteer work may play a key role in developing relationships with attorneys, networking, and preparing you for practice.

“Find opportunities where need exists, and don’t be constrained by this idea that the step that I’m taking now is a deep root,” said Starr. “It’s just more experience.”

Prepare for an emotional rollercoaster

There are arguably very few legal jobs where the stakes aren’t high, but the core of social justice practice is the effort to change society as a whole and do it case by case. The journey is long and arduous, and there are many ups and downs along the way.

Attorneys in this area of law admit that the failures are tough to swallow and burnout is a reality of their kind of work, but that talking about it is the key to surviving it.

“It’s very important to normalize the burden, normalize that it can be secondary trauma, and talk about these things openly,” Olivares said. “That’s the only way I think that we can sustain it.”

In most law firms, it takes a lot of work and years of experience just to have the opportunity to take on social justice work. As Ogilvie puts it, the first few years after law school are spent learning how to practice and getting good at it. The opportunities to do more will follow.

“What a lot of attorneys are able to do is little by little: take on a pro bono case here, a pro bono case there, get involved in the social justice committee or the D&I committee,” Ogilvie said.

[Learn more about how Bloomberg Law can help law students excel in class and jump-start their careers.]

At the end of the day, it’s the successes – however small, even if they are technically legal losses – that make the hard work worth it.

“It’s the small moments when you think you’ve failed, and someone comes to you and says, ‘It’s just really important that you provided me an opportunity to tell my story,’ or ‘I felt really empowered because I had somebody who listened and believed. …’” Starr said. “I know that I’m putting all the gifts that I’ve been given to really good use.”

Those who will succeed in a social justice legal career are the ones who understand that the end isn’t always in sight and the losses can be painful, but the work is noble and important – and will leave a lasting mark on the world.

“There’s this saying that ‘The arc of history bends towards justice,’” Olivares said. “It doesn’t bend. We need to bend it. And it’s very, very hard to bend.”

Related News