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In my short time thus far with Legal Services of Greater Miami, I have devoted my energy to gaining an understanding of what the internal operations of a public services firm is like. Naturally, I’ve begun to understand a number of opinions shared across the LSGMI attorneys regarding public service litigation in general.

One day, while flying down the interstate (on the way to the mobile home park I referenced in my previous post), I experienced a palpable moment of self-awareness. Whether it was the open highway that seemed to disappear into a flat, balmy, industrial wasteland or the fact that I was simply out of the office setting, a constant mental grind amidst an environment of computers and over-air conditioned boardrooms, I found myself questioning the opinions of other professionals who haven’t had exposure to “the inside” of public service organizations.

Out of habit, I turned to Nejla (my supervisor) who was focused intently on traffic and asked my question.

“Honestly, I get two responses from people and they’re both fairly extreme,” she remarked. With a slight tone of frustration, she anecdotally explained the common response she gets from people when she tells them what she does for a living. In her short explanation, she drew an abstract spectrum in my mind, depicting the semi-polar nature of popular opinion on “what it means” to be a public service lawyer.

As I’ve learned from the lawyers in the office since my conversation with Nejla, the first sentiment expressed is that “public service litigation is easier.” This often serves as the explanation for why someone may have ended up in the field after law school.

This thought is extremely problematic, as it infers that public service lawyers are “lesser” and that their work, also, is characterized as so. However, in many cases, the breadth of need and demand for these kinds of services involve a nuanced and deep understanding of a wide range of state, local, and national law. It requires not only an emotional investment in the client and the cause, but extreme attention to detail and refined litigation skill to come out of the case successfully.

The second sentiment encompasses a more starry-eyed, “in the presence of a hero,” reaction. The lawyers expressed how people will respond in both patronizing and overpraising tones, inferring that lawyers make a sacrifice to work for the good of the people. Somehow, they are seen as moral kings and queens that chose a human-rights-warrior agenda over the more cushy salary of, say, a private attorney.

This is  also problematic, for it insinuates that the lawyer being addressed chose their line of work to be praised and not simply out of a desire to work in public service law. The assumption is that they don’t feel like they’re making a substantial economic sacrifice because they decided that what they do is more important than how much they make doing it.

My hope is that one day, introducing oneself as a public service lawyer will be received with thoughtful interest rather than one of the reactions outlined above. Until then, I am going to challenge myself to approach all public sector jobs with an open mind rather than a preconceived opinion about what kind of person the individual I am speaking to is.