NRDC in Prime Time!

I caught last night’s episode of “How I Met Your Mother” and was happily surprised to see that one of main storylines was, well, kind of related to my own life experience.  In last night’s installment, Marshall – saddled with law school debt – struggles with the following dilemma: to take the glamorous, high paying job with the corporate law firm or to follow his heart and work for……yup, NRDC!


At the end of the episode, Marshall ends up going with the big firm – but only because he thinks he can have it all.  He will make the big bucks while also working exclusively for a client he can feel good about: a local amusement park that brings joy day after day to children young and old.  Until, that is, he learns that the amusement park has an abysmal safety record leading to recurring death and destruction.  What has he done?!


I graduated college with no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  My parents had both spent their careers in public service, and I grew up mostly in developing countries.  So I had a strong commitment to public service and to “giving back.”  My personality had led those around me to suggest that I was destined to be a lawyer from the time I was quite young, but I rejected that possibility absolutely.  While many of my friends were convinced of their choice of law school at the time of graduation, I was at a loss.


After graduation, I took a job working for a reproductive rights organization that was populated mostly by lawyer-advocates and for the first time understood that becoming an attorney didn’t condemn me to a life of private practice.  I applied to law school and was accepted for the following fall.


I spent the six months prior to entering law school living in L.A., and that was all it took for me to decide that I wanted to spend my career working to improve the environment.  From the moment I entered law school, I was focused on environmental pursuits.  I spent my first summer interning for what was then unequivocally known as the Environmental Defense Fund.  That experience led me to decide to pursue a joint degree in public policy, where I would also focus on environmental matters.  But my summer at EDF also resulted in my being convinced to spend my second summer taking a position with a private, albeit environmentally-focused, law firm.  I was correctly advised that positions with non-profit organizations directly out of law school are scarce, and that private firms offer both excellent training and the chance to make some money, a real concern for the average law student.


I was truly terrified of starting my summer associate job, convinced I would completely hate working for a private firm.  I was really surprised to discover that I actually had a great experience that summer.  I was gratified by the difficult legal issues I confronted, and deeply enjoyed the strategy exercises I was engaged in with my colleagues.  Nonetheless, I remained committed to a career in public service, and was sure I wouldn’t return to a private firm upon graduation.


During my final year of law school I had the opportunity to participate in an environmental law clinic at NRDC, and working here some day became my official dream.


Then I graduated.  With a lot of debt.  And – as had been predicted – a serious dearth of opportunities for non-profit environmental work.  That which I could find simply wouldn’t enable me to simultaneously pay off my law school loans and live in the custom to which I had become accustomed (that is, as a poor law student in the far East Village of New York City).


I ended up spending the next nine years working for the private firm at which I had spent my second law school summer.  It was overall a wonderful job. I deeply liked and respected my colleagues, and most of the time I worked on really interesting matters.  Every so often I would scour for good public interest environmental jobs, but there was never anything available at my level.  Apparently no one ever left these organizations once they were ensconced in them and getting a job as a staff attorney for a non-profit environmental entity was seemingly impossible.


Eventually I made partner at the firm, something I never thought would occur and still knew I didn’t really want in my heart.  Sure, I had made a good deal of money and paid off most of my loans.  And I loved my colleagues.  And no, gratifyingly I had never (unlike Marshall on tonight’s show) been asked to work on a matter by which I felt morally compromised; in fact, I liked most of my clients and was challenged by most of my cases.  But I also didn’t really CARE about what I was doing.  Though I remained involved in extracurricular environmental pursuits, at the end of the day, I desperately wanted to make a difference in my “real job” that could be measured in something other than money.


And then a miracle.  About six months after making partner, a former colleague forwarded me a listing for a staff attorney position at NRDC.  Though certainly not the conventional career choice, it took me approximately twenty seconds to decide I had to apply.  And to my great fortune (in spirit if not in riches), I ended up with the job.  And I have loved every second of it.  Trite though it may sound, it really does make a difference to get to spend every day working to try to make the world a little bit better place.


So, sure, unlike Marshall I didn’t have the chance at my dream job right out of law school.  But like him, the specter of law school debt did present me with the difficult choice of following my heart versus pure pragmatism, and led me to the firm job initially.  But I still hope that at the end of the day, BOTH of us will have ended up working for NRDC.  Stay tuned….