Why a Lawyer Would Leave BigLaw for Public Interest
February 25, 2016
We at Vault focus mainly on the life of lawyers at large and midsize law firms, but many law grads decide to work for the government, in a small firm, or as a solo practitioner. Jeremiah Frei-Pearson left a successful BigLaw career to work at a public interest firm and has most recently co-founded a small plaintiffs' firm.
What initially drew you to practicing law?
As a kid, I idealistically believed that the law was a tool people could use to right wrongs and make the world more fair. After 13 years of practicing law, I still think that idealistic vision is basically true. Also, I became a lawyer because I wasn’t close to good enough to play professional basketball.
What did you see as your likely career path when you started your legal career?
When I started law school I knew I wanted to do public interest law.
You began your legal career as a litigation associate at Kaye Scholer. What made you decide to leave BigLaw behind?
Kaye Scholer provided me with excellent legal training; I worked for some really talented lawyers who taught me how to practice law and I made some good friends. At the same time, I never planned to be at a defense-side law firm for long, so I left Kaye Scholer as soon as I felt I could afford to join Children’s Rights.
After Kaye Scholer you were a staff attorney at Children’s Rights. What was it like working in public interest law?
Working at Children’s Rights was awesome for the most part. Children’s Rights brings class action reform lawsuits to fix broken foster care systems so I got to represent abused and neglected children who were trapped in these failing systems. It was incredibly rewarding to see how the law could change people’s lives. As one example, I worked on Children’s Rights lawsuit to reform New Jersey – as a result of that lawsuit, New Jersey broke a record for adoptions achieved, significantly reformed supervision procedures that were inadequate, and substantially increased the percentage of foster children who subsequently attended college. On a more personal level, I’ve stayed in touch with some of the people I represented when they were children (it’s been 10 years since I started at CR, so some children are no longer children) – these were kids who faced very tough obstacles, and it’s extraordinarily satisfying to see them living as successful young adults and to know I helped them beat the odds. In addition to being personally satisfying, the work was also intellectually challenging. Institutional reform lawsuits have done tremendous good in America (think Brown v. Board of Education), but the courts have grown increasingly hostile to class actions so at CR we had to be very careful and clever to win our cases.
There were only two downsides to working at Children’s Rights: one, dealing with child abuse and neglect forced me to look at the ugly side of humanity and could be very depressing. Two, public interest law pays less than private practice, but the hours are almost as long. That said, the work is incredibly rewarding and it does contribute to making the world a better place – I would strongly urge any young lawyer to consider becoming a public interest lawyer.
You’re now a founding partner of a small plaintiffs’ firm. How does your practice now compare to practicing in BigLaw?
I love my job. At Finkelstein, Blankinship, Frei-Pearson & Garber (“FBFG”), my colleagues and I get to represent working people and consumers in cases against corporate wrongdoers. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of high stakes litigation against very smart defense lawyers, but I mostly enjoy that we are standing up for regular people who have been harmed by powerful forces. The best part of my job is telling clients whose minimum wage rights were violated that we forced their employer to pay them what they are owed. One of my clients is a woman in her fifties who worked hard all her life. Her employer, a Fortune 500 company, increased its already high profits by systematically paying her below the minimum wage. We fought for her and her colleagues; it was a tough fight, but we prevailed and my client was awarded a substantial amount of money. She is using that money to go to college. It’s an awesome feeling to hear her story and other stories and know that we have made a real difference in our clients’ lives.
Everyone’s choices are personal, but I am a lot happier representing regular people than I would be if I were representing corporate interests. I also think practicing plaintiffs’ law allows lawyers to be much more creative, because plaintiffs’ lawyers decide which cases to take, where to file them, and what strategies to employ. That said, the hours at FBFG aren’t too different from working in BigLaw. In fact, our adversaries are usually represented by excellent lawyers and they often deploy infinite resources -- so we try to work even harder than the BigLaw lawyers we litigate against.
What advice do you have for new lawyers looking to practice public interest law? Would you recommend working for a large law firm first?
Everyone’s career path is different. More power to the people who can afford to start out doing public interest law. If you want to do public interest law but you start at a law firm, you have to stay mindful of your goals because the golden handcuffs can become real.
I have three main pieces of advice to young lawyers looking to practice public interest law. First, be humble and ready to work hard because no one (at least not me or anyone I’ve worked with) graduates law school fully prepared to do complex class action litigation. Second, find good mentors – people like Saul Morgenstern at Kaye Scholer and Susan Lambiase, Bill Kapell, Sara Bartosz, and Ira Lustbader at Children’s Rights spent a lot of time teaching me how to practice law at a high level. Every young lawyer can learn a lot from working with more experienced lawyers who are generous with their time. Finally, if you want to do public interest law be prepared to spend a lot of time networking as you search for the job that is the best fit for you. Good luck!
by Matt Moody