February 24, 2022

Advice from Alumni in Legal Advocacy: Use “Why” as Your Guide

Why do you want to do what you want to do with your life?

A recent panel of Legal Advocacy alumni offered listeners a different starting line as they begin their career search into the world of Child and Family Policy.
Shajuti Houssain

Duke Law '18

Chavis Jones

Duke Law '20

Peggy Nicholson
Senior Lecturing Fellow
Supervising Attorney, Children’s Law Clinic
Duke Law
By Megan Forbes, MPP '23

The value of a law degree in public service and advocacy work is undeniable. Yet, once in law school, it can be difficult to stay on a public interest path in light of more lucrative, "flashier" jobs. Our panelists shared that starting with your "why" is a critical guide for staying on course when facing such tension.

"Why do I want to do this? What things do I want to accomplish? Who do I want to serve, and how does this experience serve me in terms of my sense of humanity, my sense of being a person? I think those questions can helpfully gauge where you want to go and what you want to do," offered panelist Chavis Jones. Jones is 2020 Duke Law alumni, currently serving as Associate Counsel for the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Jones asserted that if students don't come to law school with a "why," law school will generously give them one they may not have bargained for. "One interesting thing about law school is that it can give you a why… if you follow the regular stream, you'll end up a corporate attorney working at a particular path, and you'll do a lot of things that don't necessarily jive with why you initially came to law school."

Panelists took turns empathizing with this familiar pressure. "The allure of big law firm money is there," said Peggy Nicholson, a lecturing fellow and supervising attorney for the Children's Law Clinic at Duke Law. Shajuti Hossain, a 2018 Duke Law alumni and associate at a public law group in San Francisco, shared in the appeal of corporate law opportunities to pay off student loans earlier.

Shajuti shared candidly about the difficulties of staying on a public interest track. Starting out with a desire to pursue environmental justice work, she found herself easily swept up in the wave of more corporate opportunities. "I did the interviews for all the big law firms," she shared. "I didn't get any of them. In those interviews, I did not really feel like myself. I did not feel interested in any of them. I felt like I was acting, and it wasn't going well."

But to Shajuti, the closed doors weren't rejection; they were course-correction. It brought about a homecoming, a re-centering. "It was a reminder for me to go back to my original goal in policy and social justice and civil rights…." Shajuti said with clear eyes.

"Why do I want to do this? What things do I want to accomplish? Who do I want to serve, and how does this experience serve me in terms of my sense of humanity, my sense of being a person? I think those questions can help gauge where you want to go and what you want to do."

Chavis Jones Duke Law '20

The three panelists talked about moments that brought them back to themselves and their own stories, experiences, and original intentions. They shared the importance of defining a sense of self and staying in touch with one’s passion. They spoke of the integral part such practices played when enduring the pressures of the systems around them. Those pressures would have easily shaped them into cookie-cutter corporate law graduates if left unchecked.

They spoke about how good it felt to find ways to be themselves, keep their unique shape, follow their unique passion, and contribute to the causes that move their hearts.

Chavis Jones spoke powerfully to the importance of appreciating one's uniqueness when determining career paths. "The world wants to box you in… and operate on one path. But so many of us have different aspects of our minds. I think it's very important that you key into that, so you're fully optimizing the different aspects of who you are."

Chavis himself has a background in theology and ethics and a Masters in Divinity from Harvard. To the untrained eye, one might not see the value his unique past and passion could bring to legal advocacy. Chavis disagrees. "Studying religion and social ethics for me gave me a lens through which I could do social justice work in a more critical way… it broadened the horizons of my concern." He encouraged listeners to consider their own background similarly.

While knowing your "why" and revisiting it regularly is a powerful guiding principle to staying the course for a career in public service, it is not hard to guess what many students follow up question was: If I forgo the big money jobs, how can I fund my education and make a living after graduation?

How will I afford my why?

Panelist Peggy Nicholson offered optimism and encouragement for financial concern. Nicholson knew from a young age that she desired a career in public service and highlighted the power of simple strategic financial planning. She encouraged listeners not to fret but to ask pointed questions, like "What kind of support does this law school offer for public interest lawyers?" Nicholson encouraged and assured listeners that resources are out there. It's just knowing where to look and pursuing programs that offer those supports. "I knew I was going to be in a position where I would be paying those back," Nicholson notes of her student loans. Now around a decade into public service work with children and education, she smiled when sharing, "It is possible." Nicholson urged. "The allure of big law firm money is there, but this work is so rewarding, and it is also possible to be strategic… the trade-off is worth it."

Megan Forbes is a first year Masters in Public Policy student studying Social Policy. She intends to pursue family advocacy work focused on equitable public health strategy.