Dispelling the Myth

Non-Profit Lawyers on Heart and Soul

By Aigerim Dyussenova


Jora Trang Managing Attorney At Worksafe

Photo Credit: Aigerim Dyussenova

Are you interested in helping the homeless, the environment, women, low-income households, veterans, immigrants, or susceptible seniors? Lots of lawyers are, and do. But most nonprofit lawyers don’t fit the stereotype, and they aren’t making the big bucks. The number of hours and energy you put in working as a lawyer for a non-profit is the same as in big law firms or Silicon Valley tech companies.

“It is about having your heart out there,” says Jora Trang in a recent interview with the BCC Voice. Trang is a Managing Attorney at Worksafe, Oakland, a non-profit that administers workplace safety guaranteed by Occupational Safety and Health Act.

For the prospective lawyer who is already at the sharp edge of life, facing a huge amount of debt from law school tuition, finding a job is the top priority. “I was fortunate to get a position just out of college.” says Deylin Thrift-Viveros, attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza. “A lot of the more prestigious non-profits, like the ACLU, are very selective in who they hire, and sometimes require similar requirements to the most competitive law firms, such as federal judicial clerkships.” In bringing the new personnel to the team, non-profit requirements can include a strong interest in the advertised field and experience with a community at risk. That is why it is important for novice attorneys to go out and get involved with the community.

In this line of work, the number of hours required from a professional can be odd and it can get hard to balance work and family life. Trang points out “The most challenging thing is preserving your energy as you work on issues that people’s lives depend on; you have to pace yourself and figure out ways to take care of yourself while engaging in social justice work.”

Aspiring non-profit lawyers should start by understanding what help their community is in need of. Nicole Marquez, a staff attorney at Worksafe recalls, “With my law school class not being very diverse and the professors also not coming from diverse backgrounds, the hypotheticals, it stands to reason, were not reflective of diverse experiences. And so when I got into the practice of law, and the majority of my clients were all people of color, from lower income backgrounds, immigrants, non-English Speaking, the way I applied the law sometimes did not quite turn out how you would imagine.”

Engaging with your community has a direct effect on your work as a lawyer. The consequences of your actions could have a positive or negative effect, which is best to judge through knowledge about the community. “You can’t always assume that litigation is the best answer for everybody. There are many ways to solve a problem,” says Trang.

A lawyer’s job consists of a lot of reading and applying the law to the real situations in life. As a lawyer your thoughts and analysis will be put in writing. Your reader oftentimes is a sophisticated client or the court.”Legal, logical and rational writing is very important,” says Trang.

Each summer law school students intern at different organizations. “It’s important to make connections in the field that you’re interested in. This can even just mean getting internships and showing your passion for the work,” says Thrift-Viveros. And Marquez further advises students, especially those from diverse backgrounds, to pursue a career in law. “In my experience there were only two African Americans and seven Latino students out of a graduating class of 320,” says Marquez, “This was astonishing to me, but it’s due to a lack of access, not one of desire. There is no pipeline. Many students of color are not exposed to the legal profession.”

When asked about the most inspiring work she has done as a non-profit lawyer, Trang recalled her experience working on day laborer empowerment project, designed for “engaging in civic activities like lobbying for their rights, marching, engaging in community politics, trying to get ordinances and resolutions to protect themselves.”

Marquez recalls her experience working on a complex class action case against Walmart: “It was a wild experience going D.C. for the first time and attending a hearing at the Supreme Court, for a case I worked on with dozens of my colleagues. Although, we lost, it taught me that litigation isn’t always the solution and that you have to be creative in your advocacy for civil rights and social justice.”

People become lawyers for different reasons. Young attorneys who are inspired to practice in the public interest sector might qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Go here to find out more: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness- cancellation/public-service

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