A longstanding piece of conventional wisdom about lawyers is that law students don't become public interest lawyers because they can't afford to. Law school costs a lot of money, many students take out large loans to finance their education and living expenses, and public interest jobs don't pay much. Ergo students can't do public interest work. This line of reasoning seems logical on its face, but I don't think it's the full story.
Here's another way of looking at the career choices of lawyers, as well as those made in many other professions: demographics.
I'll start with an interesting statistic about the nonprofit world in general. In the next five years, one-third of the executive directors of nonprofit organization in the U.S. will retire. These are the senior baby boomers -- the people that are more or less the ages of the Clintons and the Bushes. The retirement of this generation means is that in the next few years there will be tons of new opportunities for leaders (finally) to move up in these organizations, and it also means that many of these organizations will end up in crisis, since they have not prepared meaningful succession plans.
What this statistic also implies is that there has been a significant absence of opportunities to enter public interest jobs over the past three decades, because (1) there are limited number of nonprofit professional jobs to begin with, and (2) the ones that do exist have been dominated by members of the senior demographic bulge. Many of the senior leaders of nonprofit organizations, legal organizations included, entered their careers in the 1970s when they were in their 20s, and have held on to those jobs ever since. In contrast, people entering their careers in the 1980s, 1990s and today have generally faced fewer opportunities in the nonprofit sector, partly because other people got there first.
If debt were the only reason people did not become public interest lawyers, we could expect to see two things: (1) there would be a lot of unfilled openings for these kinds of jobs; and (2) a lot of rich students would become public interest lawyers (since in my experience the desire to do public interest is pretty much evenly distributed). But neither of these is true. Public interest jobs are hotly contested. It's a lot easier to get a job at Cravath than one at the ACLU.
This is one explanation why so many people of my generation have found themselves in the private sector: there are many more opportunities there, not simply opportunities to earn money but opportunities to be engaged.
Certain individuals sometimes lay a kind of moral slant on this phenomenon, like, "oh it's so horrible that we have to work in the private sector rather than doing public interest." I see this phenomenon as neither good nor bad; it simply is what it is. Each generation faces various challenges and opportunities; it's reasonable to assume that these change over time. The task of any creative person is to make the best out of what is available, rather than bemoaning our fate at not living in an ideal world.
I do think that there is a tremendous amount of creativity in the private sector, and some of the most innovative approaches to helping others have come from private sector energies and organizations. Consider the growth of social entrepreneurship organizations, which essentially are creating new positions for this kind of work where none existed before.
In the next decade or so, opportunities should open up in public interest organizations, as senior baby boomers retire. (As it happens, most of these new opportunities will go to ... surprise! the children of the original senior baby boomers, who will then start their own cycle of demographic dominance.) But my guess is that most of us who are members of Gen X or who are at the tail end of the original baby boom will spend a large part of our careers working in the private sector. Our challenge is to find ways to make this meaningful for us, and meaningful for the world.