Stream of Consciousness? I Hope I’m Not Complaining Too Much About Salaries.
It was December 29, 1984. I was sitting with my younger brother in an airplane, not knowing whether to cry or smile. A part of me was full of sorrow. I felt as though my life was ending. Another part of me was full of joy. My life was just beginning. I was torn between wanting to run back to the familiar sounds and smells of Burma and my grandparents who had raised me, and wanting to run away from the military government–to my mother and stepfather who awaited me in neighboring Thailand. I was twelve, and I was emigrating. I was about to meet my mother and new father in Thailand and then to be taken to Zaire (my stepfather worked for the foreign service).
I was scared of going to Zaire. Burma was (and still is) a country where human rights were routinely abused ever since the military junta took power in 1962. Yet, when it came down to leave, I felt I was being pushed out of the only home I knew–my universe. I was told that in Zaire, I would be attending an American school and learning to speak French. I hardly knew a word of English, let alone French. Would I ever be able to adjust to a different lifestyle, culture, and language? I glanced at my brother for answers, but I knew he was thinking the same things. I forced a smile to cheer him up. My brother clutched my hand.
Life in Zaire was tough at first. After I completed six months of an intensive English-as-a-second-language program, my teachers decided to place me in a regular classroom. I did not speak much in class, and people thought I was unfriendly. I could not explain that I had to form entire sentences in Burmese first and then translate them into English before uttering them. Otherwise, I would often get lost in the middle of a sentence. I thought that I would never adjust to this new life and culture.
In time, however, I overcame these challenges. As my English improved, I began to read books on Burma and on democracy and political rights. I discovered that both in Burma and Zaire, those suspected of rebellious intentions were harassed and tortured. I also knew that the military leaders in both Burma and Zaire had been profiting from bribes and corruption. And I saw that almost everything in Zaire and Burma–from television and newspapers to movies and billboards–was saturated with propaganda. When my mother told me that we were leaving Zaire to settle in the United States, I was happy. Finally, I would live in a free country.
I came to the United States in July 1989. From the first time that my brother and I were called “chinks,” I realized that, even here, there is discrimination against people who are different. Now that I have lived in the States for nearly 20 years, my interest in democracy and political rights has expanded to encompass human rights in general, including discrimination against women, sexual and racial minorities, and the poor. In college, I pursued a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in intercultural studies that focused on social justice. I volunteered at soup kitchens to feed homeless people and at the Human Rights Campaign Fund to lobby for human rights. My day-to-day experiences, as well as the courses I took, convinced me further of my commitment to social justice.
After graduating from college, I worked as a legal assistant at an immigration law firm. Like others who are different from the mainstream, the immigrants with whom I worked were targets of discrimination and were unjustly blamed for a variety of the country’s social and economic ills.
I began my master’s degree program in social justice and women’s studies in 1996 while continuing to work as a legal assistant. I wanted to conduct research and to learn the analytic tools that would enable me to make a difference in this field. While pursuing such issues had challenged me, I remained limited. I was convinced that a law degree would enable me to do so much more.
Realistic and pragmatic by nature, I did not expect that becoming a lawyer would all of a sudden enable me to “save the world.” Nonetheless, I decided to become a lawyer and eventually to go into the public interest/government sector because part of me thought I would be better able to address social issues and to serve the community in a more personal, meaningful, and effective way.
But sometimes, when I read about what the associates and summer associates at big firms are making, I wonder if I made a mistake by going into the public interest field. When I know that someone straight out of law school with no experience what-so-ever is making $150,000 per year, it makes me cringe because I realize that this first-year associate makes more money than I would ever do even as a 30th-year senior attorney if I remained in the public interest field. Sometimes, when it happens, I begin to ask myself if I am even making that much of a difference in this world by working as a public interest/government lawyer.
I’ve been active in the Philadelphia Bar Association and the Young Lawyer’s Division because I enjoy giving back to the community. It makes me happy to know that I am making a difference in someone’s life when I volunteer my time with the clothing drive for the poor or teach a class at People’s Law School or act as a judge at a Mock Trial competition. But I want to do so much more than just volunteer. For example, I want to go to the quarterly luncheons or the Andrew Hamilton Ball. But I never do because everything costs money. I want to get more involved with the Pennsylvania Bar Association or the American Bar Association, but I don’t because I’m not a member of these organizations. Why? Because, once again, everything costs money. It’s really a shame when you think about it. It’s not that I’m cheap, but I’ve got to make choices on how to spend the little money that I earn. Did I already mention that sometimes I ask myself if I am even making that much of a difference in this world by working in a public interest field? Oops, I did, didn’t I?
In a perfect world, the gap between an associate’s compensation and that of a public interest lawyer would not be that shocking. In a perfect world, you’d see participation of more public interest attorneys at Quarterly Luncheons, Andrew Hamilton Ball, Comedy Night, the Bench Bar Conference, and other events that cost money. In a perfect world, public interest employers–rather than firms only–would be committed to attracting and retaining the highest quality lawyers and to compensating them competitively. But we don’t live in a perfect world, do we? No wonder every year, so many people end up leaving the public interest/government field to go into private practice.
P.S. I used to post my blogs on Wednesdays, but starting this week, I will be posting them on Thursdays. Happy Thursday, everyone!!! 🙂