Volunteering is a privilege and responsibility

On Nov. 1 across the nation, 1Ls began the scary/stressful/exciting task of looking for a productive first-summer experience. Our career services representative started the process when she presented its support system — resume writing, networking events, a comprehensive online job database. All of these tools would help us to get hands-on legal experience while building our resumes. That is, if there were jobs.
The words “public interest” hovered on a projector screen during the entire 45-minute career services presentation. It was as if the rep were trying to burn the idea into our brains. Finally, she turned to the topic: public interest law. Jobs are scarce, and lowly 1Ls would have to work that much harder to snag any job. The rep encouraged all of us to consider volunteering our time.
Even she laughed at first — give away our time when we are faced mountains of debt? It would be better than picking up an unrelated job, or worse, studying abroad. At least we would have some legal experience. She tried to ply us with the promise of a higher paying position later if only we had “Public Defender’s Office” on our resume. She tried to scare us into volunteering for fear of having one less bullet on the resume.
Why was she almost apologizing for even suggesting it? Is giving our time really such a new idea? Additionally, is giving our time really such a bad idea that it has to be a last resort, only to be turned to when the market is down? We should look at volunteering as a privilege and responsibility — an opportunity to help others who aren't as fortunate as we are to study the law.
As lawyers, we will have a moral responsibility to our communities. Many firms agree, and require each of their associates to complete volunteer hours and provide pro bono work as part of their jobs. Why do we wait until graduation to take this on?
If we see it as an option based on the certain economic climate, what happens when the market turns around, and jobs are abundant? More jobs certainly do not mean fewer people and issues in our community that need our attention but who cannot afford our rates.
I believe volunteering should begin the very first day, if not only to get us in the habit of looking beyond our own paychecks. Some countries and cultures have mandatory volunteer requirements for graduation and community benefits. And while our country shies away from compulsory community service (beside for some criminal offenders,) I can't imagine our community would be worse if everyone were required to give just a little in exchange for all of our and privileges.
This fall and winter, career services representatives are scrounging for positions and fluffing up public interest as a better-than-nothing alternative. My hope is that, with or without a magical economic turn-around, they reconsider their approach while continuing to strongly encourage students to give their time.

By Merideth Kimble a first-year student at the University of San Diego School of Law and columnist for The National Jurist.