March 17, 2016
Lee Strock (HLS, 2009) made the transition from the private sector to the public sector in 2012 when he made the jump to become the Director for the Peter Cicchinio Youth Project at the Urban Justice Center. The jump wasn’t easy, but with deliberate action at various stages of his career, and maintaining (and building) of his network, Lee was able to make the transition into a position he felt deeply committed to.
Law school was a rude awakening for Lee Strock. He had grown up caring about class and sexual orientation as political issues, had been involved in activism during his undergraduate years, and had come to law school with the hope of advocating for marginalized communities. “But very quickly during 1L, I learned the myriad ways in which the law works to protect and entrench the interests of people who are central and powerful,” Lee recalls. “The things that were taught to me in 1L as being neutral were infuriating for me. That instilled in me a productive anger that made me want to change the system.” After his first year, Lee took Professor Dean Spade’s Law and Social Movements class and Professor Lucy White’s Poverty Law class, which made a lasting impact on Lee’s career path; they taught him ways in which the law could impact the lives of marginalized people. Professor Spade’s class in particular allowed him to critically examine the limits of the law and the downsides of placing lawyers at the center of sociopolitical movements. “[The two classes] together provided a theoretical and practical framework that informs a lot of the day-to-day work I do even today,” Lee says.
Today, Lee serves as Director of the Peter Cicchino Youth Project at the Urban Justice Center, where he leads his team in providing legal services to homeless and street-involved youth. Although he always aspired to work at the intersections of poverty, race, and sexual orientation like in his current job, Lee also knew early in his law career that he would have to temporarily work in the private sector. “Law school is expensive and the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP) is great, but it is not the answer for everyone,” Lee explains, “so I knew I was going to have to spend at least some period of time at a law firm and my focus [upon graduation] was finding a firm that would allow me to do a significant amount of pro bono work.”
With this goal in mind, Lee spent a summer at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, where he later returned to work for three years after graduation. While job searching, he was candid about his intention to eventually work in public interest and thus was able to get an actual sense of how supportive a law firm would be toward pro bono work. “I was pretty upfront in my interview processes about my interests, which then allowed people to give me subtle or not-so-subtle hints about what the firm culture was actually like,” Lee says. Kramer Levin was a good fit for Lee because it had an externship program that allowed associates to work full time at the Housing Unit of South Brooklyn Legal Services for four to six months. Lee was thus able to get significant housing law experience in addition to taking on numerous pro bono asylum and impact litigation cases in partnership with nonprofits like Lambda Legal, which works for the civil rights of the LGBT community.
Lee advises public-interest-minded law student who anticipate working in the private sector to try to maintain their networks in the public interest sector. For instance, Lee volunteered in his free time at the Sylvia Riviera Law Project (SRLP), an organization that works for low-income people and people of color who are transgender, intersex, or gender non-conforming. “That organization was my out-of-work political home base,” Lee says. “[It] kept me connected to movements and people engaged in social change.” In addition, Lee made it a habit to go to nonprofit fundraising galas where law firms buy tables. He would talk not just with other firm lawyers but also the staff of different nonprofits. On his own time, he also helped raise funds for SRLP, cultivating a network of professional acquaintances that has proven helpful at his current job as Director of the Peter Cicchino Youth Project. Such active engagement with public service and ongoing nonprofit networking enabled him to have a smoother transition to public interest. Eventually, a friend from his activist circles brought to his attention the opening for the job he currently holds.
When Lee moved into public interest lawyering, he took a significant pay cut but he always knew he could do it at the right time. “I did not want to be too senior such that it became too expensive for nonprofits to hire me,” Lee says of the timing of his switch. One of the best aspects of transitioning back to the public sector was having a job that was, for him, “soul-nourishing” and not having to supplement his job with more satisfying volunteer work.
Lee advises law students who plan to have similar private practice detours to use their 1L summers for practical and hands-on legal experience relevant to their field of interest. He also advises using clinical opportunities to show their commitment to a particular cause. “Public interest organizations need smart and passionate people who are willing to make a fraction of what they would make in private practice,” Lee says, “And these jobs can be much more competitive than law firm jobs. So if your longer-term goal is to get a job in public interest, then I think that is where your focus needs to be.”