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In the Spotlight: NAC Member Rochelle McCain on Helping Students Thrive in Law School and Beyond

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Photo of Rochelle McCain

Rochelle McCain, executive director of the professional development office and co-director of the externship program at University of Pittsburgh School of Law, recently chatted with Equal Justice Works about becoming a member of the National Advisory Committee, and her work helping law students cultivate their public service passions. 

Earlier this year, you were selected to serve on the Equal Justice Works National Advisory Committee (NAC). What motivated you to apply to join the NAC? How does your work as a law school professional inform your role on the committee?

In my life, I have always sought to do everything with intentionality to positively impact, and for the benefit of, others, not solely myself. To that end, I try to identify opportunities to advance and facilitate support of the public good, committing fully and actively. After years of working in my law school community, I resolved that the timing was right to give back to Equal Justice Works—an organization whose mission I share and that does so much nationally to support generations of public interest leaders.

I hope that my skills and experiences, coupled with the relationships I have developed as a law school professional, can support the organization’s efforts in serving the law school community and law students more broadly. In representing the Mid-Atlantic region, my work as a law school professional deeply informs my role on the NAC. I readily draw upon my expertise and experiences with colleagues, students, and alumni, to provide a perspective that is uniquely attuned to the challenges and opportunities the region encounters within the public interest space.

In your role at University of Pittsburgh School of Law (PittLaw), you counsel students and alumni on all aspects of job searching and career development. What are some of the biggest concerns that your students have expressed about pursuing their public service passions?

Some of the most pressing concerns raised by students stem from the job search process itself. Many often share concerns/uneasiness regarding the process itself of finding a public interest position. In particular, the constraints found inherent in the public interest hiring process versus that of the private sector’s recruiting process are often raised. What further complicates the job search process is that some may be geographically limited or focused on niche interest areas that may be challenging to break into at the onset of their careers, which many perceive as limiting their options. For some, pursuing a public interest career path may be one less taken among their peer group, so they express feelings of isolation, and some even question their ambitions.

In addition, students regularly worry about sustaining meaningful careers while navigating external financial pressures/considerations they face. Recognizing that public interest sector salaries are substantially lower than many private-sector options, many students are conflicted by their very real financial constraints, whether due to familial obligations or student loan debt. While many public interest employers can provide great substantive experiences, some contend with financial constraints that bear out in their ability to offer paid summer opportunities and competitive entry-level attorney salaries. This environment can often make those interested in pursuing the path restricted from doing so. In the wake of continued uncertainty surrounding the future public service loan forgiveness and economic challenges of our times, some contemplate whether their passions are enough to make the pathway a viable option.

What steps can law schools take to remedy those concerns?

Law schools are well-positioned to think creatively about how they can mitigate some of the “pain points” in the public interest job search process for law students. For many, it may simply start with identifying the public interest students and creating a support system/cohort to ensure they are supported to face the unique challenges of a public interest search. In my experience, I have found my students respond well to having information so they can make informed decisions and put a plan in place. To accomplish this, it may require law schools to create resources, seek innovative regional collaborations with other law schools and/or public interest employers, and broader amplification of existing public interest career resources (including PSJD.org and especially Equal Justice Works).

But, not every law school has the financial wherewithal to significantly reduce or eliminate the financial barriers its students face due to a broader operational budgetary concerns. So, law schools may want to think resourcefully about their fundraising strategies and how to include public interest giving, the establishment of summer funding resources, sponsorship of a post-graduate fellowship program, development of a loan repayment assistance program, etc.

Many law schools already strive to support their public interest students but some concerns and challenges may not be easily addressed by individual institutions and may require a concerted effort by the broader profession and industry.

You also manage the judicial clerkship program at Pitt Law. What advice do you share with students who are interested in securing judicial clerkships or exploring government (federal, state, and local) opportunities?

One of the biggest nuggets of advice I share with my students interested in pursuing clerkships and government opportunities is not to self-select out of the process. While students should think intentionally about whether a particular pathway is for them, due to the competitive nature of the process of both, coupled with the extensive applications, some students may be inclined to opt-out despite being highly credentialed and competitive for the role.  Along the same lines, those that overcome the initial desire to opt-out may be discouraged by the process, especially if they experience rejection early on.

While law school is certainly competitive and grades are one of the objective factors by which employers evaluate candidates, many do not base their decisions solely on this factor. I urge students to try to do as well as they can during law school, but that is not limited to academic success. Students can also benefit as well by taking time to build relationships with others in the profession, take advantage of opportunities for experiential learning (clinics, externships, practicums, work experiences in the field, extracurricular activities such as student organizations and trial teams/competitions, pro bono) to round out applications and reflect practice readiness, and communicate with our office and faculty members as we may be in a position to support their aspirations and provide additional guidance.

I can attest to watching students shatter the “glass ceilings” placed upon them and their potential by themselves and others. With some savvy, support, hard work, connections, guidance, and understanding of their expectations and the profession, quite a bit is possible. The search can be a marathon with twists and turns so patience and perseverance is key along with a great support system.

Pitt Law has a pro bono recognition program for law students who engage in significant amounts of public service work, without academic credit or financial compensation. Why is it important for law students to take part in public service activities? What are some ways students can become involved in pro bono work on campus and in the community?

As members of the legal profession, we possess unique skills to advance and benefit the greater good. Pro bono is an obligation of our profession, as stewards of law. The duty is not just one solely owned by students and attorneys within the public interest sector to bear but for us all to share in regardless of our chosen practice pathways. By understanding and leaning into this duty early on, many reduce any apprehension around pro bono engagement and may increase the likelihood of continued pro bono engagement throughout practice.

Pro bono can also provide broader benefits to law students personally. Beyond fulfilling this call, many law students are able dabble and explore a variety of practice areas, gain practical experience and put the skills learned in law school to the test, and work collaboratively with practitioners. Students can see and be involved with “lawyering in action” with real problems, challenges, and consequences.

Students can find various ways to get involved in pro bono work on campus and in the community. Interested students should think about starting small by just committing to the idea. Once they have done so, they can often begin within their law school community. Many law school staff and faculty members are involved directly with pro bono efforts and welcome having students involved, especially if there is no dedicated office or point of contact at the institution to support pro bono. At Pitt Law, one of my colleagues works closely with students and the community to identify service opportunities. Students can also engage in pro bono by galvanizing around issues important to them and addressing areas of direct and immediate need. Organizations like Equal Justice Works can serve as a platform to engage. Additionally, law students can work within law student organizations to engage in established service projects. And broadly, some bar associations have pro bono coordinators or centers that support legal pro bono that may be willing to partner and serve as a nexus between community organizations and students.

To learn more about our National Advisory Committee, visit here.

Pro bono is an obligation of our profession, as stewards of law. The duty is not just one solely owned by students and attorneys within the public interest sector to bear but for us all to share in regardless of our chosen practice pathways.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow