Public Interest Career Trek: Discovering Careers in Public Interest

Author: Sierra Gonzales, Class of '20

Students on the Public Interest Career Trek stopped by the Notre Dame Chicago Campus for lunch during the Trek.

  Our Law Career Trek to Chicago as part of the Public Interest Law group was such a success! We each took away different lessons from the people we met and the places we went, and definitely had a lot of fun while doing it. The five of us in our group are all very interested in practicing law some day and the chance to meet and ask questions of practicing attorneys was invaluable.

  Our day started off bright and early with a bus ride to Chicago from Notre Dame’s campus and our friendly driver dropped us off in the Loop at 8:30am. We hit the ground running and set off for Chicago LAF. At LAF, the attorneys provide free legal aid to people facing a diverse set of legal problems, from unfair evictions, domestic violence, to consumer fraud. LAF’s executive director is  Notre Dame alumnus, Mr. John Gallo. He was so welcoming and excited to have us visiting. Mr. Gallo really encouraged us to learn as much as we could and to ask questions during our time there. Melissa, another one of the great attorneys at LAF, shared a bit about the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program and introduced us to Michael, who is currently participating in the VISTA program. Sana Sherali, a senior in our group, really enjoyed our time at LAF, saying, “I really liked learning about the different opportunities available, like VISTA, which is a good gap year opportunity and will make it easier to learn more about law, whether it’s right for me or not.” Another highlight of our time at LAF was the opportunity to simulate a client intake interview ourselves. I found it challenging initially to find the right questions to ask of our (pretend) clients, but eventually got into a rhythm and found the experience really fun! It was a unique and fun exercise that made me see how some of the skills I am currently cultivating in my classes at Notre Dame, like critical thinking, will really help me in the practice of law someday.

  Our next stop was to the offices of the National Immigration Justice Center (NIJC). This non-profit organization provides legal aid to immigrants through its numerous departments. NIJC handles cases of asylum, detention, domestic violence, and trafficking, and is committed to advocating for the rights and wellbeing of immigrants both through direct legal representation and its policy department that has exercised significant influence in shaping the national conversation on immigration. NIJC’s executive director, Mary Meg McCarthy, herself a Notre Dame alumna, was incredible to meet and was so excited to have us in the office. I really appreciated learning about NIJC’s unique blend of legal services and advocacy and their belief that real and meaningful change happens at the systemic level.

  Following our time at NIJC, we had the honor of having lunch with two Notre Dame alumni and two attorneys from NIJC. Our conversation drifted toward the question of when to got to law school: go straight through or take a gap year or two? Their advice was really encouraging and all of them recommended maybe taking a year or two to explore some passions and interests before heading off to get the J.D.

  Junior Maggie Owens said of our time with them, “One thing I learned from the alumni was that your career path does not have to be linear- you can try something out and shift your focus if that doesn’t work. Almost everyone we talked to mentioned the importance of exploring different options and recognizing the opportunities that worked for you.”

  Our final stop of the day was to the office of the Attorney General for the state of Illinois. The offices are housed in the beautiful Thompson Center and we enjoyed a fun elevator ride up to the 12th floor! We met with a group of five attorneys (two of whom were ND grads and two of whom went to Michigan… go figure!) all from different legal backgrounds who were incredibly helpful in helping us understand what the Attorney General does (which is a bit complicated and none of us knew before!) They discussed their work representing the people of the state of Illinois and how sometimes that means working opposite sides of the same case. The most interesting part of that visit for me was learning about the different practice areas the attorneys in the office cover. They essentially handle cases about anything the state could be involved in, so the possibilities are almost endless!

  All in all, the five of us had a great time on the trek and learned so much! While we were all exhausted by the end of it, we had so much fun and are so thankful to have had this unique opportunity to experience what a career in law could look like.


- Sierra Gonzales, Class of '20