Friedman’s path to public interest work began as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. “Shocked at the disparity between the wealth of the university and the surrounding community, I became really committed to working on poverty issues,” she said. After graduation she took a job at a scholarship and mentoring program for low-income students in Philadelphia. “But I was just helping one student at a time. I was interested in learning how I could work on issues more systemically,” she said. This led her to attend law school after obtaining a masters degree from Brandeis University in social policy and non-profit management.
At Duke, Friedman’s interest in public interest law grew as she took advantage of the school’s clinical opportunities to tackle legal issues of family, poverty, and health. She gained experience in both public and private firm settings by working at the Knoxville Legal Aid Society during her 1L summer, and then in Chicago at Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal after her second year. “There are different paths that you can take. Even if you go into corporate law first, there are chances down the road,” she said, emphasizing the multiple ways to enter public interest law.
Friedman heard about the Skadden Fellowship – a prestigious two-year program that provides funding for law school graduates to pursue independent legal service projects – from a personal friend who was drafting a child care project that “fit really well with my area of interest,” she said. She advised students interested in pursuing the highly competitive fellowship to find a civil service organization that is a similarly good fit with interest and experience.
Through her two years at the Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago, Friedman discovered that her strongest interests lay in philanthropy, not litigation. She was delighted, while practicing at a small Chicago firm, to receive a call from former Duke Law Dean Katharine Bartlett, telling her that the Harpo Foundation was looking for in-house counsel. This was “the perfect marriage of what I want in a job, in terms of getting to research issues, think about things, [and] practice law,” said Friedman. As a foundation attorney, she is involved with grant-making and governance issues for the non-profit. Her position as in-house counsel has also involved her in contracting and designing policies for Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.
Personal networking is important for students interested in public interest work, Friedman said, “not to get the job, but to find out more.” she said. She advised students to always be ready to share their interests with others as in her experience, many a conversation had led “coincidentally and fortuitously” to new opportunities. Indeed, she said finding a niche ultimately hinges on personal initiative — “creating your own opportunities.” Although public interest law may pay less than a typical law firm, she acknowledged, the key is a “mixture of doing different things, finding a situation that works for you.”
- Karmel Wong