Student Spotlight | Pursuing Public Interest Law While Balancing a Demanding Day Job

Libby Tatum 1L Evening

When Libby Tatum 1L decided to go to law school, she threw herself wholeheartedly into the new role. Tatum is a self-professed “recovering actor” with a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre from the University of Central Florida in Orlando. She was accepted into New York Law School (NYLS) while working as a receptionist for the endowment management office of The Collegiate Churches of New York, a religious non-profit that operates four New York City churches. Tatum had a plan for the next three years of her life. But then her career took an unexpected turn.

“When I told my boss I was going to law school, he offered me a significant promotion to stay on,” Tatum says. “I was doing my best and contributing, and I guess I made a good enough impression.”

Tatum was thrilled with the offer—a full-time Communications Manager position that involved liaising with the non-profit’s 60-person board and its eight administrative committees. Yet she still wanted to attend NYLS. Unsure of how to proceed, Tatum spoke with Ed Coughlin, NYLS’s Associate Director of Admissions and Financial Aid and Evening Division Coordinator. Coughlin asked Tatum whether she would consider transferring into the Evening Division, where she would be able to balance her new job and school.

“I said, ‘Oh, Do people do that?’” Tatum recalls. “He said, ‘all the time.’ The more I thought about it, the more I realized the benefits of being an evening student.”

Still, balancing a new full-time job and a demanding graduate degree program gave Tatum significant pause. “I was terrified,” she says. “The only consolation I could find was that other people have done this and succeeded. Other people do this with families. They’re my heroes.”

Now well into her first year at NYLS, Tatum is confident that she made the right choice. She balances her required first-year course load of Criminal Law, Civil Procedure, Legal Practice I and II, Torts, and Contracts with her new job. Monday through Thursday, she hops on the subway at 5:30 p.m. with a quick bite and switches into student mode from 6:00 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. She intricately schedules her weekend days in order to keep up with her assignments, and she has learned to read cases quickly and efficiently.

“The key for me has been to just keep smiling,” she says. “It’s a privilege to be here. It’s a privilege to be studying what we’re studying, so even when it gets tough, I just have to keep the end goal in mind, and know how much I’ll be able to accomplish when I get done.”

Tatum gravitates toward public interest work, though she hasn’t settled on a specific career plan. She was drawn to the flexibility a J.D. offers.

“That’s why I chose a law degree instead of non-profit administration,” she says. “I feel like a law degree is going to give me a more powerful toolkit to move forward and have the impact I want to have.”

Though Tatum explored other New York City-area law schools, NYLS’s top-notch public interest programming cinched the deal for her. “Right off the bat, I saw NYLS as a very relevant institution,” she says. “The wide variety of programs and clinics available caught my eye … I noticed the Impact Center [for Public Interest Law]. I looked through the offered classes, and the one class I saw that I said, ‘That’s it!’ was Law, Public Policy, and Social Change. And then I saw all of the other relevant classes with the Impact Center, and I knew this was the place for me.”

Tatum is particularly drawn to the complexities of Criminal Law. “I think I can speak for all of my classmates when I say that we are being pushed this semester in a very good and very positive way,” she says. “Criminal Law is really challenging. It’s the legal method that we’re grappling with. … You have to first understand how to break down the rules … and then frame the issue around exactly what you’re analyzing before you can even apply the rules … It’s a balance of attention to detail and big-picture thinking. It can be challenging to make your brain go in both directions.”

Tatum plans to affiliate with the Impact Center so that she can work with faculty members and classmates on broader social justice research and advocacy projects. She is also interested in NYLS’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic and in co-curricular activities that will help her hone courtroom skills, such as NYLS’s Trial Competition Team.

“I was always using my voice to entertain people, and eventually I wanted to do more,” she says. “Now I want to give my voice to people who don’t have one. If that manifests in public defense, that’s great. If that manifests in working for a non-profit, focusing on policy change for marginalized groups, great. However it manifests itself, and that remains to be seen, it’s really about making sure I help the people who need it the most.”

Tatum says that when she feels tired or stressed, her Evening Division classmates help her maintain a positive attitude. “It’s an amazing community,” she says. “I don’t think I could do this without all of the wonderful people I’m surrounded by each night. There is such a feeling of camaraderie, and it’s very interesting because, of course, we’re all in competition with each other, but we almost don’t even think about it. We want each other to succeed.”