When fellow law students engage in public interest work, they are concerned with the morality of their clients – with whether they are good people or not. They are very careful to look out for clients who are in the situation of needing Public Benefits or a Public Defender through some fault of their own. That is to say: they are concerned that they will be helping someone who is poor because that person is lazy, “bad,” or dumb.
When fellow law students work at a law firm for paying clients, concerns with the morality of clients disappears. Judgment is withheld. If a paying client has some bad qualities, they’re endearing or a subject for amusement, rather than a reason the client should not be helped.
I notice this contradiction in non-lawyers and law students as well. When telling friends and family about my work in Public Benefits, they ask, “Don’t a lot of those people seem like they are just abusing the system?” When I tell them about my work at a Public Defender’s Office, they ask, “But, how can you defend someone who is guilty?” If, however, I mention the possibility of working at a law firm, they say, “Oh, wow!”