Learning the Legal Ropes in Alaska

How one law student took to a great frontier to get some work experience.

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Criminal justice classes at the University of Wisconsin propelled Scott Burrill, now 26, toward a career in public-interest law. "I got really passionate about it," he said. "Finding out . . . how many problems the criminal justice system is facing—it's staggering." Aware of the modest salaries in public law, Burrill applied only to schools where he thought he could get a scholarship. When the University of Iowa offered him full tuition, he took it, impressed by the university's legal clinic and friendly atmosphere. 

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Holding out: At on-campus interviewing sessions, he has learned how much he could earn working at a private law firm. "You . . . say, 'Wow, I could work for free and get more in debt over the summer, or I could make $30,000,' " he says. But the scholarship affords him the freedom to stick with public-interest law.

[Read more: Law School Grads Face Tougher Economic Times.] 

Cool summer: After his second year, Burrill won a fellowship to work in a public defender's office on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. He gained a wealth of experience working in a state that allows law students to argue cases unsupervised in court. He defended two motions at evidentiary hearings and was the second chair at two trials—tasks usually saved for graduates.

Next up: Burrill plans to take a job with the Air Force Judge Advocate General's Corps, where he hopes to eventually become a defense counsel for service members. "Law school has undoubtedly made me a better person," he says. "You'll never find a bigger group of people who want to change the world—or change the country—for the better."