Public Defender: Max Pines


Max Pines received a PhD in Philosophy from Brown University before earning his JD from the University of California at Berkeley. In this interview he talks about his initial plans to become a lawyer, his exciting detour through philosophy grad school, the challenges of finishing a dissertation while applying for law school, and the rewards of practicing law as a public defender.

DEREK: At what stage of your education did you first think about pursuing a non-academic career path?

MAX: While I was an undergrad, my original plan was to go to law school and become a lawyer. However, by about my junior year I was enjoying philosophy so much – my classes and the questions – that I decided I would love to continue on. I don’t think it was until my second year at Brown’s PhD program that I started to think I would really want to be a professor and seek a career in academics. At the end of my fourth year and then more so during the fifth, I determined that the academic path was not for me. At the end of that year I buckled down and decided that during this sixth year I would have to finish my dissertation and apply to law school.

DEREK: Did you apply to law school while you were still pursuing your PhD?

MAX: I applied while I was finishing my dissertation. That was a little hectic, but not too bad. Actually studying for the LSAT exercised parts of my brain that had been dormant. Finishing the dissertation was so much more challenging that it made applying to law school seem like a minor, side task which could actually be pleasantly distracting.

DEREK: Did you consider any other alternatives besides law school?

I toyed briefly with other sorts of business-like paths, but I thought the lack of moral purpose and intellectual richness would leave me dissatisfied.

DEREK: What type of law do you practice, and where do you work? How long have you been in your current position, and what attracted you to this job?

MAX: I am a criminal defense attorney and more specifically a public defender. That is to say, I represent indigent persons accused of crimes. My office is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After I had figured out that law was for me I quickly gravitated toward public defense; in my applications to law school I declared this as my aim. I am fortunate that it worked more or less how I had hoped!

As I moved away from academics, I meditated on a threefold attraction to being a public defender. First, it is a service. I serve the poor and some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I work hands on with and for those unfortunate persons who inhabit a bleak and difficult realm severed from our ordinary awareness yet still living alongside us. Service also means I have a special civic and patriotic role. I believe our legal and constitutional rights mean we live in a civilized society, one that we can be proud of. These rights are perpetually in danger and under exercised. My role is to bolster the rule of law on behalf of a person whom we would usually rather run over and sweep away.

Second, public defense allows me to exercise skills and talents I had been cultivating. I am skilled at public speaking. I am good at negotiations. I can remain calm in the face of very heated and emotional disputes. I can be friendly and well-liked by various actors like poor persons, police officers, fancy attorneys, and judges. These two attractions, the service and my own skills, make me feel that I have a purpose in my life.

Third, I enjoy the elevated battle and combat that is criminal trial work. I like the blood, guts, horror, and tragedy of criminal law. It’s raw and intriguing. I like the sporty nature of the whole process. It certainly debases the process, which I believe is high and holy, to characterize it as a game. But there is a wealth of strategy, daring, gall, tactics, endurance, and glory which make the sport analogy apt. I love all that.

DEREK: How did your academic training and credentials help or hinder your ability to get into law school or find work as a lawyer? How does that training help or hinder your ability to do the work that you do?

MAX: I think having a PhD in philosophy from Brown is why I had such good options for law school. I can’t say whether it was simply because of the degree, the school or that it was in philosophy, but the background certainly set me apart from other students.

I think going through the philosophy program helped me get through law school because I already had a lot of endurance. I had the endurance to do brain work for long hours. I had also been on the losing side of a lot of arguments and outpaced by many colleagues at Brown as well so my intellectual humility was well developed. Philosophy certainly allows for a great deal of rational analysis while maintaining emotional detachment- also useful for legal study.

The tough part is that if people learn that I have a philosophy PhD, which I don’t think most attorneys judges or clients do in fact come to learn, they assert that this must have made me so well equipped for the legal world and such a better lawyer. It seems wrong to contradict them, but as far as being a defense attorney, it is hard to say what I got out of it that wouldn’t be attainable through 6 years of good maturation in any intellectual and congenial atmosphere.

DEREK: Do you work with other academics or former academics in your current position? Does your academic background ever cause you to feel alienated from your co-workers?

MAX: At Cal Berkeley Law School “Boalt Hall” there were some other former academics. But now I interact with no former academics. The alienation question is interesting. I think most people think it is really cool that I studied so much philosophy. Most of them seem to respect it and also be curious. So they don’t feel alienated from me. Do I feel alienated from them? Well, they didn’t spend years thinking about the most profound questions the mental giants of mankind so heroically struggled with, so I do have to disdain them a little bit. But only a little bit.

DEREK: How many more years of school were required to complete your law degree? Did you have to take on any debt, or was there adequate financial aid available?

MAX: Law school lasts 3 years, but if you add the bar exam and the time to apply it is more like 4. Law School is very expensive so I have very considerable debt. As a public servant, Berkeley will pay down my interest until, after 10 years, the federal government forgives me of the debt. I think that it is a good deal financially. Important tip: do not start up law school without being serious about it and sure that it is right for you, my philosophical friends. You don’t want all the debt you would incur if you left half-way. You might like even less the unsatisfying career you could have if you decided to stick it through because of your relationship to sunk costs.

DEREK: Did you have any preexisting contacts or prior experience that helped you transition from the philosophy PhD to the legal profession?

MAX: I didn’t have any contacts with the legal world previously.

DEREK: Would you recommend your own career path to other philosophers who are considering non-academic employment? What advice would you offer to graduate students, prospective graduate students, or philosophy PhDs who are thinking about law school?

MAX: I would certainly recommend my path to such philosophers. While I don’t think any philosopher would be satisfied with any legal job, I do think there is more than enough overlap for my type of path to be worth a thoughtful consideration for any philosopher that was having doubts about academics. There are many worthy legal fields. And the intellectual, practical, and strategic questions are fascinating.

I would suggest a graduate student should decide and resolve what he or she wanted to do with the law before getting too deep into law school. There is a lot of pressure to go the route of “Big Law” i.e. work for large firms that represent corporations. Prestige and money attract people away from more philanthropic and noble paths. I think it would be a little depressing for a student of philosophy to end up in a heartless firm without their eyes open.

Another suggestion is to be thoughtful when breaking the news about the shift in career trajectory to colleagues and professors. I think your friends might have mixed feelings about you abandoning “contemplation of the good.” And your professors control whether you graduate and get funding.

I think being a Law Professor could be a great job for a philosophy PhD. I think most of us would be impressed with the intelligence and rigor of many of the more thoughtful law professors. I believe the pay is better, and there is more associated prestige.

The bottom line is you should study philosophy because you love it and because being in a PhD program is a great honor and privilege. We should be grateful that our society can support such an endeavor. If you seek personal enlightenment and have time to spare, it is quite worthy.

DEREK: At what point did you tell your friends and advisors about your plans, and how much of this kind of push back did you experience?

MAX: I was internally considering changing paths toward the end of my fourth year. My fourth year was in many ways the most rewarding of years because by then I was narrowing in on a topic, gaining more proficiency, and teaching very enjoyable courses of my own. I think my happiness at this time would have shielded my doubts about academics from any but my closest of friends and families. My fifth year was the “dissertation fellowship” year: a year of pure study and writing, free from distractions. As the year progressed, several fellow students gave me good counsel and kind listening. I even availed myself of Brown’s Career Services, which was actually pretty helpful. By the end of that year, I think all my fellow students and professors knew.

My fellow students were supportive and some of the faculty were as well. It is hard to change, so their warmth was most appreciated. However, I certainly felt coldness from some professors. Some looked at me askance, others seemed less interested in my work or ideas. That was a little disappointing because I spent considerable effort in contributing to the intellectual and social environment of the department. It felt like some thought that because I was not going to be in the academic circle going forward, it wouldn’t be worth interacting or helping me. What is telling to me is that I am a pretty sociable person, but I managed to leave after six years with no real personal relationships with any of the professors.

The worst experience was unfortunately from my dissertation advisor. Previously, I thought we had a very good relationship. But it went down the tubes. It got to the point where the advisor was, by all appearances, simply standing in my way of graduating. I still recall the sinking, dreadful feeling of opening emails to read attempts to evade meetings, unfair criticisms and menacing, vague prognostications. It was a very stressful year. I was only saved by the fact that I had worked very hard on my dissertation and another very kind professor was willing to step in and deliver me to a defense. I emailed the final copy of the dissertation to my committee the same morning I started the drive from Rhode Island to Berkeley, starting law school in 2 weeks.

DEREK: What, if anything, do you think graduate programs can do to better prepare students for non-academic careers?

MAX: I think graduate programs could help prepare students for non-academic careers by making their programs have clear milestones that can lead to graduation in a timely manner. I also have noticed that a lot of academics suggest or actively endorse the equation philosopher = tenure track professor at research institute in an analytic philosophy department. I think it is psychologically easy for a department to foster the idea that anyone who can think deeply and is very intelligent would of course become a philosophy academic in today’s field and if not, he or she is probably shallow or confused. This equation is false but if your colleagues and professors all believe it, you are going to have a harder time figuring out your own life path. For me, this was one of the things that got a little tiresome about grad school.

DEREK: What attracted you to the academic study of philosophy?

MAX: The greats of the history of philosophy first attracted me to the study. I loved the complexity of their insights, their courage in their questions, and the rigor of their analysis. I think a good deal of my own egoism attracted me as well. I liked the idea that I studied the deepest and most profound questions which have and will always face humankind. My own philosophical viewpoint changed pretty radically while in law school. When I started I was full of bluster about deepness and the intellectual danger inherent of the pursuit. In that sense I was pretty immature, as far as philosophers go.

I also appreciated the rigor and organization of philosophical discussion and writing. It was certainly the most meaningful and impressive thought I was exposed to as an undergrad.

DEREK: Who were some of the greats that first inspired you?

MAX: I first discovered philosophy by taking a really great small Ancient Philosophy course. So I will always revere the mystery and path-breaking insight of the Greeks. But that class required a historical textbook, “The Great Conversation”  focusing on the most famous philosophers chronologically. I still have the tattered remains of that text-book. Reading and re-reading it was very exciting.

The first philosopher I studied in a real profound sense was Kant. It was a true delight to struggle and obtain some understanding of his system. As I continued to study, and certainly by the end of grad school, Wittgenstein became my favorite. I think he is ultimately the most insightful and the closest to truth and enlightenment among the thinkers I have been fortunate enough to have read. I especially appreciate his biographical progression from an ambitious, idiosyncratic and somewhat immature early period to later transcendent later period.

DEREK: What were some of the best and worst aspects of your graduate education?

MAX: The best aspects of my program was the intelligence of the people involved and the freedom to pursue philosophy and grow my worldview. My school had some really great teaching opportunities for grad-students also. The worst aspects of the program included a few aimless and indulgent graduate seminars and professors that refused to spend time helping their students. Other aspects were washes. Sometimes our colloquia were exciting times to engage with other professors. I loved going out to dinner and listening in on top notch debates and relaxed banter. But I learned conferences were almost unbearably tedious. A lot of talks, even ones given by eminent professors, were very disappointing. I think I ought to reiterate how fun and stimulating the grad school community was. We had a really great list-serve “web of belief” which probably hosted the most epic and searching thoughts ever to creep into the minds of mere mortals. We had a fun and useful grad-student paper-presentation series which featured beer and pizza. We had a great bar where things got really deep. Good times.

DEREK: Would you advise undergraduates with a talent and passion for philosophy to pursue a PhD in philosophy? If not, what other outlets would you suggest for that passion?  

MAX: If an undergrad has a talent and passion for philosophy they should by all means seek a PhD in philosophy. That is certainly the best way to get deep into the field. It is fun and satisfying. I think I grew a lot during those years. Maturing among philosophers is a great thing. But before making the plunge, I would make sure that the program would be committed to the students with funding and attention. I would also check the motive of entering into the program as a career move. Let’s face it: there simply are not all that many great academic jobs to be had, and the attainment of those jobs doesn’t exclusively track true philosophical talent. I think concurrent MA/PhD programs that fund their students are a good deal; that way if the grad school thing isn’t what you planned on, at least you can leave with a degree and not debt.

DEREK: Could you say more about how your experience in law school lead to your change in perspective about your philosophical pursuits?

MAX: I don’t think law school has changed my views too much about whether and how deep philosophical pursuits are. Law school and practicing law has given me space from that previous occupation of philosophy. It has made me so busy with very practical questions that seem to crowd out philosophical questions. It makes me even surprised that I used to get up in the morning and go to a coffee shop to go think about the mind-body problem, go to a lecture about knowledge and then go to a different coffee shot to think about the mind-body problem again. Those were good, rich days. But they seem very foreign, like it was the routine of different person; like the me of undergrad is closer than the me of grad school. Law school didn’t change my thoughts about philosophical pursuits because I haven’t thought about them very much!

DEREK: In what ways (if any) would you say philosophy is still a part of your life?

MAX: Philosophy is still a part of my life, but not a large part. The questions that I spent so much time with are not really on my mind anymore. Arguably, philosophy changed me. Perhaps most importantly it helped me develop both my critical, questioning impulse and my humility. I mean, it must have changed me somehow; I did spend six years at it as a grad student!

DEREK: When was the last time you read what you would consider a work of philosophy?  Or,  what was the last philosophical conversation that you had?

The last time I read a REAL work of philosophy was about when I was finishing my dissertation. I do have occasional philosophical discussions with friends, but I can’t say that they get to the levels I had back in grad school with my fellow students. I would like to get back into philosophy someday and even write something. But right now there isn’t the time or mental energy! I may also have burnt myself out a bit from philosophy by having lived it 24-7 for 6 years. I would like to write about philosophy of mind and action theory and how it applies to the proper judgment and assessment of people, their character, and their behavior. I would hope that my time as a criminal defense attorney would give me some interesting insight. It would be very satisfying to write a monogram if in some number of years I ever formulate a coherent enough viewpoint.

Thanks to Max for sharing his views and experience. For more information about careers in public interest law, see Berkeley Law’s Explore Public Interest page and this guide to Careers in Indigent Defense from Harvard Law School. For more information about the mission and history of public defenders in New Mexico, visit the website of the state’s Law Offices of the Public Defender.