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Starting a Career in Public Interest Law: Passion, Commitment and a Desire to Serve

Public Interest

“So, why’d you go to law school?” Oftentimes, the answer to this question is “to make a difference” or “to promote justice.” Every year, scores of people are led to law school by a desire to make a difference in the world and to give back to their communities. However, once in law school, these same individuals are often perplexed as to how to actually make a public interest career a reality.

While the path to law firm careers seems to be paved and well marked, the road to public interest careers is a more complex terrain. Take, for example, on-campus interviews. For every one public interest employer, there are likely to be 10 or more big law firms recruiting, and the public interest employers who do come to campus are usually government agencies.

Public interest law describes the use of law by nonprofit organizations, law firms, or government agencies to provide legal representation to people, groups, or interests that are historically underrepresented in the legal system. There are many different areas of public interest law, although some practice areas traditionally fall under the public interest law umbrella, such as animal welfare, consumer rights, civil liberties, legal services to the poor, housing law, GLBT rights, prisoner rights, and immigration law reform, just to name a few.

Law students interested in public interest law will quickly discover the terms public interest law and public service law are often used interchangeably. However, generally speaking, public interest law tends to refer to the use of law to provide legal representation to historically underrepresented people, groups, or interests, while public service law refers to all legal careers with government agencies. Even defined this way, there is some overlap between the two terms, as there are opportunities with some government agencies for legal work that provides public interest representation.

Add to this the concept of pro bono work, which describes legal services provided by an attorney without charging a fee or at a significantly reduced charge. Even if a client does not have to pay for the legal services provided, the legal work is generally not considered to be done pro bono if an organization, agency, or firm pays the attorney a salary or other compensation for the work. Thus, public interest lawyers sometimes offer pro bono services, but public interest is not synonymous with pro bono.

Law students wanting to pursue their public interest dreams quickly start asking: “Where are the jobs?,” “How do I get those jobs,” and “What are the realities of these jobs and the job hunt that goes with them.” Here is the information you need to launch a successful public interest job search and the realities of a public interest career.

Public Interest Careers Are Not a Default

Some law students may view public interest as a default to fall back on when and if a law firm job doesn’t materialize. This is a mistake. No employer wants to be thought of as anyone’s “Plan B” and the reality is that in today’s market, no employer has to. Public interest positions are competitive and employers are looking for people who have outstanding legal talent as well as a commitment to their work. That said, there is room for students who discovered their passion for public interest law only after starting law school. The key is demonstrating that passion. To do this, you need the right tools and experiences and you need to know what you are getting into.

If you aren’t 100 percent committed, consider a job shadow. You will quickly get a sense of the daily life of a public interest lawyer. You may spend a considerable time interviewing clients. You may spend the day in court. If you shadow an attorney in a policy/advocacy organization, you may have very little client contact and no court time but may be involved in lobbying or raising public awareness. A job shadow will not only help you decide if a public interest career is for you, but it also will help you narrow your interests so that you can more effectively target employers.

If you can’t arrange a job shadow, learn everything you can about the work life of a public interest lawyer. For example, spend some time on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website and you will quickly discover that they work in the areas of at-risk children, hate and extremism, immigrant justice, teaching tolerance, and GLBT rights. Further research will show you what kinds of things they do each day: track extremist groups (research), initiate litigation (litigating), advocate for systemic reform (lobby government entities), and provide educators with resources (public, educational outreach). Public interest employers often do not have the resources to devote to creation of an employee pipeline nor do they have a need for a pipeline. Much of the groundwork for your job search will be on your shoulders.

Prepare Now for Your Career

Your next stop should be your law school career services office. Bring along a list of the courses you have taken as well as your current résumé. You need a career counselor who is knowledgeable about public interest job searches and who can help you tailor a résumé specifically for public interest employers. What exactly are public interest employers looking for? Of course, the traditional measures of law school achievement are attractive to any employer. In addition, you’ll want to highlight coursework that shows your ability to negotiate, to communicate with diverse groups, and, for many positions, to litigate.

If you currently don’t have experience to put on your résumé, make every effort to get some while you are still in law school. Volunteer to gain experience and, maybe more importantly, to establish connections in the public interest community. Ideally, your volunteer work should be legal in nature. However, be flexible. While gaining legal skills is important, you also need to find out if you fit into that environment and are ready for the realities of the job. You may discover you love a work environment that allows you to visit clients at home, in prison, in the hospital, or in other locations. Or you may discover that these situations are not compatible with your work style. The time to find out is now. If you are having a hard time fitting volunteer work into your schedule, talk to your law school about an externship where you can volunteer for academic credit. Externships are outstanding ways to “try on” an employer or career and can frequently turn into post-graduation opportunities.

Understand the Financial Realities

Public interest jobs typically pay less than private sector positions and, thus, it is crucial for students in public interest careers to manage their debt and start researching debt forgiveness. This article does a good job of laying out the costs and benefits of public service vs. private practice. Talk with your school’s financial aid office to realistically evaluate the amount of educational debt you will accumulate and the monthly payment requirements. According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Loan Repayment and Forgiveness, the average debt for private law school graduates in 2010 was $106,249, while entry-level public interest salaries hovered around $40,000 (see Lifting the Burden: Law Student Debt as a Barrier to Public Service, The Final Report of the ABA Commission on Loan Repayment and Forgiveness). Evaluate your lifestyle and consumer habits now to make sure you are, indeed, doing everything you can to minimize your debt. Equal Justice Works, a national organization that provides support and guidance to students pursuing careers in public interest law, has a number of resources and a lot of good advice as to how students can better manage their debt.

Start learning about debt relief as soon as possible. First, explore loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs). These programs, available from law schools, employers, state and/or federal government agencies, can pay off a portion of the monthly loan payments of attorneys practicing in public interest jobs. Next, educate yourself as to income-based repayment programs that base your repayment schedule on your salary. Finally, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), established by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, is a truly significant breakthrough for public interest lawyers. In a nutshell, if you make 120 qualifying loan payments on eligible Federal Direct loans while working full-time in a qualifying public service position, the federal government will forgive the balance remaining on those loans. There are other requirements that must be met before qualifying for forgiveness, so make sure you are taking the right steps now to ensure forgiveness is in your future.

A Different Kind of Job Search

You know you want a public interest career, you’ve got your résumé ready to go, and you know how you’re going to make the numbers work. Now, you need to find out where these employers are and how they hire. On-campus interview “season” will not be your main source of interviews and your job search will not be confined to a single season. Public interest employers hire throughout the year and in many different ways.

Job fairs. Every job searcher should be aware of PSLawNet (updated 1/19/2017 – now e of the best online resources for public interest legal careers. Talk with your career services office to see if your law school is a member. Even if you don’t have full access to PSLawNet, take advantage of the career fair listings that are available on their website. This list provides a rundown of public interest career fairs across the country as well as information about participation eligibility. In addition, don’t miss the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair. This career fair, which is the largest in the country, brings together more than 1,000 public interest law students from 200 law schools all under one roof for interviews, skill-building, career advising sessions, and networking with public interest employers from across the country.

Job postings. Member schools and their students can access public interest legal job postings at PSLawNet. Job listings can also be found on the National Legal Aid and Defender Association’s website as well as Idealist, a resource for finding job opportunities in public interest law and other nonprofit fields around the world. If your school uses Symplicity, set an alert for all new public interest job postings.

Legal fellowships. There are a number of public interest law postgraduate fellowship programs that provide a partial or full salary for recent law school graduates entering a public interest career. Postgraduate public interest fellowships allow recent graduates to secure entry-level positions with nonprofit organizations, government entities, and educational institutions. A small number of law firms offer public interest fellowships as well.

The benefits of a fellowship are numerous. Obviously, fellows have the chance to use their legal skills to effect positive change for disadvantaged populations and/or society in general. They generally receive top-rate training and supervision as well as a “foot in the door” of the public interest community. Many organizations use fellowships as a point of entry to continued employment. Additionally, fellowships are competitive and provide an impressive credential to future employers. Well-known fellowships are offered by Equal Justice Works and the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. However, these are just the tip of the iceberg. A comprehensive list of post-graduate fellowships can be found on the PSLawNet website.

Network. Take advantage of meet-and-greet type events held by the student-run public interest law group at your law school. Attend these events and take the time to really talk to the attorneys in attendance about their jobs, their day-to-day work, their work/life balance, and what they love (and hate) about their jobs. Do not view these events as “not worth it” simply because the employers aren’t actively hiring. If you want to become a part of the public interest legal community, you have to become a part of the public interest legal community. You must get to know the individuals who work in that community and the nature of their work. You need to make yourself known as an ally in spirit and in effort. Show an interest in the work and ask how you can help. Offer to volunteer, even if only on a limited basis. Most employers prefer to hire someone who is known to them, whose work they value, and whom they trust. You have to put yourself out there and become that person. Even if that employer cannot hire you, your efforts will demonstrate your commitment and garner some outstanding references while building your support network.

A public interest legal career can be truly rewarding and is certainly within your reach. Like every job search, it takes effort and planning. The unique aspect is that your employer will be evaluating your commitment to the work you’ll be doing in addition to your academic credentials. The steps you take to further your job search will help show that commitment. The passion is up to you.


Vol. 40 No. 7