Public Interest Law, Explained

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Public interest law happens all over the place. From giant law firms, to charities, to government organizations, to NGOs all over the world. Public interest attorneys fight for death row inmates, research animals, victims of domestic violence, asylum seekers, gun rights, gun control, women’s issues, religious issues, and much more. Basically, it seems like it’s really easy to find something you’re interested in and then do it for the public interest.

Most of the public interest minded folks at law school seem to have had their minds set on a particular practice area before they got to law school. However, there are plenty of other people who are looking forward to doing just a bit of pro bono public interest work in their private practice. Many firms treat pro bono hours just like billable hours; or at least they say they do. So if you’re on the fence, you probably should try to go to a law firm first and then make your exit to a public interest position. It’s much harder to go from a public interest job to a law firm job.

You might wonder how it’s possible to pursue a public interest career with massive, and ever-growing law school tuition. The good news is that many law schools will slowly forgive your loans if you’re working at a covered public interest job (see for example Columbia’s generous LRAP). There are also federal income-based repayment plans that you would likely qualify for. Certain schools with a strong commitment to public interest law will also make generous scholarships available to applicants with significant experience and demonstrated desire to work in the public interest (see for example the UW School of Law Gates Scholar program). The catch is that public interest salaries tend to be much smaller than you’d find in private practice, especially at a big firm. However, depending on the job, your total hours and the control you have over when (say, Monday to Friday) and where (say, at home on the weekends) you work those hours may be enticing.

If you get to law school and you have no idea about what you want to do, you’ll have your first summer to explore a bit. For most, a first-summer law firm job is highly unlikely, so most students take on public interest work in an area that sounds interesting. Jobs are plentiful during your first summer, because most places love getting some free labor. You can also likely land a similar gig during the school year. Your school will even have public interest opportunities you can do for credit—these are usually called “clinics” or “externships.” You may also have to fulfill a pro bono requirement before you graduate. So there’ll be plenty of opportunities for you to explore vast the are of public interest law.

As a side note, public interest hiring tends to happen later into your second year of law school, or even during your third year. So you’ll be nervous for a little longer than your private sector friends who were fortunate enough to snag jobs at end of their first summer. But generally, schools seem to be very supportive, both at the student body and the administration levels. Moreover, if you do spend your second summer at a firm, the firm will be required to keep your offer open for a much longer period of time if you’re still considering public sector options.

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