Public interest attorneys dedicate their careers to furthering a particular cause or to helping a specific segment of the population, usually one whose members have historically been disadvantaged or underrepresented. "[Public interest attorneys] share a desire to help people and a desire to use the law as a way of social change," explains Legal Services of Northern California attorney Stephen Goldberg '94. Public interest legal work consists of three major activities, which often overlap: providing direct services to clients, conducting impact litigation, and lobbying. Some examples of public interest legal work are helping an immigrant client petition the government for citizenship, providing representation for a victim of domestic violence, contesting a ruling by the Social Security Administration on behalf of an elderly client, bringing a class action lawsuit in order to set desirable legal precedent, working to raise awareness of civil rights violations, or lobbying against the death penalty. Public interest attorneys tend to work for organizations that are either policy-oriented or client-oriented, although some public interest organizations do not fit neatly into either category.
Policy-oriented organizations are dedicated to furthering specific causes or goals. They focus their work on lobbying and/or impact litigation. That is, they advocate for legislative action that will help them fulfill their mission and they undertake representation with the goal of creating new legal policies that will affect a large number of people. They may also engage in grassroots efforts and community outreach and education as part of their work. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund are all examples of well-known policy-oriented organizations. Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm committed to alleviating the causes of poverty and racial discrimination, is a local example of a policy-oriented organization.
Client-oriented organizations, on the other hand, often provide direct legal services for free or at a reduced cost to individuals who in many cases would not otherwise have the means to pay. Some of these organizations handle a wide range of issues (family, health, housing, and Social Security being among the most common), while others focus on only one or two areas of law (for example, immigration, domestic violence, or bankruptcy). Some also serve particular populations, such as veterans or disabled people. Attorneys at client-oriented organizations generally work closely with their clients, concentrating on their individual cases rather than on changing policy or shaping the law. Legal Services of Northern California and the Children's Law Center of California are both examples of client-oriented public interest organizations in the Sacramento area.
Public interest attorneys' daily activities vary greatly depending on the organization they work for and the types of issues they handle. Attorneys at policy-oriented organizations generally engage in lobbying, impact litigation, and other activities that raise the public's awareness of certain causes, while those at client-oriented organizations often spend their time counseling clients, drafting pleadings, and appearing in court. "In a nonprofit, you have to be more of a 'Jack of all trades' because you're not only doing legal work, you're also giving speeches, doing [opinion editorials], appearing on television, talking to reporters, and going to fundraisers," says Meriem Hubbard '91, an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation. "You have a broader range of activities."
Public interest attorneys face a number of challenges unique to their practice. First, they must be able to handle many cases at once and use creativity to provide excellent representation for their clients without the same resources that are available to attorneys at private firms. Second, public interest attorneys often handle cases that involve emotionally difficult situations. They must be able to represent their clients effectively without experiencing emotional burn out. Third, public interest attorneys often earn significantly less than their counterparts in private practice. To most public interest attorneys, the lack of billable hours and the psychological rewards of their work more than make up for its economic deficiencies. Because the sense of fulfillment that comes from public interest work is the main reason that these attorneys are willing to accept lower salaries, it is important that they are committed to public service and passionate about the causes and people they help. Fortunately, there are also programs—including McGeorge's Loan Repayment Assistance Program and the Federal Loan Forgiveness Pro
gram—that can help ease the burden of law school debt for attorneys who work at non-profit organizations and government agencies.
Despite the strong demand for public interest legal work, the job market for public interest attorneys is among the most competitive. This is because public interest organizations want to hire only committed, high-quality attorneys and usually do not have the resources to maintain large staffs. Since public interest organizations tend to rely on grants and other outside sources of funding to support their services, often they must wait for grant awards or donations to come through before they can hire a new staff member. Thus, timing is key when applying for public interest jobs. Applicants may want to check back periodically with organizations they have applied to in the past to find out if those organizations are able to fund a new position. Few organizations accept applications for summer internships in the fall; most wait until the spring, or even early summer.
Because public interest attorneys often help diverse clients with a wide variety of issues, students who want to practice public interest law should expose themselves to many different areas of law in law school. However, students should not be afraid to focus their schedule on courses and experiences that are relevant to their particular interests.
Breadth and Depth
McGeorge's Field Placement Program allows you to earn law school credit while performing supervised legal work as an extern at nearly 100 approved government agencies, courts or non-profit entities. Visit the Field Placement office on TWEN to learn about our Externship Programs or to schedule an appointment.
Clinics offer faculty-supervised, law office settings in a variety of legal practice areas. Go to the McGeorge Legal Clinics' web pages for the current list of clinics.
Public interest employers value practical skills and look for candidates with a demonstrated interest in public service. Therefore, it is helpful for students who are attracted to public interest work to hone their counseling, research, and writing skills and to join community service organizations.
Skills often found in public interest attorneys:
Public interest employers who serve a particular cause or segment of the population often look for evidence that job applicants are dedicated to that purpose. Public interest externships and clinical programs are another good way for students to tailor their experiences to a career in public interest law.
After law school, post-graduate fellowships can provide funding for recent graduates to fill entry-level positions in public interest organizations that otherwise could not afford to hire them. A post-graduate fellowship is a great option for law school graduates who know they want to practice public interest law but are unsure how to fund those learning-intensive first years of practice. Fellowship deadlines are often early in the year, so plan accordingly. The Career Development Office has an annually-updated book of fellowships in its library, and offers a fellowship information session in the spring.
While the largest non-profit organizations tend to be located in major cities (for example, Amnesty International USA has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Atlanta; and Boston), there are other opportunities to practice public interest law in virtually any locale.
Some public interest attorneys work abroad—usually for non-profit organizations that focus on international human rights issues—while others work at legal aid clinics, courthouses, government programs, and public interest-oriented private firms across the country.
Some types of public interest law firms:
Public interest clients can be individuals who are often indigent or underrepresented. They can also be public and private organizations that use advocacy and education to produce social change, or governments, which may use public interest organizations to serve their communities.