In keeping with its historical role as a law school founded to educate African-Americans, an important aspect of the Law School’s mission is to attract capable persons from diverse backgrounds who are committed to public service and to meeting the needs of people and communities that are underserved by or that are under-represented in the legal profession.
Public Interest law is broadly defined as an area of law encompassing the legal representation of people, groups, or interests that are historically underrepresented in the legal system.
Public Interest law includes a huge range of issues:
civil rights, women ’s rights, children, immigration issues, workers rights, employment law, consumer rights, poverty issues, gay, lesbian, bisexual and
transgender rights, environmental law, prisoner rights, human rights, the death penalty, AIDS, gun control and more. Public Interest lawyers work on every conceivable issue. There are as many areas as there are CAUSES.
The type of work done by public interest lawyers is also broad and includes activities such as litigation, appellate work, transactional work, class action, policy, lobbying, legislation, community organizing and more.
With so many issue areas, you can imagine there are many different practice settings. However, public interest jobs can be grouped into several main areas:
- non-profit organizations
- international non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
- legal services organizations
- public interest law firms
- government organizations on the federal, state, and local levels
Why Public Interest?
- Variety of practice areas
- Dedication to a cause
- Personal job satisfaction
- Ability to make a difference
- Significant responsibility
- Develop practice skills
- Work/life balance
Public Interest v. Pro Bono
Public service law is often confused with pro bono work. Public service law is an entire field of representation by attorneys who are full-time paid employees of an organization. Pro bono work is volunteer legal work performed by attorneys in any field to serve the public interest. All pro bono work is done in the public interest, however not all public service work is done on a pro bono basis.
Where do you start?
You have some initial decisions to make:
- What type of cause interests you?
- What kind of work do you like to do?
- Where you would like to live?
Sometimes one decision dictates the other. Sometimes living expenses play a role. Once you spend some time thinking about these issues, you should be ready to gather information about employers and start identifying opportunities that will work for you.
What are your options?
- Summer internship
- Post-grad Fellowship
- Full-time position
What are employers looking for?
The most common thing that public interest employers are looking for is a commitment to public service. So if you intend to pursue a career in public interest, it’s important that during law school you gain some experience, whether that be working during the summer, or volunteering for a non-profit organization.
Law school provides the perfect opportunity to explore different practice settings and different issue areas that may interest you. Because public interest graduates are often given tremendous responsibility in their first jobs, clinical experience is also beneficial.
Other than that, there is no real roadmap for students to follow, and the skills that employers are looking for will vary. Employers who do complex litigation will look for experience in doing sophisticated research and writing, and may prefer journal experience. Employers who do community organizing or direct client work may prefer students who have interviewing skills, or client contact, either through student pro bono organizations, moot court, clinics, or other experiences.
The good news is you have three years of law school and two summers to develop your skills and build your resume.
- Application process begins December 1 for summer internships
- Opportunity to explore different areas
- Offers typically extended in February and later
- Application process begins early fall for summer internships
- Opportunities will continue into January and February
- Hiring decisions begin in February and later
Public interest jobs do not pay as much as large private sector law firms. Salaries for entry-level public interest positions typically range from approximately $35,000 to $55,000 per year, depending on the employer and location, with salaries highest in the northeast and California.
The median salary for all public interest jobs is $42,000.
Loan repayment Programs
Many students have borrowed money to pay for their legal education. This debt combined with lower paying salaries can sometimes make it difficult to
fund a public interest career. But there are loan repayment and loan forgiveness programs to help law school graduates pursue public interest careers.
These Loan Repayment Assistance Programs, or LRAPs as they are called, are programs that provide funds to qualifying public service attorneys to help them repay educational debt. Each program has its own requirements for eligibility. LRAPs are administered by different entities including state and federal government, state bar associations, and some law schools.
A Federal Program to look at is:
- The Higher Education Opportunity Act (2008)
There is also a State Program:
- The North Carolina Legal Education Assistance Program (NC LEAF)
- Career Services Office
- Equal Justice Works
- Idealist (Action without Borders)
- Nonprofit Oyster
- Non-Traditional Legal Careers Report
- National Lawyers Guild
- Trial Lawyers for Public Justice
- National Legal Aid & Defender Association
- Legal Aid of North Carolina, Inc.
- North Carolina Advocates for Justice