Public interest law

Pursuing a legal career in the public interest arena can be a rewarding but challenging path to take.

STUDENTS at law school often arrive in their first year with a surge of enthusiasm to use their legal knowledge for a good cause, and to help bridge the justice gap between wealthy Americans and low-income individuals. However, the reality is that by their third year, many students end up taking the path of least resistance – the path towards BigLaw.

BigLaw does make sense: for students with large debts to pay off, the offer of a job with a prestigious firm is more than tempting. These offers are usually made in September, while an offer from a nonprofit may not arrive until the following March, or later. Students are often put in an extremely difficult situation, to decide between the security of a sizable salary and a job opportunity that may never materialize.

Unfortunately, as in the private sector, the recession means it's not the greatest time to be applying to nonprofits and public interest organizations: giving is generally down in the USA, and funding has been cut, meaning that in-house opportunities are not as prevalent as they were before the economic crisis. To put it simply, many of these organizations do not have the resources to spend on training, internships and fellowships, which form the entry routes into this field of work.

We can't dress it up: pursuing this type of career is difficult and highly competitive, but not impossible. The students who ardently keep on the public interest track tend not to view it as a fall-back option. This is critical, as many public interest employers want to see that a student has a commitment and passion for their cause – a true interest in their mission. This kind of work can't be taken lightly, as it often involves handling people's lives in crisis situations – you could be negotiating child custody for an incarcerated mother, or dealing with people who have had their homes taken away from them. A single-minded focus throughout law school can therefore stand students in good stead with a potential employer.

Get involved from the get-go

While at law school, taking part in legal clinics, joining law clubs which delve into a specific area like family or environment, and pursuing pro bono projects are all essential starting points for a 1L student. Pro bono projects don't have to take up too much time, and can prove a sustained interest in this aspect of law. Using every summer wisely is also a sensible idea. Securing an internship for a nonprofit is tough, but funding opportunities are available, and many law schools will raise money to give grants to students looking to spend their summer in this way – look out for Dean Summer Service Grants, or check to see whether the school injects any money from its endowment funds to finance these summer schemes. Attending careers fairs and regularly checking websites like can also help to get an idea of the scope of available opportunities.

As a 2L, begin to lead fundraising efforts, take more of a leadership role in the campus clinics, and also consider doing an externship with a specific organization. Externships provide students with academic credit during term-time, and can be full or part-time. They're often overseen by a faculty member, and equip students with the experiential learning required to apply for positions post-law school. Some law schools also push 2Ls to apply for any available fellowships, for example those which are facilitated by Skadden and Equal Justice Works. Students first make contact with a nonprofit to develop a project, and then apply for funding through those who advertise the fellowship.

There's a reason why all of this experiential learning is so important. Due to the inability of nonprofits to provide training, it's expected that lawyers who join in-house can hit the ground running. This is not like BigLaw, where you may be tucked away doing doc review or writing up a sophisticated memo for days on end: you have to be on your game to work for a nonprofit. There are often no resources or senior figures to fall back on – you're it, and the organization will expect you to be able to potentially go to court immediately, and handle a high level of responsibility. This does feed into a problem: nonprofits won't hire anyone unless they've passed their Bar exam, which can be difficult for those who are fresh out of law school.

Luckily, some law schools do have some resources to make use of, including 'Bridge Fellowships', which are offered to those who have left law school without a job. These monetary fellowships allow postgrads to take up a position in a nonprofit, pass the Bar, and demonstrate their value to the organization in question, so that they can potentially be first in line should a job opportunity arise. The fellowships also allow nonprofits to be like BigLaw firms, in the sense that they get a chance to sample candidates before making a decision to employ them.

Paying back student debt is another issue to consider, and a prominent reason for law grads to opt for BigLaw. However, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 has made it easier for law students to repay their loans, paving a more viable path towards a career in public interest law. Postgrads can now take out federal guaranteed debt, instead of private debt, meaning that small amounts can be paid back based on income. Law schools also have various repayment programs, and in some cases help to stump up the dollars to pay up to half of a postgrad's monthly debt. A further incentive is federal loan forgiveness, whereby the government writes off any outstanding debt after an individual has worked for a nonprofit for ten years. However, salaries are markedly lower than in private practice, and if your first nonprofit job lands you $60,000 a year, you'll be doing well.

There's no doubt that working in this field is daunting, and the ostensible dearth of opportunities can lead students to remain wary of doing so. Opting for a career as a public interest attorney requires resilience and a pretty high tolerance for what feels like risk, especially when an offer from a BigLaw firm hovers on the horizon. The good news is that if your BigLaw firm is a NALP employer (which they typically are), you can ask them to hold the offer until March, when the offer from a nonprofit may be extended. The law firm isn't obligated to do so, and it also runs the risk of demonstrating that your heart's not set on the private sector, but it is an option nonetheless.

As a general rule, it's probably better to have your heart set on one or the other, and not to try to straddle both, as nonprofits want to see a high level of dedication, just as law firms do. Furthermore, it's a tough road, and you'll be on it for the long haul. It's not all doom and gloom though: you may not be earning a six-figure salary, but many who carve out a career in this field find it to be the most meaningful and intrinsically rewarding way to utilize their expertise and spend their lives.