BY PROFESSOR RUSSELL ENGLER
You want to help people, and you want to use the law to do it. Public interest law might be the perfect career path for you. But how do you become a public interest lawyer, exactly? Keep reading for an expert introduction to this rewarding legal specialty, plus an outline of what this career path entails.
There is a reason why public interest lawyers are among the happiest in the legal profession: they use their legal skills to fight for important causes and on behalf of marginalized clients who otherwise have little hope of getting a fighting chance in our legal system.
With research shows that a happy life as a lawyer involves work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful, and focused on helping others, it is no surprise that public interest lawyers find such satisfaction in their legal careers.
If this sounds like the right career path for you, you’ll find everything you need to know about how to become a public interest lawyer below.
What is public interest law, anyway?
First things first: public interest law is an extremely broad topic with no single definition or practice setting. Often, it involves work on behalf of poor individuals and families with legal problems. This might pertain to criminal matters (through public defender offices) or to civil matters (most commonly through civil legal aid offices).
Public interest law also frequently supports civil rights and social justice causes. You’ll find public interest lawyers working with the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Resources Defense Council, and many other nonprofit organizations dedicated to furthering these legal issues.
Last, but certainly not least, public interest lawyer can also work in government, whether in prosecutors’ offices at both the state and federal level, or in government agencies, including attorney generals’ offices. The work can focus on domestic issues but also international ones, including human rights.
In short, the opportunities in public interest law are particularly diverse amongst legal specialties—and virtually endless.
Related: Why I Chose to Study Public Interest Law
What do public interest lawyers do?
Public interest lawyers practice in a rich variety of areas. Pick almost any issue in the news, and any area where people struggle, and you’ll find public interest lawyers working tirelessly on their behalf.
For example, public interest lawyers work on a wide array of civil rights matters, including on issues involving discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; gender issues; the rights of disabled people, whether involving physical or mental disabilities; or issues involving human rights abuses. Public interest lawyers also represent people facing eviction and homelessness, fighting for fair wages or to receive government benefits, and struggling with workplace issues. Survivors of domestic violence, people with family law or immigration issues, and people facing criminal proceedings (on probation or currently incarcerated) turn to public interest lawyers for assistance as well.
Both inside and outside the government, public interest lawyers work on environmental issues, predatory lending issues, debt collection issues and many more. Their work can include litigation in the courts, practice inside or before government agencies, efforts to shape legislation and agency rules, and the production of reports and documents designed to push for reform.
Pick almost any issue in the news, and any area where people struggle, and you’ll find public interest lawyers working tirelessly on their behalf.
Real talk: how much do public interest lawyers make?
If you’re interested in studying the law solely to get rich, you probably should not become a public interest lawyer. However, again, job satisfaction studies show that affluence and prestige play a much smaller role in leading a happy life as a lawyer, compared to working on interesting, engaging, and important matters—which is exactly what public interest lawyers do, day in and day out.
Of course, the rent needs to be paid, and it’s important to understand that there is a range of salaries for public interest lawyers, depending on the work setting and location. Payscale.com, as just one datapoint, has public interest lawyers’ salaries clocking in from $47,000 to $103,000, based on national averages.
It’s also helpful to remember that there are non-monetary benefits, such as flexible work environments (which can lead to cost savings for childcare, for example). These benefits are often superior in public interest and government settings. Loan forgiveness options are more readily available for public interest lawyers as well.
Moreover, you may not spend your entire career in public interest law. Many happy lawyers start in public interest law, gain important and valuable training, and move into the private sector. From there, they may continue to work on the public interest issues that matter to them on a volunteer basis, through pro bono opportunities, bar association committees, and in many other ways.
How to study public interest law
Like any legal specialty, studying public interest law comprises focused legal course work and experiential learning opportunities. Whether you’re still on the fence about law school or you’re already enrolled, if you’re thinking about becoming a public interest lawyer, it’s helpful to preview this educational path to get a sense of what it entails.
Start by looking at a law school’s clinical and externship offerings. Most of these opportunities allow you to combine outstanding legal training and public service while receiving academic credit.
Law students can also obtain paid and unpaid internships over the summer and during the school year in varied public interest law settings. Students studying public interest law at New England Law | Boston, for example, have interned at Greater Boston Legal Services, Volunteer Lawyers Project of Boston, and many district attorney’s offices.
As an undergraduate Stacie Pavao ’18 “fell in love with the public interest aspect of government work and the larger societal impact it had” after doing an internship at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office in the Charities Division. She decided to pursue this passion in law school, where she ultimately interned for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue in the Litigation Bureau and Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, among other roles. “I enjoy the unique challenges every day brings, while also gaining the invaluable practical courtroom experience,” Pavao says.
Related: Learn more about studying public interest law
Law students can gain exposure to public interest law through their school’s pro bono offerings as well. Demonstrating the importance of this work, some law schools even have a mandatory pro bono requirement to be sure students take advantage of these opportunities and gain experience in public interest law.
And, of course, these experiential learning opportunities are bolstered by courses related to public interest law. To list just a handful of examples: Business Compliance and Human Rights, Children and the Law, Environmental Law, Housing Discrimination Law, Indigenous Peoples' Rights, Mental Health Law, Nonprofit Organizations, Sexual Violence and Law Reform, and Special Education Law—among many others.
If you aren’t quite ready for law school, you can still get a taste of public interest law in many ways. Most public interest organizations and government offices employ non-lawyers (on both a paid and unpaid basis) to support their lawyers. These non-lawyers can serve as paralegals, investigators, data collectors, and in a host of other ways that provide an important service and allow you to learn more about public interest law.
Not surprisingly, people with public interest law experience tend to hit the ground running in law school and in practice. They also often easily parlay their experiences into post-graduate jobs—and fulfilling jobs at that.
Russell Engler is a Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs at New England Law | Boston. He also serves as the advisor for the school’s Public Interest Law Concentration.