Public Interest Practice
The American Bar Association (ABA) defines public interest law as work on behalf of individuals or causes that might otherwise lack effective representation within the legal system. Most definitions of public interest law encompass government practice and cut across political ideologies. The key is that the work is performed for constituencies or issues that are not typically served by the for-profit bar.
Most public interest legal work is performed in either non-profit, small "public interest" law firms or government settings. However, many private sector lawyers undertake public interest work through pro bono representation. Substantively, most public interest lawyering is broadly categorized as either direct representation (litigation) or policy/advisory. Many organizations engage in both.
The key to finding public interest employment after graduation is early planning. The public interest legal market is substantially different from the private sector market, and in many ways more competitive. Private and public interest employers have separate hiring timelines and value different types of experiences and skills. In addition, the public interest legal market offers fewer overall opportunities to graduating law students. But do not be discouraged! If you understand the public interest legal market and approach your job search with a realistic plan, you are very likely to find satisfying work. Early planning is critical because public interest employers seek, first and foremost, candidates who demonstrate a commitment to their issues. Though some employers also value academic achievement, virtually all of them place much greater weight on experience and dedication to public interest causes. The more experience you have, the more competitive you will be. No singular formula or program governs the hiring process.
Many public interest organizations, unfortunately, do not routinely hire permanent, entry-level attorneys. However, they do often sponsor post-graduate fellowships. Fellowships are short-term positions (usually one or two years) designed to give new law graduates experience in their fields of interest. Hundreds of fellowships are offered each year, and collectively, they are among the best ways to enter into the public interest legal market. All students with public interest career aspirations should seriously consider them. To learn more, pick up Post-Graduate Public Interest Fellowship Manuals I and II in Office of Public Interest and Community Service (OPICS).
These organizations represent clients in legal proceedings. Typical practice areas include family law, public benefits, consumer law, civil rights, environmental law, housing, asylum and refugee law, homelessness and criminal defense and prosecution.
Examples include the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, the San Francisco Legal Assistance Foundation, the Legal Aid Society, Earth Justice, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Public Defender Service and the New York County District Attorney's Office.
Many public interest organizations, particularly non-profits, engage in work intended to effect systemic change in legal or political arenas. One vehicle for doing so is class action or impact litigation. Examples of organizations that frequently engage in this type of litigation are the ACLU, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Public Citizen Litigation Group. Other policy-oriented organizations focus primarily on strategies other than litigation. They may utilize community education, organizing, research, lobbying, policy analysis or amicus brief writing to meet their objectives. Examples include Children's Defense Fund, Congress Watch, Sierra Club and Human Rights Watch.
Many government agencies also engage in policy or legislative work, and most have large numbers of attorney-advisers on staff that provide advice and guidance to their own and other agencies, the public or policy-making officials (e.g., Members of Congress).
Finally, many policy-oriented public interest and government organizations provide technical assistance to other organizations. They act as clearinghouses on current developments in their areas of expertise and coordinate advocacy efforts. Examples include the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Death Penalty Information Center and the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law.