University Career Center

Tammy Pettinato is Assistant Director of Career Services and Professional Development at the University of La Verne College of Law in Ontario, California. A graduate of Harvard Law School and the University of Michigan School of Information, she also served as a Reference Librarian and Lecturer in Law at UCLA School of Law. While in law school, she worked for several public interest organizations including the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and the Institute for Democracy Studies. Below, Ms. Pettinato provides a nice overview of public interest law. Be sure to check out part two, which focuses on choosing the right law school, and on opportunities in public interest law.

There are few professional fields that offer the practitioner more opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of others than the law. Nor are there many fields in which the need is so great: Studies show that only about 20 percent of those who need it receive adequate legal representation, and the poor are particularly vulnerable. While there are some practice areas to which a large number of lawyers are continuously attracted, the demand for good public interest lawyers continues to exceed the supply. Nonetheless, all lawyers have the ability, and many would say the obligation, to ensure that everyone, regardless of socio-economic status, has access to justice.

Lawyers can fulfill this obligation in a number of ways – one of which is pursuing a career in public interest law. This field can encompass a number of different practice areas, but the common denominator is that lawyers following this career path typically serve those who are traditionally underrepresented in the legal system. Examples of public interest legal jobs include:

  • Assisting low-income clients at a legal aid clinic
  • Providing representation to immigrants seeking asylum in the United States
  • Advocating for legal and policy change on behalf of underrepresented groups such as children or the disabled.

Pro Bono Duties

Other lawyers fulfill their obligation to ensure equal access to justice by providing free legal services, known as “pro bono” services, to clients outside of their regular legal employment. These lawyers recognize that no matter what area of law they have chosen to practice, they have a professional duty to volunteer their time and expertise when they can to people who may not otherwise be able to afford representation.

In fact, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rules state, “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”

Starting Early

Many aspiring attorneys begin fulfilling these professional obligations while still in law school. The ABA now requires law schools to offer law students ample public interest opportunities, and law students across the country are now actively engaged in making sure that our justice system works for everyone. According to August Farnsworth, Assistant Dean of Career Services and Professional Development at the University of La Verne College of Law in Ontario, California:

Working for a public interest organization during law school is a great way for students to give back to their communities. Attorneys have a professional responsibility to help those in need, and it’s important to instill this value from the very first day of law school.

But the opportunity to help others isn’t the only benefit for law students, says Farnsworth:

Performing public interest work during law school gives students the chance to hone their legal skills, build their resumes, and explore a variety of practice areas to which they might not otherwise be exposed. Students can gain experience in, for example, research, writing, and advocacy, which are the kinds of skills that all employers value, whether they operate in the public or private sector.

Check out part two of this series, where Ms. Pettinato focuses on choosing the right law school, and on opportunities in public interest law…