This is part two of an earlier post by Tammy Pettinato on opportunities in public interest law and advice on choosing the right law school. If you missed it, take a look at part one.
Choosing the Right Law School
The first step in any public interest attorney’s journey is choosing the right law school. While a law student can pursue a public interest career from virtually any law school in the country, there are some schools that provide extra support and incentives for students choosing this path.
For better or for worse, financial considerations must be taken into account when choosing to become a public interest attorney. As a public interest attorney, you will likely make far less money than attorneys in other fields, but, without proper foresight, will still have the same debt as your corporate law counterparts who make three and even four times as much money.
The good news is that many law schools now offer programs to help alleviate this burden. Several law schools offer loan repayment assistance for students interested in pursuing public interest careers. The level of assistance varies and you should check with each school about what types of employment are covered and to what extent. For example, some schools will help to cover loan payments only for non-profit work while others will also cover low-paying for-profit work that has a public interest focus. Additionally, programs differ in their expectations about and definitions of whether the employment is law-related. The federal government may also offer assistance in loan repayment for qualifying jobs.
Law schools that do not offer loan repayment assistance may offer financial incentives in other ways, such as through scholarships. Additionally, you should look at whether a given law school provides financial assistance to students pursuing public interest work during their summers in law school. Your summer jobs are often extremely important to potential employers as an indicator of your commitment to the field, and for many law students, the availability of financial assistance for summer positions can be the difference between whether or not they can work for a public interest organization over their 1L or 2L summers.
Students should also look at statistics from a given school to determine how many students go into public interest work after graduation. This information can tell you something about the level of both peer and administrative support you can expect for your choice.
Another factor to consider is whether the law school has a staff member dedicated to helping students who are interested in public interest careers. While some smaller schools may not be able to afford a specialist and should not be ruled out on that basis, having a person or even, at some schools, a full office, dedicated to assisting students pursuing public interest careers is an indicator that the law school takes such students seriously.
You should also look at the opportunities to pursue public interest work while in law school. Does your potential law school offer clinics with a public interest bent? Do they have one or more student organizations dedicated to students interested in public interest careers?
Finally, several law schools now offer special programs or certificates particularly constructed for students interested in public interest careers. For example, Georgetown University Law Center has a Public Interest Law Scholars Program which provides special assistance, including scholarships, to students dedicated to a career in public interest. The David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law & Policy at UCLA School of Law and the Public Interest Scholars Program at Western New England College of Law offer similar benefits as do myriad law schools around the country. While no special certificate is needed to practice public interest law, such programs indicate a commitment by the law school to assist students who would like to dedicate their careers to helping others.
There are a number of ways in which a law student can pursue a career in public interest law. Many law students begin early, pursuing public interest positions during their 1L and 2L summers and during the school year. Students who are interested in participating in public service while in law school have a plethora of options. At the University of La Verne College of Law, for example, students can participate in the Disability Rights Clinic or the Justice and Immigration Clinic, where they earn class credit while working with real-life clients under the supervision of an attorney. Many other law schools offer similar clinical experiences, and law clerk positions and externships with local public interest organizations are available across the country, allowing students to gain valuable experience in legal skills such as research and writing, interviewing clients, and analyzing fact patterns, while showing their commitment to public interest law.
Nonetheless, it is a reality of the current economy that many public interest organizations do not have the funding to hire the number of attorneys they need. Fortunately, fellowship opportunities abound, and many recent graduates get their start in public interest law by applying for a year- or two-year fellowship from an external organization, such as the Skadden Fellowship Foundation or Equal Justice Works, willing to fund their position with a public interest organization. Such fellowships often require that a law student has shown their commitment to public interest work via summer positions and other community involvement.
Even if you are not able to land a public interest position or fellowship immediately upon graduation, there are opportunities for you to pursue your passion while working in another field. For example, many major law firms now encourage their associates to do pro bono work, and some even allow time spent on pro bono projects to count towards billable hours. Students working at smaller firms may be able to volunteer with local organizations in their spare time to hone their skills and confirm their commitment to serving their communities.
Even if you find that you need to work for a few years in another field before transitioning to public interest, you should always keep your ultimate goal in mind. Do pro bono work and participate in public interest opportunities available through your firm or local bar association. Remember that even if you are not able to land a public interest position immediately upon graduation, pursuing activities that show your continuing commitment to the field means that once you have a few years of practical experience under your belt, you will be a much more attractive candidate to the public interest organization of your dreams.