Defining Public Interest Law

Today’s guest post was written by Nita Mazumder. Nita is a program manager of law school relations at Equal Justice Works.  She is responsible for cultivating and maintaining relationships with law school professionals and student groups as well as serving as the main point of contact for the organization’s National Advisory Committee. Nita previously worked for Georgetown University Law Center and has practiced in both the private and public sectors.

Public interest law is defined as anything affecting the well-being, the rights, health, or finances of the public at large, most commonly advocating for those living in poverty or marginalized populations. While it can be tireless work, and the financial rewards are not great, on campuses across the country, the desire to “give back” is growing.

According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the percentage of new lawyers entering public interest careers is growing; in 2010, nearly seven percent of new attorneys entered public service, up from just two percent in 1990.

There are many reasons to pursue a career in public interest law: dedication to a cause; the ability to make a difference; or the desire to take on significant responsibility early on in your career. Public interest careers encompass a wide array of practice areas, ranging from litigation and class action work, to policy, legislation and community organizing.  You could work at a direct legal service provider such as Legal Aid helping indigent individuals or focus on impact litigation that affects a large number of people.  You could work for a non-profit organization, an international non-governmental organization (NGO or a public interest law firm.  Other options include working for the federal, state or local government, as well as in public defender or prosecutor offices. Public interest attorneys work in many areas of law that, according to a recent report by NALP, will continue to grow in the near future, including issue areas such as immigration, healthcare, education, elder law, energy, veterans’ rights, and housing law.

Regardless of the category of work, public interest positions are coveted opportunities that require dedication and skill.  Because public interest organizations often do not have the resources to train new attorneys, employers in this field value critical practical experience and students should gain as much professional skills training while in school.   If you are interested in pursuing public interest in law school, try interning for a summer at a legal aid office or public interest law firm – working with low-income clients can give you a better sense of what their needs are and how a legal degree can better help you advocate on their behalf.  Take classes focused on social justice and history to gain a better understanding of the injustices and inequalities that have plagued our country in the past.  Other undergraduate classes that may be helpful include criminal justice, political science or classes that focus on enhancing logic and writing skills.  It is also useful for any career path to consider taking public speaking or debate so you can more effectively articulate and advocate for your cause or client.   It is also beneficial to learn a foreign language.  Being proficient in a foreign language is appealing to most public interest employers who deal with non-English speaking populations. . Leadership positions in organizations, student or otherwise, involvement in community activism, and volunteer activities are often also appealing to potential employers.

During law school focus on getting practical experiences such as filing and writing motions, courtroom experience and client interaction.  This can be accomplished through clinic work, a summer internship, an externship during the semester, volunteering at a public interest organization, or a fellowship for law students such as Equal Justice Works’ Summer Corps program.  While in law school, try to take coursework in trial advocacy and public interest related classes as well as participate in advocacy competitions and become a member of a relevant student public interest organization. Law school affords the perfect opportunity to explore different practice settings and issue areas that may interest you.

At Equal Justice Works, we believe that the poorest and most vulnerable among us deserve the same access to justice and quality legal representation as the more fortunate.  Our programs provide training and opportunities that enable law students and attorneys to provide effective and needed services in underserved communities across the country.  Programs like AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and the Peace Corps are examples of service programs that help underserved communities and offer opportunities to work in the public service sector and discover what you may be passionate about prior going to graduate school.

We are committed to expanding public interest law opportunities for students and lawyers, and accomplish this by helping law schools establish and strengthen their public interest law programming and curricula; informing pre-law students about a law school’s public interest program through our Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools; and providing public service work experience, professional development and training (through webinars, workshops, conference and career fairs) for students and lawyers.  Through outreach and advocacy, we also work to reduce the educational debt barriers to public service careers.

To learn more about public interest law and the programs and services Equal Justice Works provides, visit