University Career Center

At Equal Justice Works, we know that there are misperceptions that can deter students from pursuing a career in public service. We hope to dispel some of these myths and relay the realities, both positive and negative, about entering public service.

The myths:

1)    Because of your student loans, you cannot afford to work in public service.

As these jobs are typically lower paying, public interest employers are often sensitive to the difficulties their employees have repaying educational loans, both for undergraduate and graduate school.  Many government agencies and nonprofit institutions offer loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) that help employees make monthly loan payments.  Because the availability and exact provisions of these programs vary, when speaking with a potential employer, ask if they offer an LRAP as well as what are the requirements for their program.  It is important to make sure that an employer’s LRAP does not conflict with any other loan repayment assistance options you might be eligible for and to be aware that employer LRAPs almost always count as taxable income. Not all public interest employers have the resources to provide LRAPs, but they may provide information on other assistance programs for which their employees qualify. For example, employers of poverty lawyers in D.C. can petition to be eligible for the D.C. Bar Foundation’s LRAP.

The Federal Government also offers additional assistance to those entering into public service.  Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) and Income-Based repayment (IBR) are two options available for borrowers with eligible federal direct loans. To learn more about educational debt relief visit Equal Justice Works’ website or send an email to debtrelief@equaljusticeworks.org.

2)    People working in public interest could not land any other job.

Public interest jobs are often incorrectly perceived as employment options for those unable to land a financially lucrative position. But as the economy continues to struggle and the job market remains stagnant, many students are looking to enter into public service.  According to a New York Times article, 16 percent more young college graduates worked for the Federal Government in 2009 than the previous year and 11 percent more for nonprofit groups.  Federally funded public service programs have also seen a drastic increase as applications for Teach for America jumped by 32 percent last year and applications for AmeriCorps positions tripled from 2008 to 2010. Competition for these positions continues as federal budgets are slashed, forcing programs to cut positions, resulting in the best qualified and most dedicated candidates being selected.

3)    You cannot get a public service job right out of school.

Although not all positions may be paid, there are many ways to gain valuable experience and become familiar with nonprofit organizations or government agencies that may ultimately lead to a paying position. During school try to get as much practical learning experience by getting involved at public service organizations.  Volunteer to get your foot in the door, take internships that deal with issues that interest you and look for summer opportunities. With recent budget cuts, many organizations are looking for additional help – look at idealist.org for open positions or organizations looking for assistance.  Inquire about volunteering for local pro bono legal providers (legal aid societies or other nonprofits that offer direct legal services) as well as public defender offices.  Working or volunteering in these settings is essential for those considering law school after graduation as these experiences can help you decide what sector of public interest law you want to pursue as well as help build relationships that can assist you in the future.

4)    Highly paid individuals are happier.

Even though those working in the private sector may be earning high salaries relative to their experience, there can be tremendous job dissatisfaction.  In the legal profession, public interest attorneys are often not paid as well as large firm lawyers; however, there is an overwhelming job satisfaction among public interest attorneys because of the direct impact they are having in their clients’ lives.  When working to make the world a better place, or on issues that are important to you, the size of the paycheck often doesn’t matter as much because of the passion you have for your work

Now the realities about entering a public service career:

1)    Public interest jobs are typically lower paying than private ones.

Those who are in public interest will never earn as much as their peers at large corporations or law firms, but the trade off is increased job satisfaction as well as the personal satisfaction of working toward a common good.

2)    The threat of budget cuts is ever present.

The potential of further funding cuts to public service organizations continues to be a threat as federal budget debates rage on and private donors cut back during the recession. Organizations may hire laterally and may hire volunteers instead of entry-level staff.  However, lack of funding and volatility are of equal concerns in the private sector as the job market continues to flounder.

3)    It can be harder to obtain public service jobs than private sector jobs.

Unlike large firms, public interest employers generally do not have a set hiring schedule where they bring on new staff each year.  Instead, they tend to hire when they have openings. They may not have staff solely dedicated to recruitment, as most corporations do, and often the person responsible for hiring also has a full workload and other responsibilities. Securing a job in public interest takes a concerted effort and perseverance. Students interested in public service need to be patient, as they may not obtain a job until much later than those working in the private sector, but continue to network and explore different options public service has to offer, including volunteering and fellowship opportunities.

For those hoping to enroll in graduate, medical or law school immediately after graduation, it is important to consider where you might like to work after receiving your advanced degree.  Look at which programs and schools have a dedicated public interest programs or public service requirement as part of your degree. The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools, provides pre-law students the opportunity to compare law schools based on a number of factors, including the public interest experiences and courses available. In addition to selecting the correct school, be sure to utilize your summers to gain experience working with the populations you ultimately want to serve.  The Equal Justice Works Summer Corps program allows for law students to gain hands on experience working with clients and assisting practicing attorneys focused on issues from assisting at-risk veterans to helping victims of domestic violence, to working on civil rights issues.  No matter what your passion, there are a number of fellowships and funding options available for students to work in public service for a summer.

The benefits to pursuing a career in public service are numerous and fulfilling.  Not only will you gain tremendous hands on experience that can lead to professional success, but also make a visible and lasting difference in the communities you serve, which is the ultimate reward.

Nita Mazumder 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.