Prelaw - Lawyering in the Public Interest

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Many students enter law school committed to pursuing public interest jobs. Only a small percentage of graduates, however, actually pursue such jobs upon graduation. Why does this occur? Law school students and attorneys cite a variety of reasons for this phenomenon. Many of the explanations center around financial issues (such as the escalating cost of law school, the low salaries of public sector attorneys, the increasing disparity between the salaries of private and public sector attorneys, and the paucity of available public sector jobs). Some researchers focus on the changes in the internal values of law school students (noting that the priorities of law students, like other members of their peer group, change as they grow older) while others focus on the nature of legal education (noting that the way law schools socialize students leads them to pursue private sector work). If you are interested in empirical research on the subject, several studies have addressed the factors involved in job selection within the legal profession. In particular, Equal Justice Works' website at has links to a variety of interesting papers on the subject.

If you are thinking seriously about becoming a public interest lawyer, Leverett House suggests you consider several important issues before you apply to law school. Below, please find information about: (1) types of public interest legal jobs, (2) securing a legal internship or post-graduate job, (3) financing a legal internship or post-graduate job, and (4) criteria for determining a law school's commitment to public interest.

Please note that much of the below information is also in various places in the main text of the Prelaw Student Handbook; so that it is an accessible tool for you, we have compiled and supplemented the information in this single document.


[edit] Types of Public Interest Legal Jobs

It is difficult for a college student to know for sure whether he wants to become a public interest attorney. Therefore, as for all students contemplating law school, one of the best ways to help determine if public interest lawyering suits you is to secure a summer or term-time internship at a legal organization.

Four main types of public interest jobs include: nonprofit organizations, legal services offices, government, and private public interest firms. Depending on the nature of the job, public interest lawyers use a variety of methods (or combination of methods) to effect change including: individual client representation, impact litigation, policy reform, regulatory enforcement, lobbying, and community organizing and education.

[edit] Nonprofit Legal Organizations.

Nonprofit legal organizations usually specialize in advocating for a particular client population or advocating around a particular issue. Some nonprofits are "client-oriented," meaning the organization focuses on representing individual clients (e.g., the Disability Law Center, Centro Presente, the DC Employment Justice Center ). "Client-oriented" nonprofits vary greatly. However, as a summer or year-long intern you can reasonably expect exposure to clients, working directly with individual clients or on individual cases. If having client contact is important to you, clarify with your employer whether or not you will actually have that opportunity.

Other nonprofit organizations are "policy-oriented," meaning the organization uses broad strategies to effect change such as impact litigation and class actions (e.g., The American Civil Liberties Union, The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Consumer Law Center , the National Voting Rights Institute, Children's Rights Inc.). As an intern with such an organization, you are less likely to have client contact but you will gain exposure to broader lawyering strategies to effect change. If the nonprofit has cases pending in court, you may get to observe legal hearings.

[edit] Legal Services Offices.

Legal services organizations (also known as legal aid societies) provide free or reduced-fee civil legal representation to low-income clients. Legal services offices typically have the following units/divisions: family, domestic violence, housing, health, government benefits, consumer, and employment. Most major cities have legal services offices (e.g., Greater Boston Legal Services Center, Atlanta Legal Aid Society); and, many states have branches or separate offices which serve rural areas (e.g., Georgia Legal Services). Attorneys at legal services offices have high caseloads and daily contact with clients; therefore, as a summer or year-long intern, you would likely gain hands-on experience.

[edit] Government Attorneys

Many types of attorneys in legal offices are government funded including public defender offices and prosecutors offices as well as other federal, state, and local government agencies.

Public defender offices represent indigent individuals in criminal cases. In general, public defender offices have high caseloads, limited staff, and few other resources. Therefore, if you are interested in exposure to trial practice (i.e., preparing for court hearings and watching trials), interning at a public defender office will provide you that opportunity. Some public defender offices have a well-structured intern program and give college students a great amount of responsibility (e.g., college students can work as investigators at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia).

Prosecutors work in a variety of offices including: district attorney offices (usually organized by county whereby attorneys prosecute individuals charged with crimes); state attorneys generals offices (which investigate and prosecute cases of statewide significance from criminal to environmental cases); U.S. Department of Justice (charged with prosecuting federal crimes); U.S. Attorneys Offices (charged with prosecuting federal crimes).

Attorneys also work at a variety of federal (e.g., Securities & Exchange Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services), state (e.g., Massachusetts Department of Education, Massachusetts Executive Office of Health & Human Services); and local (e.g., Cambridge Police Review & Advisory Board, Somerville Housing Authority) departments and agencies.

[edit] Private Public Interest Firms

Private public interest firms are not technically in the "public sector," but are often categorized with other public interest jobs. Private public interest firms are organizations which tackle the same issues that nonprofits, legal services offices, and public defender offices typically address but they operate in a firm environment. Although they are for-profit organizations, they dedicate a significant portion of their caseloads to work that has some broad social, economic or political impact. Private public interest firms may work in the following areas: civil rights, disability law, education, anti-trust, labor law, environmental law, product liability, and insurance liability.

[edit] Finding a Public Interest Internship or Post-Graduate Legal Job

One great way to find a public interest job is by using the Center for Public Interest Careers at Harvard (CPIC). CPIC "promotes and supports Harvard undergraduates whose career goals are focused on the public interest." CPIC creates internships, fellowships, forums, workshops, and coordinates and mobilizes alumni/ae and campus resources. In particular, CPIC's Internship and Fellowship program provides great opportunities for Harvard students seeking law-related jobs. CPIC has partnered with well-established employers; they have screened these employers so you can be reasonably assured that you will be placed in a high-caliber work environment. For more details, see

  • Summer Internship Program: In past years, the Internship Program offered paid, full-time, 10-12, week summer positions. Organizations paid a weekly stipend of $325. (See the CPIC website for the most up-to-date information.)
  • Full-Year Fellowship Program: The Fellowship Program is for graduating seniors and recent alumni/ae. These positions last 10-12 months and in past years provided an annual salary of $25,000 and health benefits. (See the CPIC website for the most up-to-date information.)

Additionally, there are numerous websites and list-servs for college students, law students, and attorneys interested public service law. Please be aware that many employers are only interested in hiring law students and attorneys, not college students.

[edit] Funding a Public Interest Internship or Post-Graduate Legal Job

If you want to work in the public sector, many legal employers cannot afford to pay you. Public interest organizations often have tight budgets, so even if they think you would be a valuable asset to their organization, they simply do not have the resources to hire you. Therefore, instead of merely looking for an existing law-related summer or post-graduate job at an organization, create your own. Apply for fellowships, scholarships, grants, stipends, or federal work study. Below are a few tips; you should do your own research as well.

[edit] Leverett Fellowships Tutor

Leverett House is blessed to have an amazing Fellowships Tutor, Judy Murciano. She has helped literally hundreds of students win fellowships to pursue their passion. After doing your own research, feel free to "pick Judy's brain" about your ideas.

[edit] Specific Funding Sources

Below are possible funding sources for students interested in legal public interest jobs. For additional information, see Harvard's IOP website at; see also OCS's website at; see also for international opportunities.

  • Center for Public Interest Careers
  • Institute of Politics Director's Program
  • OCS Public Service Grants
  • Harvard Clubs Summer Community Service Fellowships
  • Arthur Liman Public Interest Law Summer Fellowship
  • Institute of Politics Summer Stipend
  • Federal Work Study. A little known fact is that you can get work-study wages for working at a public interest organization, such as a legal nonprofit. To learn more about using your work-study award to do public service, contact Harvard's Public Service Network.

A few additional notes about funding your own legal internship or fellowship:

  • Funding your own position or project is a time consuming process and takes significant coordination. Whenever you try to create and fund your own project or position, it becomes a time consuming process, requiring significant coordination and organization on your part. You will likely have to identify a legal employer where you want to work, identify a project at that organization, and develop a relationship with the organization. Moreover, you will likely need to get approval and an endorsement from your potential employer. You may need to get multiple recommendation letters and submit essays. After all of your hard work, you may not be awarded the fellowship, grant, or stipend, as some are highly competitive.
  • Respect your potential employer's time. Even though you think you will be providing a great service to a potential employer (i.e., you know you are a hard worker and you are offering to provide free labor), be respectful of your potential employer's time. Do not assume the employer will want you, even if you are providing free labor. Many nonprofit organizations are so under-resourced that they do not have enough space, equipment (like an extra desk, computer, and telephone) or other resources to support you; and, more importantly, they might not have an attorney on staff who can take time to supervise and mentor you.

[edit] Identifying Public Interest-Friendly Law Schools

To determine if the law school is a "friendly" or "supportive" environment for public interest students consider:

  • The school's public interest advising and career counseling resources. If you have tried to get a summer internship at a nonprofit or government agency, you likely already know that it can be difficult and time consuming to find such a job. Similarly, law students must take significant initiative to find a public interest legal job that matches their interests and talents. Moreover, despite common perception, securing a public sector job is often more difficult than securing a job at a private law firm. While large law firms hire dozens of individuals each year, many legal nonprofits do not hire new attorneys on a regular basis. (In recent years, due to budget cuts, not only were nonprofits not hiring new attorneys, many had to lay off existing staff attorneys.) When the organization does hire, there are often numerous individuals competing for a small number of coveted slots. Therefore, the public interest career advising system can become an important resource for law students trying to get summer jobs as well as alumni/ae seeking to change jobs. Law schools' websites often describe resources offered to public interest-minded students.
  • The background and interests of the school's law professors. Check the biographies of law professors at various schools. Almost all law schools have websites with professor biographies. Determine their research and writing interests as well as community involvement.
  • The school's clinical legal education program. Through law school clinical legal education programs, students can receive academic credit for being trained to and then actually represent low-income clients. Learn about law schools' clinical programs. How extensive are the programs? How many students participate? Can all students who want to participate in a clinic have that opportunity or are there only a small number of coveted spots, whereby only some students are admitted after a competitive selection process? Does the school have in-house clinics (where law school instructors supervise students)? What type of externship placements does the school offer (where law students are placed at outside organizations)? Can students be trained in a variety of advocacy skills (e.g., individual client advocacy, policy and legislative advocacy, community organizing) through the schools clinical legal education program?
  • Public service requirements for students. A small number of law schools actually require students to commit a certain number of hours engaging in public interest legal work (a.k.a., pro bono work) in order to graduate.
  • Grants for summer public interest work. Does the school offer grants to students who want to pursue public interest during their summers? How many students are given grants each summer?
  • Cost of school and financial incentives offered to public interest students and alumni/ae. Studies show that the primary reason law students cite for not assuming public interest jobs after they graduate is that they cannot afford to take a low paying job. Studies show that students typically graduate from law school with debt loads in excess of $80,000. Moreover, there are wide disparities in the salaries between private sector and public interest attorneys. Based on 2001 statistics, the median salary for private sector attorneys was $90,000 while the median salary for public interest attorneys was $35,000.
    • In light of these statistics, public interest minded students may want to consider the following questions: How expensive is the law school? Does the school have a loan repayment program (whereby the school helps relieve student debt if the student assumes a low-paying job upon graduation)? Does the school have special scholarships for public interest students? Does the school offer special grants or financial aid? Click here for more details on loan repayment programs.
  • Careers of students after graduation. One way to gauge the dedication of the public interest student community at a particular school is to consider the jobs students take upon graduation. What percentage of students assume public interest jobs their first year after graduating? Five years after graduation? Many schools promote themselves as more committed to public interest than other "comparable"schools; yet, the number of students pursuing public interest from these schools often mirrors trends in the larger legal profession.