What is typically considered “public interest” law can be broken roughly into three types of employment settings: public interest groups, commonly nonprofit organizations; government organizations; and public interest work by law firms. Lawyers in all three settings are united in their basic goal of using the legal system to promote the public good. However, there is substantial variation both within and between each setting in their emphases, goals, and strategies. The following provides a brief overview into each of these areas, as well as a discussion of public interest fellowships.
Within the government there are legal opportunities on the federal, state, or local level, in many different settings. The federal government employs attorneys in the Department of Justice, executive branch agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency), and in the legislature. Similar to the federal government, states hire attorneys to work in their attorney general’s offices, agencies, and legislatures. On the local level, there are the District Attorney’s offices, also known as State Attorney’s offices or County Attorney’s offices. There may also be municipal legal departments, such as the New York City Law Department, with city attorneys who represent the city in litigation and provide legal advice to city leaders. In addition, attorneys may work for various city agencies.
Attorneys can work in many different public interest environments on a broad range of substantive issues including AIDS, arts, children’s rights, civil rights/civil liberties, consumer, death penalty/prisoner’s rights, disability, economic development, education, elderly, employment/unionside labor, environmental, family, First Amendment, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights, health, homelessness/housing, human rights, immigrants/refugees, international human rights, migrant/farmworker, multicultural rights, Native American, poverty, and women’s rights. Different types of public interest organizations address these areas in a variety of ways. There are impact litigation groups that are devoted to achieving widespread legal and social change, legal services organizations that provide direct assistance to clients, public defenders that provide criminal defense to individuals who cannot afford counsel, policy centers, community development groups, and international public interest organizations.
Many private firms provide opportunities to practice public service law through pro bono programs. These programs may allow, or require, attorneys to do a certain number of hours of court-appointed work or to collaborate on cases with a local or national public interest organization. The formats of these programs differ widely, as do the levels of commitment and organization on the part of the firm.
A public interest law firm is a private, for-profit association of lawyers, like any other private law firm. Public interest law firms are distinguished from other private firms in that their primary mission is to assist underrepresented people or causes, rather than to make money. This difference in mission creates a difference in billing practices and client selection. Clients may be chosen because of their need for the firm’s services, and the cause their claim relates to, regardless of their ability to pay. Because their typical areas of practice—plaintiffs’ employment discrimination, civil rights, criminal defense, environmental law, and disability rights—are often not profitable, the firms may also take on other types of matters to pay the bills.
Fellowships serve as a gateway for public interest jobs and are intended to fulfill a specific purpose and provide a specified sum. Often fellowships are awarded after law school graduation for a fixed time period, usually one or two years; however fellowships may also offer alumni the opportunity to transition into public interest from private sector, or to fund a particular project.
Below are some suggested resources for candidates interested in public interest and fellowship opportunities.
Public interest Fellowships Vol. 2 – YLS version (contact CDO at 203-432-1676 for login info)