What does a public interest lawyer do?
In general, public interest lawyers serve individuals and/or communities that have been marginalized and lack access to justice. Students can work in a wide variety of settings and can take part in a similarly wide variety of activities, such as direct client services, policy-oriented class action and impact litigation, policy-making and legal reform research, lobbying for reform organizations, community organizing and education activities.
Public interest lawyers are involved in various types of practices: direct client service (representing individual clients in court and before administrative agencies), policy-oriented class action and impact litigation, policymaking and legal reform (regularly conducting research and writing memos on public policy issues), lobbying efforts for legal reform organizations, and community organizing and educational activities.
Public interest lawyering can involve meeting regularly with indigent clients and maintaining an active caseload with people such as victims of domestic violence, tenants facing eviction, migrant farmers or other workers involved in labor disputes, seniors who need help with advance directives or medical issues, the homeless, the mentally ill or those eligible for public benefits. Frequently, clients’ problems involve many areas of the law. For example, the financial problems of a client facing eviction may be the result of improper garnishment, untreated mental illness or unfair employment practices.
What skills do I need to be a public interest lawyer?
In a public interest practice that involves direct client services, you must be comfortable working with low-income clients with different life experiences and backgrounds. Research skills are important for all public interest lawyers, who often do not have the level of support available in private firms. All lawyers involved in litigation need a grasp of procedure both in the courts and administrative agencies.
Similarly, public interest lawyers representing individual clients should be skilled in negotiation and mediation and need a thorough understanding of the rules of professional responsibility. When dealing with people who are unfamiliar with legal procedure and dealing with high levels of stress, it is essential that you be a good listener. Also, you will need financial discipline to live on a salary that may be lower than that offered by private law firms.
What kinds of jobs are available for public interest lawyers?
Public interest lawyers deal with almost all areas of the law, focusing on AIDS and HIV, animal concerns, arts and entertainment, bankruptcy and debt, children and youth, civil rights and liberties, consumer affairs, criminal matters, the death penalty, disabilities, domestic violence, economic development, education, the elderly, the environment, families, First Amendment concerns, LGBT issues, health and medical matters, homelessness and housing, immigration, intellectual property, employment, Native American law, products liability, prisoner issues, reproductive issues, defense, trusts and estates, voting and campaign finance, and women's issues.
Similarly, there is a wide variety of settings in which public interest law is practiced: district attorney’s and public defender’s offices, state and federal agencies, legal services offices, law reform organizations (such as environmental law centers), consumer law centers, public interest research groups, charities, private public interest law firms, civil rights groups (such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), civil liberties groups (such as the ACLU and NOW), social action organizations and public interest law firms.
What courses should I take?
You should have a well-rounded legal education that exposes you to the many nuances of the law and lawyering. Along with required courses, students should definitely take a clinic, as well as administrative law and tax classes. You might also take lawyering skills courses such as trial practice and negotiation.
What co-curricular and volunteer activities should I consider?
Given the wide variety of public interest lawyering, you should actively participate in organizations and bar committees that involve topics that interest you. Also consider taking part in journals or moot court teams that deal with those areas. Take advantage of law school or community events that are relevant and enriching.