Law school is a place to explore and learn about the universe of law in all its breadth and depth. It’s where you can seek advice from mentors and narrow in on the type of law to practice. Given the high cost of law school, it’s more important than ever to find a way to explore the practice areas in which you’ll best thrive.
For students who want to work in the public interest law arena, choices can be particularly daunting. We’ve talked to some experts to help guide you through the process.
Public interest law defined
This practice runs the gamut from litigation and class action to policy development, legislative work, and community organizing. Public interest lawyers work at legal service providers on impact litigation that can help large numbers of people.
They’re family law attorneys working one-on-one with clients in desperate need. They work in nonprofit organizations, federal, state, and local governments, public defender, and prosecutor offices. The areas of practice include immigration, healthcare, education, elder law, energy, veterans’ rights, and housing law, to name only a few.
The public interest law arena, in other words, is vast. So it’s up to you to ask questions, seek mentors, and look for opportunities for experiential learning to narrow in on whether to practice in this area.
Start with an investigation
When you’re exploring whether to pursue a public interest law career, first research the support services your law school offers. Research available financial support and scholarships, along with what’s offered in terms of guidance, alumni connections, and clinic experience.
Susan Curry, senior director of public interest law and policy at the University of Chicago Law School, has found that virtually every law student considers a public interest career. Some incoming students might know they want to focus on wealth management, but most applicants write essays about championing things like civil rights.
“Someone contemplating law school is almost always thinking about some kind of way to help,” Curry said. “But by the third year, we know a huge percentage will go into private-sector law. The question we should ask is what happens in the interim.”
One thing that happens is that first-year students often spend an inordinate amount of time getting used to the rigors of law school. Curry suggests that—as early as possible—first years should get accustomed to the language of law, the workload, and their own way of managing work. By adapting to the law school world early, you can start exploring how and what you want to practice.
Michael Bergmann, executive director of the Public Interest Law Initiative in Chicago, said one of the best ways to choose a path is to get as much exposure as possible to different kinds of practice.
“Approaching law school with an open mind and being exposed to different experiences while in school is really important,” Bergmann said. “Most folks come to law school one to two years after college and haven’t been exposed to the vast array of work and communities to work in.”
What to consider
Curry and Bergmann also agree on other points. Here are seven things to think about while exploring:
1. Rule out nothing as you investigate. The three or four years of law school and summers in between are really important, Curry said. Use summers and elective courses to decide in what kind of sector in which to practice.
“The core law school classes students take in the first years of law school are often not enough to help you decide,” Curry said. “For example, I worked with a student who knew from the beginning that he wanted to practice disability law. Up until his third year, he worked for organizations that specialized in disability rights. He interviewed for a post graduate fellowship and received an offer. That same student took a bankruptcy course late in his third year, fell in love with it, and went on to practice in bankruptcy.”
While it at first appeared that the student’s time working in the disability arena was wasted, it occurred to Curry that finding love for a certain kind of practice was exactly what law school is for. “You don’t always know what you’ll want, even if you think you know,” Curry said. “My advice for all law students is to not be closed off to other possibilities.”
2. Seek advice from many different people. One of the most effective ways to test what will make you thrive is to seek out the advice of practicing attorneys. Career paths don’t always reveal themselves through classes and summer jobs, so it’s important to talk to mentors, professors, clinicians, and practitioners.
3. Start early learning the language of law school and practice types. “In addition to understanding the different types of legal practice, it’s important to understand the workload, to know when you feel most focused, and to know what motivates you,” said Curry. “Understanding these things help you understand if a particular public interest law practice is a good fit.”
Bergmann said that by taking a class in family law, an area he didn’t think he was particularly interested in, he discovered he was really good at it. “Through exploration, you reaffirm those things that you think you may not like,” he said, “but are also introduced to places you’d have otherwise dismissed for some reason.”
4. Consider a judicial clerkship. “Judges’ chambers actively seek out students who are public service directed,” Curry said. “And public service includes everything from zoning, environmental law, child protection, housing, family law, and the government.”
She noted that a major advantage to clerking is that students learn firsthand, by reading briefs, what good and bad lawyering looks like. “Understanding this difference is a helpful skill to learn for both the private and public sectors,” Curry said.
5. Know the value of experiential learning. Get in there and join a clinic. If your perfect clinic isn’t available, look into doing other pro bono work. Or do both. “Once students find out the value of experiential learning, they often want to do more of this work in different ways,” said Curry.
6. Know your debt-to-income ratio and funding sources. No matter what practice you choose, it’s vital to understand how going to law school will affect your debt-to-income ratio. Like any debt, student loans are part of that calculation. According to various experts, your fixed expenses—including housing costs—should be at or below 41 percent of your monthly income.
Be sure to explore federal and state grants, private foundation grants, and loan forgiveness programs. Bergmann also suggested looking to state and local bar foundations for loan repayment assistance.
“The options for grants and loan forgiveness have gotten better in the past decade, and there’s currently promise under the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program that’s being reinvigorated in the Biden administration,” Bergmann said.
7. Split the difference and explore both BigLaw and public interest in school. All experience helps and is never wasted. Consider splitting your summers between firms and public interest organizations. During the school year, take on pro bono projects to explore what interests you most.
By experiencing both the private and public sectors while in school, you can prepare for a job that can pay the bills and garner invaluable experience while building inroads to a public interest job that may not pay as well. Many attorneys make the switch to public service later in their careers, taking paths they built early on through mindful exploration.