Public Interest Careers
what is public interest law?
Public interest law is a diverse, challenging, inspiring, and rigorous practice. The work of public interest law covers a wide range of practice areas and settings; it presents unique challenges, as well as incredible rewards. This page offers a brief overview of public interest law settings, job searches, and resources. For more complete details about public interest careers, funding, fellowships, and resources, please see the Career Services Job Search Handbook (BC login required).
Public Interest Organizations
Public Interest Organizations were formed to promote the public interest (as opposed to special interests) in areas such as consumer protection, environmental law, civil rights, and government accountability. They often hire lawyers who are charged with the responsibility of law reform. Activities can include litigating, drafting legislation and agency rules and regulations to accomplish policy goals, lobbying and monitoring the legislature, building political coalitions, researching and publishing reports, and public education of citizens.
Public Interest Litigation Organizations
These are policy oriented organizations that use class action law suits and to protect legal rights or bring about social or systemic change. The litigation agenda is usually not determined by an individual client's needs. Responsibilities may also include activities related to legislative and administrative reform such as advocacy, lobbying and education. Examples of this type of organization include the Conservation Law Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Public Interest Advocacy Organizations
These are policy oriented organizations that primarily use means other than litigation to effect change. Each organization generally focuses on specific areas of public policy and law reform issues. Activities can include organizing, researching and policy, acting as a watchdog agency, writing amicus court briefs. Examples include the Public Interest Research Groups and Common Cause.
Legal Services Programs
Legal Services Programs seek to represent those people or groups of people who could not otherwise afford legal counsel. The areas of law most commonly practiced are civil matters including housing, family law, government benefits, debtor-creditor and immigration law.
Some Legal Services Programs receive funding from a variety of sources, including the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and the federal Legal Services Corporation, serving only low-income clients. Other law offices that concentrate on larger systemic legal problems of the poor are not restricted to representing indigent clients in purely civil matters. Legal service attorneys get extensive trial work and may also be responsible for community education, and legislative lobbying.
Private Public Interest Law Firms
Private Public Interest Law Firms are generally small private practice law firms that concentrate on representing individuals on issues such as employment discrimination, civil rights, housing and environmental law. Their clients can range from criminal defendants, citizen environmental groups or plaintiffs in tort claims, such as injured persons from defective products. Another type of practice involves the growing field of community economic development.
Public Defender Offices
Public Defender Offices hire attorneys to provide criminal defense for indigent clients. These offices offer excellent opportunities for immediate courtroom experience. In Massachusetts, the Committee for Public Counsel (CPCS) is a state agency created to provide legal representation to indigent criminal defendants and in certain civil matters where the state is obligated to provide counsel.
International Public Interest Law
International Public Interest Law is a growing field of interest. The largest number of lawyers are either working for international organizations, such as the United Nations, or human rights organizations in the U.S. or abroad, such as Amnesty International. The focus of such work can range from criminal defense to an analysis of new comprehensive treaties on civil and political rights. Opportunities for full-time employment remain few. Students are advised to gain some international experience as well as fluency in at least one foreign language.
The timing and hiring process for public interest positions can be as varied as the many types of organizations. Unlike large law firms, most public interest organizations cannot make permanent job offers a year in advance of employment. Most public interest employers make offers much closer to the actual employment date, often in the late Spring or Summer. For Summer internship positions, the process usually begins in the late Fall and continues through the Spring. There are some important exceptions to this rule, such as the larger Public Defender Offices and post-graduate Fellowship Opportunities, which have early Fall deadlines.
Many public interest organizations participate in the two public interest/government recruitment programs (Gov/PI) that are held each year in Boston for BC Law students. One is held at Boston College Law School in October (Fall interviewing); the other is held at Suffolk Law School in early January (Spring interviewing). The list of participating employers will be posted in Symplicity.
A national public interest job fair sponsored by Equal Justice Works (EJW) is also held each year in DC, typically in October. Hundreds of employers participate, primarily for summer internships. Students must contact the employers directly to schedule an interview.
There are also several online soureces for Public Interst job searches. Opportunities sent directly to the Boston College Law School Office of Career Services are posted regularly on Symplicity. Students can also access the Public Services Jobs Database (PSJD), a unique online clearinghouse for law students and lawyers to connect with public interest job listings and career-building resources. More information about PSJD can be found here.
Students must take an active role in identifying potential employers and often must initiate the contact with the employer, particularly for permanent placements. The student usually initiates contact with a cover letter and a resume.
An essential step in the public interest job search is developing a list of potential employers in which the student is interested. Rather than advertising openings, employers often prefer to hire someone who has worked for them during the summer or as part of a clinical program, or who was referred by a colleague. One of the most effective tools for developing this list, as well as identifying job opportunities, is the networking and informational interviewing process. Resources about networking and informational interviewing are available in the Office of Career Services and online (BC login required).
Prior experience and commitment to public interest work is one of the most important qualifications for the job search. Commitment can be demonstrated in many ways: summer internships, clinical courses, volunteer and pro bono work, public interest law journals, and active roles in public interest-related student groups. For example, the Public Defender Offices are usually receptive to hiring recent graduates who have had criminal trial practice or spent a summer working at a public defender office.
Boston College Law School offers a variety of funding programs for law students and gradutes who wish to work in the public interest/public sector during the summer. There are also scholarship and loan assistance programs to make it more financially possible to pursue a post-greaduate public interest law career. These programs include:
- Summer Federal Work-Study Funding
- The Public Interest Law Fund (PILF)
- Owen M. Kupferschmid Holocaust/Human Rights Summer Funding
- The James A. and Lois Champy Fellowship Program (2Ls)
- The Drinan Family Fund in Support of Public Interest Law (3Ls)
- The Edward T. Bigham, III, Scholarship (3Ls)
- The David H. and Mary Murphy Posner Law Scholarship; The Roberts S. Pitcoff Memorial Scholarship; The Keefe Family Scholarship (3Ls)
- The Francis X. Bellotti Loan Repayment Assistance and Forgiveness Program (gradutes)
The Career Services Job Search Handbook, available online (BC login required) and in the Career Services Office, provides details about eligibility, timing and application procedures for these funding resources. You may also find these details on our page on Summer Funding Resources.
The Loan Repayment Assistance Program helps graduates who practice public interest law with educational debt. Please see further details here.
Several national funding sources are also available to law students for summer public interest work. The Office of Career Servies maintains an ongoing list of regional and national summer funding opportuinities. The handout is available online (BC login required). Click "2012 Summer Funding Opportunities."
- Directory of Legal Aid and Defender Offices in the United States (available on LEXIS)
- Boston College Law School Directory of Massachusetts Government Agencies and Public Interest Organizations (The Greenbook)
- The Comprehensive Fellowship Guide-Ultimate Resource for Law Students and Lawyers (Published by PSJD; available in hard-copy in the Office of Career Services)
- Equal Justice Works
- The National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA)
- Harvard Law School Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising Guides
- Yale Law School Public Interest Fellowships Guide
- Alumni Career Network (BC LawNet)
- BC Law Summer Employment Questionnaires (available on Symplicity and in the Office of Career Services)
- Websites of individual organizations (to begin, see the list of our BC Law Pro Bono Program partner organizations)