Types of Employment: Public Interest Opportunities

Last updated: July 7, 2013

Georgetown University Law Center Career Book
Edited By Abbie Willard, Ph.D.

If you think it is difficult to choose among law school courses, seminars, and clinics wait until you see what is available after law school. A variety of alternatives are open to an individual who seeks to practice law or to combine law with other areas of interest and expertise. Among the more traditional types of practice, the following are most common.

Public Interest Organizations

The American Bar Association defines public interest law as "wide-range of law-related activities which aim toward bettering our society, for example:

  • defending an important right belonging to a significant segment of the public;
  • enlarging citizen access to the legal mechanisms by which social decisions  are made and resources allocated;
  • perfecting the adversary system, and  providing for alternative, more efficient methods for dispute settlement when the adversary system is too cumbersome.

Public interest organizations are usually very specialized; they focus on a particular set of issues. These organizations include public interest law center which do federal court law reform litigation; legal services programs and public defender offices; law reform and citizen groups performing policy research and advocacy; private law firms that practice a substantial amounts of public interest law including, consumer rights, juvenile rights, civil rights, employment discrimination, environmental law, labor-side labor law, family law, criminal law, sex-based discrimination, as well as many other areas; and corporate law firms which have pro bono programs. Rather than having a client-oriented practice, these organizations usually direct impact litigation.

The most comprehensive listing of such organizations is the Harvard Pro Bono Survey. Harvard sends questionnaires to approximately 5,000 public interest organizations. The responses are updated regularly and are arranged geographically. In addition, a monthly job listing service is provided by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLDADA) in its publication, NLADA Washington Memo.

Georgetown, along with other D.C. area law schools, coordinates a Public Interest/Public Service Career Program, usually held in February. The program provides an opportunity for employers and area law students to discuss legal career options in the public sector. The two-day program includes an interviewing session for employers seeking candidates for positions.

Finding a Public Interest Job

Very few public interest organizations, legal services or public defenders interview on law school campuses because of financial restraints. Most of these organizations are not in a position to know their hiring needs a year ahead of time; most begin to consider candidates in the Spring. There are, however, a few organizations that begin early. We recommend that you begin your job search early - even if it means you must resubmit your application.    

Persistence and initiative are essential to finding a public interest job. An important criterion for consideration in this area is a demonstrable commitment to public service. If you are interested in this type of job, take courses and become involved in activities that indicate such commitment. Unfortunately, there are very few summer opportunities in the public interest and generally the available positions are non-paying. However, our Equal Justice Foundation does have limited internship funds to supplement the salaries of students working in the public interest under EJF's Student-Funded Fellowship. Contact Georgetown's chapter of the Equal Justice Foundation for further information. We also recommend that you may want to consider acquiring a volunteer public interest position and supplementing it with a paid part-time position.

If you hope to work for a public interest organization and want to be in a specific geographic location, you are going to have to plan, arrange and pay for an interview trip. Keep this in mind from the beginning so that you might arrange to combine it with a school break, GRIP trip, etc.

Legal Services Information

The federally funded Legal Services Corporation provides legal representation for the poor. There are neighborhood offices located in cities and counties throughout the country, and these centers handle a large volume of cases.

Legal services attorneys only represent clients in civil matters. The largest number of cases usually involve family law, housing, public assistance, consumer lending and employment law.

Although the financial rewards are small and the work load is heavy, Legal Services lawyers have the opportunity from the very beginning to litigate and to manage their own case load.

The Legal Services Corporation publishes twice per month a Position Vacancy Bulletin. Because the Corporation provides an extensive network of legal service positions, and because it coordinates all member office hiring, this bulletin is an excellent resource for individuals interested in this type of practice.

Public Defender

Public Defender offices are different from legal services offices. Public Defenders are locally or state funded offices that provide representation to accused persons in criminal cases. Because the work load is heavy, public defenders get a tremendous amount of litigation experience. It has been said that public defenders get more trial experience in 3 years than most attorneys get in twenty years. For a listing of Public Defenders, see the National Legal Aid and Public Defender Association Directory.

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