Public Interest Law

A Guide to Legal Public Service Careers

Accused Criminal and Lawyer in a Courtroom
Getty Images/Rich Legg

Public interest lawyers and non-lawyers provide legal services to individuals, groups, and organizations that are historically unrepresented in society. Studies show that about 80% of the legal needs of the poor in the United States remain unmet, despite existing federal, state and volunteer programs that provide legal services to low-income people. Public interest lawyers, paralegals, law students and legal professionals provide legal services free of charge or for a substantially lower fee to underserved segments of the public such as the indigent, the elderly and others who cannot afford legal services.

Public interest law professionals also fight for the underdog: they seek to enact policy change, advocate for civil liberties and fight for environmental protection, consumer rights and other causes for the betterment of society.

Pro bono work is a form of public interest work; law firm and corporate legal employees volunteer their time to offer free legal services for the greater good.

Types of Public Interest Cases

Public interest lawyers, paralegals, law students and other workers handle matters that reflect broad areas of public concern - from housing discrimination to immigration to child welfare - and work on a variety of cases and causes. For example, a public interest lawyer might:

  • Help clients file domestic violence protective orders
  • Assist unemployed workers to obtain unemployment benefits or file for consumer bankruptcy
  • Represent tenants in eviction cases
  • Draft letters and prepare case memos regarding inmates claiming wrongful conviction
  • Defend against a financial institution's predatory lending practices
  • Perform legal intake and case follow-up with patient families being treated at children's hospitals or clinics
  • Represent migrant farm-workers in labor disputes
  • Help legislators achieve regulatory reform
  • Interview clients and give Know-Your-Rights presentations at juvenile detention facilities and regional jails
  • Prepare wills and advance directives for seniors
  • Perform legal research in cases for clients with asylum or other immigration law issues.
  • Advocate in court for the best interests of abused or neglected children
  • Help the homeless obtain public benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid or Social Security disability benefits

Skills and Characteristics

A career in public interest law is not for everyone. You must be empathetic and have a strong passion for helping others. Below are a few key skills and characteristics necessary for public service work.

  • Interpersonal communication skills
  • Organizational skills
  • Listening skills
  • Oral advocacy skills
  • Public relations skills
  • Negotiation skills
  • Ability to cope with crisis
  • Ability to work with limited funds and resources

Personal Characteristics:

  • Strong passion for public service
  • Self-motivation and initiative
  • Patience
  • Empathy
  • Sincerity
  • Flexibility

Advantages and Disadvantages of Public Service Work

Public interest work offers many advantages over private practice – from valuable experience and personal satisfaction to a better work-life balance (see Advantages of Public Interest Work for more details).

The primary disadvantage of public interest work is compensation: jobs in the public interest sector generally pay less than a law firm and corporate positions.

However, more new grads are opting for public interest careers– the percentage of new law grads taking public interest jobs grew from 2.1% in 1990 to 6.7% in 2010, according to the National Association of Law Placement (NALP). Among the factors leading to that growth are more programs to help lawyers manage their education debt. 

Types of Public Interest Law Jobs

Public interest professionals work in a variety of practice settings. These include law firms that offer pro bono programs, government agencies, non-profits and legal service agencies, prosecutor and public defender offices and international organizations.