There is no single definition of "public interest law." However, there are a variety of general settings for public interest law practice. These include non-profit organizations, legal services organizations, public defender's offices, prosecutor's (DA's) offices, federal/local/state government, and public interest law firms.
Non-profit organizations have individually defined missions, goals, and objectives around which each organization centers its efforts. Non-profits vary widely in settings, target populations, and areas of social concern. Non-profit settings may include museums, universities, not-for-profit hospitals, and public interest legal organizations, as well as organizations benefiting specific target populations, such as particular racial or ethnic groups, children, abused women, or immigrants. Additionally, a non-profit's mission may center on an area of social concern, for example, education, the environment, consumer issues, gun control, youth issues, and historic preservation.
People with law degrees serve in many different types of positions in non-profit organizations. Many serve as in-house or general counsel, but lawyers also work as executive directors of non-profits, lobbyists and legislative directors, writers and editors, development (fundraising) directors, community outreach or community project directors, investment managers, financial officers, grant writers, and policy advisors. In some of these positions, a law degree is not absolutely necessary, but it is viewed as an additional asset.
Legal Services Organizations
Legal services organizations provide attorneys to low income individuals who reside in a particular geographic area. Most legal services programs receive federal funding from Legal Services Corporation (a federal agency), the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts organizations in their states, the individual state bar organizations, and foundations or other private sources. Each legal services office focuses on general poverty law issues, such as public benefits, housing, employment, civil rights, and family law issues, as well as particular legal issues specific to their communities, such as migrant farmworker law or AIDS-related legal issues. However, the types of cases individual legal services offices accept vary depending on the needs of the geographic area.
Due to lean staffing at most legal services offices, new legal services attorneys often gain experience such extensive client contact and frequent litigation early on, whereas attorneys in private practice may not be exposed to this experience as quickly. There is extensive client contact and frequent litigation experience. Among other things, legal services attorneys usually represent individual clients, bring impact cases (cases that are brought to change an existing law or create new precedent), work on issues of current government or social policy, have involvement with the local community, and work on fundraising for the legal services office for which they work.
Public Defenders (PDs) represent people who are charged with violating state or federal criminal laws and who cannot afford legal representation. Public defender positions exist on the state and federal level; federal PDs deal with those charged with violating federal criminal laws, while state PDs work with those charged with violating state criminal laws. Full-time PDs are government employees, but in some localities where the Public Defender’s office cannot handle the demand for their services, courts assign public defender cases to private attorneys who have agreed to provide such services. In virtually all cases, the PD's opponent at trial is the District Attorney (at the state level) or the Assistant U.S. Attorney (at the federal level).
Like legal services attorneys, public defenders get immediate experience. Some of their main responsibilities include interviewing clients and witnesses; visiting crime scenes; investigating facts and allegations; legal research; writing briefs, motions and memos; preparing for trial; plea bargaining; and trying cases in court. In addition, appellate public defenders handle criminal cases at the appellate level, including death penalty appeals.
See the Public Defender Handbook created by NYU School of Law and found on PSJD. Also see the CDO Handbook on DA, PD, and Government Jobs in the CDO.
Prosecutors (District Attorneys and United States Attorneys)
District attorneys and US Attorneys (i.e., prosecutors) prosecute those charged with violating state or federal criminal laws. The duties and experiences of a prosecutor are essentially the same as a public defender, except that the prosecutor is charging the individual with the crime on behalf of the state or federal government. At the state level, the prosecutor is called an Assistant District Attorney and works in the District Attorney's Office. At the federal level, the prosecutor is called an Assistant United States Attorney, and works in the U.S. Attorney's Office for that locale. (Note: Some local prosecuting offices are called state attorney’s office or city or county attorney’s office; it varies by state.)
See the CDO Handbook on DA, PD, and Government Jobs in the CDO.
Public Interest Law Firms
Private firms are not often considered when thinking of public interest law, but some firms actually regularly practices in various fields related to public interest law. Many lawyers open up their own practices with the goal of providing assistance to low-income clients or to clients with civil rights lawsuits to file. Others focus on legal issues that are not normally taken by other attorneys because the issues may be unpopular. Some firms' caseloads are exclusively public interest oriented, while others may mix their types of cases.
For more information about public interest law firms, you can visit the PSJD website.
Public Interest Opportunities at Other Firms
Summer jobs/Split summers
Several law firms have programs that allow one or two students each summer to "split" their summers, working at least half of the time for the law firm and then the other part of the summer with a public interest organization, with the firm paying the intern's salary for the entire summer.
Each of the firms differs in how its program is administered. The most recent version of this list, along with contact information for the firms, can be found at Yale Law School's website.
Pro Bono Work as a Private Practitioner
While pro bono work may not be an attorney's primary work responsibility, many attorneys perform pro bono work in and out of their workplace. These attorneys, while doing most of their work in a private sector setting, provide pro bono representation at no charge or a reduced rate to low-income clients or non-profit organizations. In large law firms, pro bono work is typically coordinated by a single person in the firm and then doled out to individual attorneys within the firm. In smaller law firms or solo practices, attorneys are responsible for finding and doing pro bono work on their own; they often do this by notifying the local Legal Services office of their availability or by contacting the Bar Association or other non-profit groups for information on how to take cases on a pro bono basis.
*Please see Appendix A of the Career Planning Manual’s Public Interest Guide for a list of Public Interest Summer Employers from 2011 and 2012. For a directory of North Carolina Public Interest Employers, be sure to check out the NC Public Interest Employer Guide in the CDO Library, a list of public interest employers in North Carolina by practice area and geographic region which includes a description and contact information. PSJD is also a great resource for job postings, especially for out-of-state positions.