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Public Interest and Government

You are entering a profession with a long tradition and rich history of public service. Despite complaints that there are too many lawyers, studies have shown that two thirds of the people in this country do not have access to basic legal services. Described variously as working in the “public interest”, the “public sector”, or as doing “public service”, the common thread of working in the non-profit sector is the recognition of the need for attorneys to work on behalf of individuals and causes not often served by the for-profit bar.

There are many settings in which law students and lawyers can use their unique skills to work in the public interest. Government agencies and non-profit organizations are involved in various combinations of litigation, lobbying, policy-making and direct representation involving virtually every law practice area. Typical employers include public defenders, district attorneys, U.S. Attorneys, legal aid and legal services organizations, government agencies (Department of Justice, Securities and Exchange Commission, Attorneys General, County Attorneys, etc.), and public interest organizations (Lawyers for Children, Homeless Action Center, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, etc.)

It is important to remember that involvement in, and commitment to, public service may be expressed and experienced on what can be understood as a continuum. You may choose to seek summer and school year internships, commit all or some of your professional careers to public sector work, or choose to do pro bono work in conjunction with your private sector job. Each scenario offers real opportunities for public service.

There are a variety of reasons why you may be attracted to public service work. You may wish to use your legal training to represent traditionally under-represented individuals or interests who do not have access to private attorneys. You may want to develop a political career. You may have a deep interest in a specific area of the law and wish to explore all public and private opportunities. Whatever your reasons, they set your priorities, and your priorities determine your job search strategies.

For instance, a student interested in practicing environmental law should ask herself the following:

  • Is there a particular environmental law issue that I prefer to work on? Alternative energy sources? Nuclear power? Wetlands? Preserving national parks?
  • Whom do I want to represent? Citizens fighting a toxic waste dump proposed for their neighborhood? Consumers affected by food irradiation? Am I more interested in the government’s role in making and enforcing public policy? Or, is there a specific government agency or public interest organization that I am keenly interested in working for? Who will my potential colleagues be?
  • What lawyering skills am I the most interested in utilizing or developing? Litigation? Lobbying? Writing legislation? Counseling?
  • Where do I want to live? How much money do I want to make? How much money do I need to make?

You probably don’t know the answers to all of these questions right now, and your answers may change over time. However, you should seriously consider these questions throughout your professional life, as they provide a useful framework in which to evaluate what may seem like a limitless array of options.

If you are interested in exploring public service opportunities, make an appointment with Karen Comstock, Assistant Dean for Public Service, or Elizabeth Peck, Director of Public Service.