Public interest law encompasses a broad range of practice settings including nonprofit and legal services organizations, government agencies, and private law firms performing pro bono work. Depending on the setting, public interest lawyers may engage in a variety of work such as impact litigation, community outreach, regulatory reform, transactional work, class action lawsuits, lobbying, and administrative advocacy. Many individuals are drawn to public interest law because they are passionate about a particular issue. Public interest law covers many different substantive issues such as human rights, immigration, labor and employment, government accountability, the environment, intellectual property, and religious issues.
A Day in the Life of a Public Interest Lawyer
Some public interest lawyers focus on litigation while others specialize in transactional work. Attorneys seeking trial experience will find plenty of opportunity as a public defender. Public defenders are appointed by the court to represent indigent clients in criminal cases. New attorneys often undertake heavy caseloads and assume a wide range of responsibilities such as interviewing clients and witnesses, conducting pretrial hearings, plea-bargaining, and legal research and writing.
Prosecuting attorneys also gain extensive criminal trial experience. Prosecutors work at the state and local levels in district attorneys’ offices and state attorney generals’ offices. At the federal level, prosecutors work at the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorneys’ offices. Prosecutors handle a variety of cases that may include everything from homicide to juvenile prosecution to narcotics.
Federal, state, and local government agencies also hire public interest lawyers to assist in their work. The Department of Justice and other government organizations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, work with public interest lawyers to establish effective policies that have a positive impact on the lives of American citizens.
In some cases, law firms also take on cases that involve public interest. These law firms complete pro bono work for clients who cannot otherwise pay for the services they need. This type of work allows lawyers to supplement their workload with meaningful public service projects that benefit the community. These lawyers typically accept a specific number of pro bono cases at a given time and provide services to both paying and non-paying clients.
Public interest law can be a rewarding career path, but the salary range is typically much less than what lawyers earn in private practice. The median pay for those in public interest law is around $42,000, rising to about $62,550 with 11 to 15 years of experience. Those working as public defenders can expect to begin at $47,500 and rise to $76,000 with experience. Because many public interest lawyers work for nonprofit organizations, the pay and benefits are typically lower.
Like most other areas of law, those who wish to pursue a career in public interest law must complete a total of seven years of schooling after high school. This includes a four-year undergraduate degree, followed by three years of graduate school. While all lawyers must earn a law degree, professionals serving the public interest may also benefit from a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree. An MPA provides lawyers with knowledge to expand their practice or shift to a career in public service. Continuing education is another common requirement among lawyers, including public interest lawyers.
Challenges and Opportunities
One of the biggest challenges for those entering public interest law is their income potential. Because many new lawyers have acquired a large amount of debt completing their education, it can be difficult to earn enough income to pay back student loans while working in public interest law.
However, public interest law provides unique opportunities by allowing lawyers to choose an area of focus that is important to them. Public interest lawyers are motivated to help people who otherwise could not obtain legal representation and to look out for the common good by fighting cases to advance specific causes. The opportunities that exist in this area of law are extensive and can be tailored specifically to the interests of each individual candidate.
Competition in the field of law is often strong, though public interest law is generally less competitive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this field of law is predicted to grow by about 10 percent by 2022, with the overall legal profession growing by 11 percent. The current trend is for more men to enter private law firms, while women and minorities are more likely to enter the area of public interest.
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