Avenues of Public Interest

What is “public interest law”?

There is no one correct definition of public interest law. We define public interest law as work using legal skills that is intended to:

  • secure justice for disadvantaged and underserved individuals or communities;
  • assert, protect and defend human rights, civil rights and civil liberties;
  • preserve and protect the world’s health and resources for the benefit of the public good; or
  • promote the public’s interests protected by agencies of government.

Areas of public interest law include but are not limited to civil rights and liberties, women's rights, children and youth services, immigrant issues, tenant’s rights, employment law, consumer rights, public benefits, gay and lesbian rights, environmental law, work done in the public sector to benefit the public good, prisoner rights, criminal law, and the death penalty. For brief descriptions of these areas of law, please see our Substantive Areas of Law page.

Why should I consider a career in public interest?

The real question is: why shouldn’t you? For virtually every kind of law, there is an avenue to accomplish your professional goals via serving the public interest. Besides serving the local community and potentially the world, you’ll have the opportunity to pursue what you are truly passionate about in life. There is no better career choice than that!

I like the idea of working in the public’s interest, but I’m not sure where my own interests lie yet.

The key to building a successful career in any area of law is honest, critical, and frequent self-assessment. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses and certain practices can capitalize on both those facets of your personality. Consider what projects you have worked on that give you the greatest feelings of satisfaction. What do you like doing? What do you really dislike doing? What skills would you like to develop? Where do you want to be in 5, 10 and 15 years from now? Make an appointment with a counselor at CPD to learn more about the self-assessment process. Most importantly, start this process early in your law school career. There are hundreds of amazing positions in public interest, but it takes a deliberate and coordinated strategy to reach your goals. At CPD we can guide you in the process, serve as a sounding board, and present a variety of possibilities.

I’m nervous because I don’t feel like I even know what I could do in public interest.

Take a look at Substantive Areas of Law, featuring many common practice areas of public interest law. This listing is by no means comprehensive, but it may serve as a first step in your investigative process about possible career focus areas. The other key is to talk to as many people as possible. Get involved in local organizations, show your commitment – this will provide you with a variety of viewpoints as well as a number of solid contacts. CPD can also put you in touch with alumni, members of the community, and professors who have spent their careers working in public interest.

As you develop your ideas about possible areas of interest, it is helpful to look at the websites of a number of umbrella organizations for public interest employers, as they include general information about the kinds of practice you might be interested in, offer training for public interest attorneys, bulletins about new emerging issues faced by member organizations, and challenges you may face in your career research and job hunt. These umbrella organizations include Legal Services Corporation (which is a main source of funding for civil legal aid), National Legal Aid and Defender Association, National District Attorneys Association, and the National Association of Attorneys General.

How do I find out about public interest organizations in my area?

A good place to begin is with the Access to Justice Institute. ATJI staff has created a compendium of local public interest agencies. While this list shouldn’t be considered comprehensive, it is a great place to begin your search. Clinic faculty have a wide range of experience in different public interest fields. CPD has developed a substantive area overview, and each area lists several local agencies active with those issues. The Northwest Public Interest Job Fair that we hold every year at Seattle University in February is also a great place to find a job, develop contacts, and learn more about what specific work various organizations are doing in the area. If you are interested in organizations outside of the area, we have a comprehensive list of links where you can start getting a sense of what’s out there. The Equal Justice Works Conference and Job Fair held every October in Washington D.C. also provides a wealth of information about employers in both this region and across the country. Finally, reciprocity agreements that we have with schools around the country give amazing access to local resources and information. If you would like to arrange reciprocity with another law school’s career services office, please contact CPD.

What kind of training can I get at public service organizations?

Most, if not all, public service organizations have some kind of training program. If you will be interning at an Alliance for Equal Justice member organization, you will likely be participating in a comprehensive day-long orientation that will address many of the issues that you will be facing as a legal aid intern. The vast majority of agencies outside the Alliance also have training as a component of your experience. When the training commences, be it formal or informal, it will likely contain very practical tips, as well as discussions about the bigger picture of how your work fits into the social movement you support.

Some public interest organizations do not have a formal training program, and that can be intimidating for some. It is, however, a great testament to their confidence in you and your ability to learn while serving your clients.

Regardless of whether there is a formal training program, it is important that you actively seek out instruction and feedback from more experienced attorneys in your organization to supplement the training you are receiving from your immediate supervisor. The more that you can show an active interest in improving your performance and increasing your skills, the more senior attorneys will want to invest in your future.

Sullivan Hall