What is a public interest law firm?

A public interest law firm is a private, for-profit association of lawyers, like any other private law firm. However, public interest law firms are distinguished from private firms in that their primary mission is to assist underrepresented people or causes, rather than to make money. This difference in mission creates a difference in billing practices and client selection. Clients may be chosen with more emphasis on their need for the firm’s services, and the cause their claim relates to, regardless of their ability to pay. Sliding scale fees, free work, attorney fee cases, and contingent fee cases are common.

Public interest law firms can be distinguished from public interest organizations by the fact that they are not 501(c) (3) organizations, and typically do not get significant grant, foundation, or government funding. Having said all this, the reality is that deciding whether a particular law firm fits within the definition of a “public interest law firm” is not always a simple task. For example, there are many plaintiffs’ firms who represent individuals or members of a class on various matters, including personal injury claims. While this work is often your standard personal injury work not befitting a public interest designation, it sometimes involves claims with broader social issues, such as with defective consumer products. While some may not view this work as public interest in nature, others will see it as serving the needs of the underrepresented individual against the more powerful institution. The bottom line is that the definition is somewhat fluid and the determination of an individual firm’s classification will require additional research into the firm’s overall philosophy, its clients and cases.

What areas of practice are public interest law firms involved in? 

Typical areas of practice for public interest law firms include plaintiffs' employment discrimination, civil rights, criminal defense, environmental law, and disability rights. Because these types of cases are often not profitable, the firm may take other types of matters, such as medical malpractice or other tort cases to help pay the bills. Some public interest law firms specialize in class actions, while other firms represent individual plaintiffs. 

How does working for a public interest law firm compare to working for a traditional law firm or a nonprofit organization?

Although every firm experience is different, attorneys in public interest law firms often find great satisfaction with their ability to select the types of cases they wish to pursue. In traditional law firms, attorneys typically accept matters because they have been asked to by their large institutional clients and/or they have the possibility of being profitable to the firm. Attorneys with nonprofit organizations are often constrained by the views of their Board of Directors and the strategic plan for the organization. As long as they receive the approval of their partners, attorneys in public interest law firms are usually free to accept cases they hope will advance a cause or legal issue in which they are passionate. Public interest law firms are typically quite small. As a result, attorneys are often provided with more responsibility earlier in their careers than their counterparts at large firms.

Because the primary motivation for attorneys who work in public interest law firms is justice, not money, they typically do not earn as much as attorneys in traditional for-profit law firms. Some public interest law firms keep their salaries aligned with the federal government salary structure, with starting salaries of around $50,000. Others are aligned with salaries of nonprofit organizations, with starting salaries in the mid $30,000 range. A handful of public interest firms offer salaries competitive with their larger private firm counterparts. At some public interest law firms, mid-level associates may earn as much as $135,000; at other firms, the salaries can be much lower.

Billable hour requirements can run the gamut, with some alumni reporting annual billing between 1,700 and 1,999 hours per year and other at more than 2,500 hours per year.

What qualities do public interest law firms seek in candidates?

Like traditional law firms, public interest law firms seek candidates with strong academic backgrounds and good research and writing skills. Like public interest employers, public interest law firms seek candidates with a demonstrated commitment to the work of their organization and the needs of their clients. In addition, because public interest law firms are typically small and cases are leanly staffed, they expect their new associates to hit the ground running with little training.

Timing for Hiring 

Many public interest law firms hire summer interns and entry-level attorneys, but not in the same quantity as their large firm counterparts. These firms follow no set guidelines in terms of the timing for hiring students. Some public interest law firms, like Altshuler Berzon and Bredhoff & Kaiser, attend FIP and make offers in September. A few firms, like Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Berstein in San Francisco, don’t attend FIP but also hire in September. Numerous firms follow a more traditional fall hiring timeline and will consider applications through November or December. Others hire as late as the spring. For entry-level hiring, these firms often wait until they have an opening. The best approach is to decide where you wish to work and apply in the fall. If the firm conducts their hiring later in the season, they will let you know.

Researching public interest law firms

Small Law Firm Employers of YLS Students
CDO compiles this list of smaller and public interest-oriented firms where YLS students have worked in the recent past. The list provides a description of the firm's practice and other demographics and provides the names of current students and alumni who have agreed to serve as mentors.

Harvard Law School’s Private Public Interest Firm Guide (2013)
This guide provides an overview of public interest law firms and a list of public interest law firms by state which includes information about areas of practice and hiring.

Martindale Hubbell
Martindale Hubbell is a database of information about attorneys and law firms around the world. To locate public interest law firms, click Advanced Search and select the Law Firms & Organizations tab. Use the practice areas field to select areas that are typical in public interest law firms such as civil rights, education law, elder law, immigration, Indians and native populations. To search for individual attorneys, select the people tab and then select areas of practice. By typing “Yale” in the law school field, you can find alumni in these practice areas.

Keep in mind that learning in what area of law an attorney practices does not indicate who he/she represents. For example, an attorney who specializes in employment law may represent management or employees. Be sure to look carefully at the list of representative clients and the individual attorneys’ bios to gain a better sense of this issue prior to contacting them.

National Lawyers Guild
The National Lawyers Guild is an association of progressive lawyers. Check its web site to learn more about its work, including the work of its various committees. Click Students to learn more about student involvement with NLG. Click the Referral Directory tab which contains name, address, email, and telephone information for NLG members, most of whom work for very small, public interest oriented law firms.

PSJD is a database of public service employers in the U.S. and abroad. To locate public interest law firms, click Search and then under Advanced Search select “Search for Employer Profiles.” Select Law Firm—Public Interest Focus as the employer type. To narrow your search further you can select particular practice areas. Each entry provides contact information, an organization description, a link to the employer’s web site if available, and a link to opportunities if available.

-Updated Aug 2019