Public Interest Careers

Yale Law School has a strong tradition of service in the public interest. In addition to our rich curricular offerings related to public interest, around 80% of students take part in one or more of our 30 clinics during their time in law school. It is no surprise that many of our students pursue public interest employment during the summer and after graduation.

YLS provides generous financial support to students pursuing careers in public interest. Because of these funding opportunities, Yale students have freedom to pursue public interest careers with less concern about their financial situations and the ability of a prospective employer to pay.

Financial Support

YLS provides over $1 million in summer fellowships annually to support the summer public interest work of approximately 190 students.

Mary A. McCarthy Fellowships in Public Interest Law
Supports public interest law projects, especially in mediation and the rights of immigrants, prisoners, criminal defendants, and women. Work products have ranged from legal briefs and evidence gathered in support of litigation to articles in national journals, informational pamphlets, and videos.

The Summer Public Interest Fellowship Program (SPIF) offers support to all Yale students who need funding to work at government and nonprofit organizations. The law school provides fellowships of up to $7,500 over the summer ($625 per week for up to 12 weeks) through SPIF. Students may also receive outside funding from grants, stipends from their public interest employer, additional jobs, etc., and SPIF grants will be adjusted so that the total earnings for the summer does not exceed the $7,500 maximum.

The Schell Center for International Human Rights provides many summer travel fellowships to support summer work abroad in international human rights.


Yale Law School endowed programs such as the Liman, Heyman, Bernstein, YLS Public Interest Fellowships, and Robina Fellowships financially empower students to pursue their public service goals after graduation. The YLS Public Interest Fellowship program also supports recent YLS graduates for one year of full-time public interest work. In addition, the Law School funds an internship/clerkship at the International Court of Justice and a fellowship at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, both located at The Hague, Netherlands.

YLS offers significantly more post-graduate public interest fellowships than any other law school in the country, enabling nearly 30 graduates each year to receive $47,500 in funding from YLS to support one year of work in the public interest.

More detailed information on these and other fellowship opportunities....

The Career Options Assistance Program (COAP) is one of the most generous and flexible loan forgiveness programs available at any law school. For newly admitted students, COAP helps pay off all law school students loans within ten years after graduation, and requires no contribution from graduates earning less than $50,000 (and only a moderate contribution thereafter). COAP also covers up to $30,000 of need-based undergraduate student loans, and is available to all YLS graduates.

The Career Development Office (CDO) has created TRI PI (Travel Reimbursement for Interviews in the Public Interest) which reimburses 2L, 3L and LLM students for travel expenses — up to $800 per academic year — for public interest interviews.

Career Fairs
In addition to offering funding for specific employment interviewing opportunities through TRI PI, YLS CDO offers funding to offset registration fees and reasonable travel expenses for various career fairs. Students attending the annual Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair are eligible for up to $250 reimbursement for travel and lodging expenses. For students attending the Yale Co-Sponsored Public Interest Career Fair at New York University School of Law, funding of up to $47 is available to cover the maximum rate of roundtrip Metro North train fair to New York City. CDO will also reimburse for mileage and parking, up to the same amount as train fair. From time to time students may encounter other external career fair opportunities of interest. In these instances, students may request CDO to determine the eligibility of reimbursement for travel to such career fairs. Students are encouraged to come to CDO to discuss potential travel plans for external career fairs and if approved, students may be eligible for up to $250 reimbursement in travel and lodging expenses. Please note that this exception is for career fairs in furtherance of legal employment and is generally not available for exclusively academic informational conferences. If approved, these expenses will be considered separately from the $800 TRI PI funding amount.

YLS Loan Policy for Suit Purchase
If a student is on financial aid (loans and/or grants) and does not have appropriate clothing for interviews, the student may request a one-time loan of $500 to purchase a suit. If the student enters COAP after graduation, this loan will be covered. Students should contact the Financial Aid office before they purchase the suit, and should submit the receipt to the Financial Aid office within 10 days.

The Deborah L. Rhode Fund for Public Interest & Pro Bono Services fund serves to support activities of YLS students interested in pro bono or public interest opportunities during the academic year. You must be a currently enrolled student in good academic standing to qualify. The fund subsidizes costs such as reasonable transportation and lodging costs, and administrative expenses including photocopying and telephone calls. The award is only for costs which are not covered by other sources and integral to the project.

For more information, click here.

Additional fellowships may also be available through Yale University.

Employment Settings

Public interest law can be broken roughly into three types of employment settings: government; public interest organizations; and public interest work by law firms. Lawyers in all three settings are united in their basic goal of using the legal system to promote the public good. However, there is substantial variation both within and between each setting in their emphases, goals, and strategies. Below are brief overviews of each of these areas, as well as information about careers in non-profit management.

Within the government there are legal opportunities on the federal, state, and local level, in many different settings.

The federal government employs attorneys in many different settings. Among the most well known options is the Department of Justice, which represents the federal government and all its agencies. The Department of Justice, headed by the United States Attorney General, is comprised of a number of different divisions, including Litigation, Civil, Civil Rights, Criminal, Environment and Natural Resources, and Tax. United States Attorneys serve as field officers for the DOJ and represent the government in each of the federal judicial districts.

Another avenue for practicing in the federal government is through one of the other executive-branch agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, or the Department of Transportation. These agencies employ in-house counsel to handle the legal aspects of their work and often employ attorneys in other capacities as well. Lawyers and law students may also work for the legislative branch. Attorneys work on the staffs of individual senators and representatives, as staff attorneys for both Senate and House committees, and for the House or Senate itself in the administrative offices.

The opportunities in most state governments are analogous to those available in the federal government. The state’s legal department is headed by the state Attorney General, the chief legal officer of the state. The structure and function of a state Attorney General’s office is determined by the state constitution and law, however there are certain commonalities. Attorneys General act as legal counselors to state government agencies and legislatures and also act as representatives of the people of the state, or the public interest. In a typical state, criminal prosecution, other than the exceptional cases that are handled through the state attorney general’s office, are prosecuted by a district attorney office. District attorneys’ offices may be organized by county or judicial districts and are typically led by an elected or appointed district attorney.

Numerous state agencies also have in-house counsel departments. These departments may work in conjunction with specialist attorneys in the attorney general’s office to bring litigation for enforcement of state laws and regulations but also provide a close consultative role in the agency. In terms of local government opportunities, cities often have municipal legal departments with city attorneys who provide legal advice to the city leaders, boards, and agencies, and represent the city in litigation and in other transactions. These departments vary enormously in size and structure, depending on the size of the city and their use of outside counsel. Many large cities also have city agencies with in-house legal departments. This is similar to the in-house counsel in state agencies.

Government Selected Resources

Criminal Prosecution Guide

Fact vs. Fiction: Public Interest Careers

Environmental Law Guide

Public Interest Programs and Resources

International Public Interest Law Guide

Travel Reimbursement  for Interviews (TRI PI)

Public Interest Careers Guide

Public Interest Career Services

Working on Capitol Hill Guide

Financial Support for Public Interest

Before You Apply: Understanding the 
U.S. Government Security Clearance Procedure

Government Honors & Internship Handbook

Federal Public & Community Defender Directory



Leadership Directories


Attorneys work in many different public interest environments on a broad range of substantive issues including: AIDS, children’s rights, civil rights/civil liberties, consumer, death penalty/prisoner’s rights, disability, economic development, education, elderly, employment/worker’s rights, environmental, family, First Amendment, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights, health, homelessness/housing, human rights, immigrants/refugees, international human rights, migrant/ farmworker, multicultural rights, Native American, poverty, and gender rights.

Different types of public interest organizations address these areas in a variety of ways. There are impact litigation groups that are devoted to achieving widespread legal and social change, legal services organizations that provide direct assistance to clients, public defenders that provide criminal defense to individuals who cannot afford counsel. There are also policy centers which focus on developing effective public policy, community development groups for those interested in helping community groups gain the skills to fight their own legal battles, and international public interest organizations which include diplomacy, policy-making, administration, and all types of internationally-oriented advocacy and activism.

These six types of public interest organizations—impact litigation groups, legal services organizations, public defenders, policy centers, community development groups and international public interest organizations—certainly do not encompass all the possible nonprofit public interest organizations. This description should only serve as a framework for understanding the types of legal work a particular organization might do. Furthermore, students should expect to find a great deal of overlap. For example, impact litigation groups may do a great deal of community organizing and education, and many organizations may have divisions devoted to impact litigation, policy analysis, or direct client representation.

Public Interest Organizations Selected Resources

Criminal Defense Guide Public Interest Programs and Resources
Environmental Law Guide Travel Reimbursement for Interviews in the Public Interest (TRI PI)
International Public Interest Law Guide Public Interest Career Services
NJDC's Juvenile Defense Career Resource Guide Financial Support for Public Interest
Public Interest Careers Guide PSJD
Fact vs. Fiction: Public Interest Careers UCLA Prison Law Summer 2018 Job Search Guide


Many private firms provide opportunities to serve the public through pro bono programs. These programs may allow, or require, attorneys to do a certain number of hours of court-appointed work or to collaborate on cases with a local or national public interest organization. The formats of these programs differ widely, as do the levels of commitment and organization on the part of the firm.

A public interest law firm is a private, for-profit association of lawyers, like any other private law firm. Public interest law firms are distinguished from other 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 because of their need for the firm’s services, and the cause their claim relates to, regardless of their ability to pay. Because their typical areas of practice are often not profitable, the firms may also take on other types of matters to pay the bills.

Public Interest Work by Law Firms Selected Resources

Law Firm Practice Guide Firms Sponsoring Split Public Interest Summers
Critically Evaluating Pro Bono Policies and Programs What are Firm Sponsored Split Public Interest Summers
Public Interest Law Firms PSJD


Attorneys seeking non-legal roles with non-profit organizations often consider management positions. In general non-profit managers are responsible for administering non-profit organizations and increasing profits—not for investors and shareholders, but for the individuals to whom the organization is dedicated to helping. Because non-profit organizations often have limited resources senior management is valued for their ability to manage cross-functionally. Successful managers require strong leadership skills as well as an understanding of basic business concepts, such as accounting, marketing, and business administration.

Non-Profit Management Selected Resources

Financial Support for Public Interest


Alumni & Student Profiles


Mollie Lee

Deputy City Attorney, San Francisco City Attorney's Office, San Francisco, CA