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  • Fact vs. Fiction: Public Interest Careers

1. Is it more challenging to get a public interest job?

Getting a permanent public interest job tends to be more challenging than getting a large firm job. Apart from large government employers, public interest organizations tend to have occasional openings (versus 50 new associates each year in a large private sector law firm) and limited funds. These two factors often mean they don’t hire recruitment people, they don’t join the National Association for Law Placement, they don’t visit law school hiring fairs, they don’t have predictable hiring schedules, and they may not send law schools notices of their openings. It doesn’t mean they don’t want you, it just means you have to approach these positions like you would a normal job search when you are no longer a law student; through research, networking and persistence!

The timeline and ease of the public interest job search can also vary by year and type of job.  For example, in the 1L summer, the effort level may be lower, with public interest folks having an easier search, due to the summer funding provided by the Law School. For the 2L summer, your process will vary depending on what type of public interest or private sector job you are pursuing. For 3Ls, there are some subsets of public interest employers, like criminal defense and prosecution, that hire a significant number of recent graduates every year, while other practice areas hire more intermittently and prefer candidates with more experience. We advise that you stay in touch with your CDO advisor and refer to our online resources to help guide you through what to expect from your specific job search.  

 

2. Is there a public interest job fair at YLS? What job fairs should I attend?

There are four structured larger-scale opportunities for public interest students to meet and interview with public interest organizations. They are: the Public Interest Interview Program (PIIP) the Winter Interview Program (WIP), the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair (EJW Conference and EJW Career Fair) and the Public Interest Legal Career Fair (PILCF). PIIP and WIP are organized by YLS and are just for YLS students. The chart below lists the key factors to consider for participation in each program.

 

Table listing several career fair options

 

3. Is it true you can’t get a public interest job right out of law school?

Not at all! It is possible to get a wide range of public interest jobs right out of law school. This rumor started because some U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and impact litigation organizations such as the ACLU almost never hire right out of law school, instead requiring at least two years of legal experience. However, there are lots of other public interest jobs and most will consider newly minted attorneys.

Public interest jobs out of law school are available in a variety of sectors. The DOJ hires many new lawyers into their Honors Program, as do many other federal agencies in their respective honors programs. State agencies, legal services offices, public defenders, and other public interest employers do as well. Remember to research, network and be persistent! Look at the CDO resources for the employer type that you are looking for and use Courtyard to find alums working at the organizations you are interested in.

Fellowships are an important way that recent graduates can be given the opportunity to work for a public interest organization right after graduation. Fellowships can allow you to do the work you dream of, or to find a position in an organization that has no funding to hire you. For more information on fellowships, see CDO’s Public Interest Fellowships Resources.

The Public Service Jobs Directory or PSJD is an elective and centralized tool to find information about public interest opportunities, including fellowships. PSJD is made up of a network of 200-member law schools across the United States and Canada (including YLS) and more than 13,000 law-related public interest organizations around the world. Through their online database, PSJD provides a comprehensive clearinghouse of public interest organizations and opportunities for lawyers and law students. As PSJD members, YLS students and alumni can perform customized searches for organizations in which they have an interest and for public interest opportunities, ranging from short-term volunteer and paid internships to post-graduate jobs, fellowships, and pro bono opportunities

There are some highly sought-after public interest jobs, typically with high profile national nonprofits, where the competition is so stiff a new graduate may have a next to impossible task obtaining a position there. Your CDO advisor can work with you on identifying those jobs, positioning yourself to try to get hired for one, and broadening your search.

 

4. Why do lots of students who planned on going into public interest end up taking a private sector job?

There are multiple reasons that students who start law school with a public interest focus can end up taking private sector jobs. Some students are lured by the tremendous amount of money in the private sector and figure they’ll earn a large salary for a few years, then come back to public interest (see question 6 for more on that). Some spend the summer working for a firm that seems nice and begin to wonder if maybe firm work really wouldn’t be so bad. Some hope to do a significant amount of pro bono work at the firm. Others carefully select a firm with relevant training to build skills that will enable them to transfer to a public interest job later on (see question 8 for details).

Many students have a hard time with the uncertainty that a public interest job search often entails. It is difficult to be unemployed in March of your third year when many of your classmates have had their jobs nailed down since December, if not since August. The lateness of public interest offers compounded with the rumor that positions are not available, can cause those who are risk averse to select a private sector option.

It is important to remember that the timeline for public interest jobs is different, and less predictable, and not to get discouraged. Graduates who stick with pursuing public interest jobs are largely very successful at finding them. Please also remember that some programs, like the federal government honors programs and some fellowships have early acceptance dates that track the law firm timelines.

5. Can I get a job with a public interest organization when I have no experience in public interest law or its area of concern?

Summer job, yes. Permanent job, more unlikely.

If you are a 1L or a 2L looking for summer work, do what you can to demonstrate that you have a concern for public interest and access to justice issues and list any work you have done or time that you have given in the past to help folks (children, the elderly, animals, environment, etc.). Join a YLS public interest student organization, take a clinic, and get involved in pro bono projects offered at the school to gain experience and demonstrate your interest in public interest law generally and the specific area you are applying in, if possible. Topic area expertise, however, is sometimes not necessary if you have transferable skills and a public interest background.

If you are graduating and have not acquired any public interest experience, you are in a much more difficult position. Unlike a summer job where you can often ride on the fact that you can come for free from a highly ranked law school, employers for permanent positions expect a demonstrated commitment. You have had three years of law school and two summers to show this commitment and if you have not, it adds a burden to your job search. If you are in this position, contact your CDO advisor.

 

6. If I work at law firms after I graduate, can I make a switch later to public interest work?

It is possible, but several facts may conspire against you. First, you grow accustomed to the money. Just as you cannot imagine making $180,000 a year now, after you’ve made it for a few years you will not be able to imagine living on $50,000. You will have expenses that seem necessary. Family and friends will tell you that you are insane. Second, you will then have an uphill battle in actually getting a public interest job. Your resume may not demonstrate a recent commitment to public interest; your experience from a corporate law firm may not demonstrate the needed skills or knowledge. Quite frankly, everyone is a little suspicious about whether you are serious about the cause and if you’ll stay.

These can all be addressed by making sure that you do lots of pro bono work during private practice, maintain and cultivate contacts in the public interest community, and continue to live a simple life. If you cannot do pro bono, try to maintain your public interest ties through volunteering in a non-legal context, sitting on the board of an organization you care about, and/or joining relevant Bar committees.

Make sure you have an exit strategy: know when you’re ready to leave the firm. It could be when you’ve paid off a predetermined amount of your loans, when you have acquired a certain skill set, or another quantifiable benchmark. Planning in advance will make a huge difference when you try to make the switch.

 

7. But if I work only for government and public interest organizations, can I get a private sector job if I later decide I need, or want, to leave?

Yes, though the ease of the transition depends on what type of public interest job you have held and how long you have held it. It is obviously easier to get a job in private practice when you can show that your public interest job gave you skills and/or knowledge that are useful to the firm. Litigators in the public interest often make smooth transitions to private practice. Similarly, attorneys who have developed knowledge of government regulation in an area of interest to a firm often make lucrative career changes. To the extent that your experience is unrelated to your next desired job, and you have been in that position for a significant period of time, you must work harder to change jobs. The issue is not really private versus public, but moving to fields where the skills, knowledge, and contacts gained in your work experience are relevant.

 

8. But don’t big firms provide better training?

Not necessarily. Big firms typically have an organized training program while many public interest organizations and government employers do not. However, big firms typically do not allow a young associate, or summer intern, to handle the type or breadth of work that public interest employers do. It’s quite possible that you’d spend several years reviewing documents, researching, and writing memoranda. A small public interest organization where you find an excellent mentor and are given significant responsibility may well provide training far superior to anything a law firm can offer. Public interest employers vary enormously in the quality of their training and mentoring (as do some firms). You should inquire at the interview and affirmatively seek mentors during your employment.

Look closely at the skills and knowledge you are likely to acquire at a large law firm and see if these are transferable to the public interest work you desire. If you develop extensive knowledge of mergers and acquisitions at the firm, it is unlikely to be valuable in the public interest sphere. If litigation is your desired skill, learn what litigation skills you will develop at the firm and when. Think about how they would assist you when you apply to make the transition to public interest.

 

9. Can I survive on a public interest salary?

Only you know that. Can people survive on a public interest salary and lead happy lives? Sure. They do it all the time. Not only is this question enormously dependent on what you consider the essentials of life, whether you have a working partner, your geographical location, and whether you plan on raising some kids, but it is also dependent on the type of public interest work you pursue. The PIRGs employ an amazing group of committed attorneys and offer extremely low salaries; however, people working for the federal government will probably start in the fifties and can work up to well over $100,000. There are legal services organizations where the supervisors and directing attorneys make a very good salary. In addition, Yale’s loan repayment program (COAP) to pursue public interest work. Having said this, the comparison to large firm salaries will always be dismal. If you choose this life of a public interest lawyer, it’s best to stop comparing salaries and focus instead on your quality of life.

 

 

-Last updated September 2022