Career As A Public Interest Lawyer

Have you spent the past couple of years working in the trenches trying to change the world but now find yourself wondering if a law degree would make the system work faster/better?

Or are you an undergraduate whose passion for issue “X” (be it the environment, international human rights, criminal defense, or juvenile justice) led you to conclude you “must” earn a law degree to accomplish your specific social agenda?

Either way, I strongly urge you to not take anything for granted and fully research your decision to pursue a law degree. Assuming you are past that stage, let’s get down to the business of evaluating what factors are most important for public interest law students when it comes to choosing a law school.

It may not be all about the money, or is it?
Needless to say, you are not considering a law degree because you want to earn the big bucks. But that doesn’t mean you can discount the HUGE role finances will play in your decision to go to law school. You need to consider both the amount of money coming OUT of your pocket in the form of tuition and expenses, and the amount of money that comes in from the school itself.

As you may have read, many law school graduates emerge with debts of $100,000 or more. And that figure doesn’t necessarily include undergraduate debt or debt from other graduate degrees.

Let’s start with all the factors related to money that public interest law students need to think about when considering law schools.

1. Public school v. Private School Tuition Costs
This may be a moot point depending on the amount of scholarships you receive (see the next item), but it still requires a mention. At one time, many years ago, the choice probably was a no-brainer. Unless you received a full scholarship at a private school, the public school undoubtedly was dramatically cheaper.

However, that is often no longer the case with state budgets funding less and less of the costs at state institutions (like at my alma mater, UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, where tuition doubled just a few years after I graduated). So let’s move on.

2.Scholarships/Tuition grants
If you have several offers of admission, you need to do everything you can to negotiate the best financial aid package you can get. Tell the schools what others are offering and see if they will beat the offer, or at least match it.

Also, keep in mind that some law schools have strict definitions of who qualifies as an independent adult and who is still considered a dependent (even if your parents aren’t giving you a dime!). This may make a HUGE difference for you if you’re one of the significant number of people who go to law school less than 5 years after graduating from college.

A few law schools have outstanding scholarship programs intended to provide full support to public interest law students. For instance, NYU Law School’s Root-Tilden-Kern Scholarship awards FULL tuition, regardless of financial need, to students who intend to pursue careers in public service. And Bill Gates recently funded a new program at the University of Washington Law School for public interest students that is even more generous as it covers tuition, room, board, academic supplies, and internship costs.

It goes without saying that the more scholarships/tuition grants you receive, the less debt that you’ll graduate with and the more likely you can pursue a career in public service. Still, this may not matter too much if the school has a generous loan repayment assistance program (see the next item).

Keep in mind that there are also outside scholarships that may fund a significant portion of your tuition to support your graduate education and some do not require a commitment to a career in public service. For example, immigrants or the children of immigrants can apply for the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, which provides $20,000 AND 1/2 the cost of tuition for a graduate education.

3. Loan Repayment Assistance Program
If your law school has a loan repayment assistance program, this means that law school graduates who meet certain parameters will have a portion or even their full loan payments covered by the school.

Who qualifies? Is there a salary cap so that you will have to decline pay raises in order to stay in the program? What loans do they cover?

You need to request the actual program guidelines from each school that you’re considering to ensure that you are comparing apples to apples. For example, Yale Law School’s program does not require that you work at a nonprofit or government agency. It’s strictly evaluated based on salary, so you could decide to work as a policy analyst or decide to ditch the law and go back to teaching third grade. On the other hand, Stanford Law School’s program does require you to take a law-related job but will cover ALL educational loans–your undergraduate loans, your law school loans, and loans from other graduate degrees. Make sure you know exactly what is being offered and ask questions if you’re not sure.

4. Summer Funding
Lastly, you should inquire whether the Law School provides financial assistance to support your volunteer work during the summer. The vast majority of public interest employers do NOT offer salaries to their summer interns and most students find that their academic year financial aid packages just barely cover their expenses, leaving nothing to pay for a summer internship in a major metro city, let alone going abroad to work for an international nongovernmental organization.

How much does the school offer? Is it guaranteed for all law students? What do you need to do to get it? Are there restrictions on what types of jobs are sponsored? For instance, if you choose to work for a private law firm that does public interest work (e.g., a plaintiff-side civil rights law firm), will you still be eligible? You might even ask the school for a list of representative employers who have had students sponsored before.

It takes a community to “raise” a public interest lawyer
Another major factor that can contribute to your success or lead to sheer misery is the law school community itself. Are there support systems for you or will you find yourself alone and bitter?

Faculty, Students, Alumni, and Staff, OH MY!
Yes, every school will offer pretty much the same first-year curriculum, but all bets are off after that first year. Are you a die-hard environmentalist who wants to join the Natural Resources Defense Council after law school? Make sure the law schools that you’re considering all have STRONG environmental law programs with faculty who have connections to NRDC. Have other students interned with NRDC? Are alumni working there? Does the school have a Center focused on environmental law with staff that also have strong networks?

Take a look at the schools’ websites to find out some of this information and ask the Admissions office at each school to refer you to students with similar interests so you can find out how their experiences have been. Are faculty accessible? Do alumni respond to requests for informational interviews? Are there student groups that focus on the issues you want to work on? Is there a law journal on the topic, too?

Investigate what staff resources are available to public interest students. Does the Career Services office focus entirely on the private sector? Is there a designated staff member (or more) that counsels public interest law students? Then ask students whether that person is an effective resource or just “window dressing.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I currently serve in this type of role at a local law school, though I’m not part of the Career Services office. I was largely motivated to take this job because when I was a student at Boalt, my sanity was saved by Boalt’s Center for Social Justice and its many inspiring programs that brought public interest lawyers to campus and reminded me why it was that I wanted a law degree.

Clinical program and public interest curriculum
More and more, law schools are finally coming around and offering clinics. Unlike medical school students who have mandatory clinical rotations, law school doesn’t yet require that law students actually represent a client and receive feedback before graduation. Sure, you have two summers to “do legal work” but those are rarely experiences that consider the academic implications of the work and garner extensive feedback. You’ll be fortunate if someone gives you verbal feedback, let alone a line edit of your work so you can learn and improve.

There are now more schools that offer clinics in a variety of fields. Going back to my earlier example of a pre-law student with an interest in environmental law, you should definitely make sure that your final law school choice has an environmental law clinic if you want hands-on practice in a closely monitored/mentored setting. Clinics have a VERY low student/faculty ratio and focus on BOTH serving the client’s legal needs and students’ learning experience. I can’t say enough about the value of clinics and find that my students consistently rave about their clinical experiences.

Of course, I don’t want to neglect the traditional “stand-up” law courses either. I recall taking some fantastic courses like Law and Social Change, Educational Law and Policy, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Immigration Law. If your law school is part of a larger university, you, too, may be able to take courses in the other schools. I enjoyed the access I had to the Haas School of Business and the Goldman School of Public Policy, and several of my classmates even pursued joint degrees.

Final Thoughts
If you are seriously committed to a career in public service, make sure your law school is as well. An administration that prioritizes support for public interest students will constantly be on the lookout for ways to enhance your experience, rather than resting on its laurels.

I wish you the best of luck in finding the right fit and thank you for making the commitment to make our world a better place.