Seeking a Law Degree to Serve the Public Interest
February 16, 2012
Have you ever been so influenced by an experience that you became inspired to pursue a legal career aimed at serving the public interest? Maybe you witnessed a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance who was harmed due to lack of proper legal representation during a serious crisis, such as a brush with the law or a situation in which he or she was taken advantage of. Or perhaps, you yourself suffered an injustice and were aided by an attorney. Alternatively, you may have been motivated toward a career in public interest law after learning about people facing tragedies or unfair outcomes through your undergraduate studies, the Internet or your community service experience. Regardless of what has influenced you, the bottom line is that you now want to have a career path that is focused on helping others. As you consider your future law school applications and legal career, be sure to heed the following pointers to ensure that you’re headed in the right direction.
First, try to do some research to help you think clearly about what it is that you might want to do in the field of public interest law. Okay, I know. You want to help others. As an admissions consultant, I read this in early drafts of personal statements all the time, but as I always ask my clients, what does it really mean? Think about it. If you want to serve the public interest, you don’t need to join the legal profession to do so. Many doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and international aid specialists, to name just a few types of professionals, are in the business of helping others – and most are doing so without a law degree. Now, I’m not saying that you have to develop a detailed career plan prior to applying to law school. After all, a good law school education involves growth, change, and learning about a variety of practice areas. However, what I am saying is at this stage in your life, it’s good to at least begin to seriously consider some of the career possibilities that are available. If you’re looking to explore various paths in public interest legal careers, Harvard Law School’s career and specialty guides or Columbia Law School’s compilation of helpful publications can serve as a good starting point.
As you develop a clearer sense of your interests within public interest law, the second step that you should take, quite often hand-in-hand with the first, is to learn more about what various law schools have to offer. This will help you to target schools which have resources that can be directly applied to your specific interests. As you conduct your research, you should be aware that some law schools may not rate very highly in the general law school rankings, but are nonetheless highly regarded for their work in preparing students to practice public interest law. City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law is an excellent case in point. While CUNY Law is not generally at the top of everyone’s overall law school ranking, when it comes to public interest law, few schools can rival this program. Like other top public interest law schools, CUNY Law has outstanding practical training via law school clinics, in which students gain law school credit while representing actual clients or mediating real cases. To be sure, not all public interest clinics fit every student’s tastes. For instance, if you have a particularly strong interest in environmental law, you may find yourself more drawn to schools like, Vermont Law or University of Arizona Law, which have a lot to offer in this specific area. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in, say, veterinary law, Duke or Lewis & Clark Law School may be a better fit for you. The bottom line is that if you’ve got an attraction to a certain area within public interest law, you can find multiple law schools that meet your substantive needs. To be sure, this doesn’t mean that you should box yourself in. Most law schools have more than one type of public-interest law clinic, not to mention other resources which you may find appealing. For instance, public interest-minded students attending NYU Law School not only have a range of great clinical and academic programs to consider, but also easy access to the school’s Public Interest Legal Career Fair, the largest such career event in the country.
Finally, while gaining a better sense of what kind of career you might want in public interest law, as well as a good grasp of which schools that could get you off on the right foot are important, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that all future law school students – but especially those going into this field – need to think seriously about how they’re going to pay for their legal education. After all, public interest attorneys aren’t usually known for raking in the big bucks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with raking in the big bucks.) That’s why considerations from applying to in-state schools to applying to schools with Law School Assistance Programs, or LRAP’s, can be important when it comes to school selection. LRAP’s generally provide graduates facing educational debt and low paying public interest jobs with funding to help offset the weight of their financial burden. Visit www.equaljusticeworks.org for more information and opportunities related to public interest law, including a list of the more than 100 law schools with LRAP’s and links to their policies. Keep in mind that you will surely find some LRAP’s to be more favorable than others.
As you can see, if you’re considering a career in public interest law, there’s a lot to think about. And this is only the beginning. So, the next time you tell someone that you’re going to law school in order to help others, you might want to take some more time to investigate which career paths you are really open to pursuing and which types of law school programs are especially suitable given your interests.
Now, go out there, do your research, and get ready to make lifelong contributions to the public interest. The legal profession and, indeed, the world need more people like you.