Attorneys often start law school with the goal of changing the world. Later, a heavy load of student loans and the need to practice with an eye on the bottom line disabuse many lawyers of those idealistic notions. You can, however, have both a successful legal career and work for the cause. Whether you volunteer some of your time while pursuing private practice, or decide to devote yourself to public interest full time, there is much to be gained from the career development perspective.
Public interest law is defined as the representation of people, groups, or interests that are traditionally underrepresented in our legal system. This work can be done in a variety of settings: government agencies, public interest law firms such as Public Counsel in Los Angeles, civic organizations, legal aid offices, law reform "cause" organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, charities, or educational organizations. Recently, the Los Angeles Daily Journal listed over 80 different organizations that provide legal services to the poor in California. In addition to the full-time attorneys who staff these organizations, most of them depend on a cadre of volunteer attorneys, as well. Most large law firms have pro bono programs that match volunteer attorneys with public interest opportunities (and will even allow you to count some pro bono time towards your billable hours requirement). Or, you can contact the programs directly if you wish to volunteer.
There is a wide variety of public interest work, and you can specialize. Traditionally underrepresented groups include: children, disabled, homeless, veterans, elderly, women, minorities, workers, gays/lesbians/transsexuals, consumers, AIDS/HIV, and the indigent. Within each of these groups there are issues of particular interest. For example, representation of indigent persons might include issues involving housing, government benefits, bankruptcy, and the like. Much of the criminal work can be found in death penalty appeals, or legislative or prison reform. The work can be litigation on behalf of classes or individuals, negotiating transactions, research, lobbying or policy advocacy, legislative analysis, community organizing and education. Thus, you can find something of interest.
Ideally, you should devote your pro bono or public interest time to issues for which you have a passion. You will be more effective and fulfilled. Public interest work is even more valuable in terms of career development if it is in support of a cause that your firm or company, or—even better—your clients, support.
Public interest work often affords early hands-on experience to attorneys who may not get those opportunities in traditional private law firm or in-house practice. A lawyer can be exposed to new areas of law and develop skills that will be transferable to private practice. Skills acquired through public interest or pro bono work are valued in the private sector, and there are many examples of attorneys who have landed positions with prestigious law firms after spending time in the public interest world.
Some of the career development benefits of community service work mentioned in a survey of General Counsels conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association include:
- provides an opportunity to give back and make a real difference in the community. It allows you to follow your passion and maintain a sense of who you are.
- offers an opportunity to meet people of influence in the legal and larger community, to enlarge your sphere of contacts for possible mentoring or business development, or even friendships. You can become known as one who cares, which helps current and potential clients like you.
- gives you balance and perspective. You become more well-rounded, gain new perspectives, and develop interests outside of law. Furthermore, it gives your employer another avenue to review and evaluate you. You can gain visibility in a wider arena and demonstrate your leadership skills in a setting outside of law. You can learn management skills and see how other organizations work.
- nourishes your soul and enhance your self-esteem. It can energize you, build your enthusiasm and self-confidence, all of which spills over into your work in the private arena.
Public interest employers seek strong legal and communications skills, of course, but look for other qualities, as well. Especially important is a demonstrated commitment to public service and passion for their cause. This can be shown through volunteer work, community work, involvement in organizations, even in a non-legal setting. They also seek good interpersonal and leadership skills, and the ability to assume responsibility, which, again, can be shown through your legal and non-legal "extra-curricular" activities. Because most public interest organizations are constantly looking for public money and private donations, grant writing and fundraising experience are a real plus. Many of these "value added" qualities are not usually found on your standard legal resume, so include an addendum of up to a few pages that lists all of your relevant activities, courses taken, speaking engagements and publications.
While it is true that, on the whole, public interest attorneys make less money than do attorneys in private practice, community service offers non-monetary rewards that may not be found in the private sector. Participating in pro bono and public interest law work is a win-win situation. Not only do you do something good for the community, you build your career. It is truly a case of doing well by doing good.