What is public interest law?
Public interest law does not describe a body of law or a legal field, but rather can refer to work in any legal field. The term describes who lawyers represent, not on what legal issues they work. Public interest lawyers work to ensure legal representation is available to all members of society. Their primary goal is to increase access to the legal system, not to make a profit. But, this does not mean that public interest work is unpaid; the salary range for public interest lawyers varies as much as the type of work done.
Who are public interest employers?
Public interest employers include non-profit advocacy and reform organizations, direct service providers, public defenders, government agencies, and prosecutors.
What is public interest legal work?
Litigation, lobbying, policy development, alternative dispute resolution, and community outreach and education are among the legal strategies employed by public interest lawyers.
How can I prepare to practice in the public interest at Nebraska Law?
Current Nebraska Law students can prepare for their public interest legal career goals by being active public interest law students. Many opportunities for student involvement are available, including public interest student organizations and curriculum options. Students also have access to a wide variety of public interest employment opportunities.
Alumni can continue to take advantage of the strong connections between Nebraska Law and many post-graduate public interest employers through fellowships, judicial clerkships, and government honors programs.
Many public interest resources are available to current students and alumni, including information on loan repayment assistance and networking tools.
Current Nebraska Law students can prepare for a career in the public interest by being active in public interest student organizations. The opportunities for student involvement include:
- Equal Justice Society (EJS)
- Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA)
- Nebraska Public Interest Law Fund (NPILF)
- Immigration Clinic Lottery
Why should a “public interest law student” consider…?
- enrolling in a Clinical Program
Experience working in a law school clinic might be the best opportunity for students to demonstrate their commitment to public interest work. Senior Certified students gain hands-on experience, explore a field of interest, and learn about a type of work they may want to pursue. Clinic experience also shows potential employers that a student has already acquired concrete skills and practical experience, in addition to ideals and dedication.
What is required to be a “Senior Certified student”?[Student Services]
A student must have completed 60 hours of coursework, which translates into 33 1L hours, and an additional 27 hours of upperclass courses, to be in “senior standing”. Students in senior standing may begin the Senior Certification process with their supervising attorney and the Dean.
- participating in the Pro Bono InitiativeCurriculum The pro bono initiative is a way to gain practical experience, while also gaining recognition for volunteer legal work. Pro bono work frequently allows students to assume more responsibility than a clerkship or externship, and must be certified by an attorney. This can be an excellent networking opportunity. And, above all, pro bono work helps clients access legal services which would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.
- registering for an “Externship”Curriculum A summer or semester-long externship is a frequent alternative to a paid clerkship. Externships allow students to work for organizations that may not otherwise be able to offer employment, while earning academic credit instead of a paycheck. In addition to providing an academic and hands-on learning experience, externships also allow students to build relationships with their supervising professor and attorney.
- pursuing a work study opportunity Work Study opportunities will be available with
- in the near future. Students who qualify for Federal Work Study as part of their financial aid may apply for a position with an approved employer. Work Study funding allows students to seek employment with organizations that would not otherwise be able to offer paid positions.
Employment Opportunities for Students & Alumni
Public interest law can refer to work in any legal field, and public interest employers can include non-profit advocacy and reform organizations, direct service providers, public defenders, government agencies, and prosecutors. Nebraska Law students and alumni have developed strong working relationships with many public interest attorneys and other individuals, resulting in many employment opportunities. A few Nebraska public interest and public service law organizations include:
Non-Profit Advocacy Organizations
Non-Profit Reform Organizations
Direct Service Providers
- Legal Aid of Nebraska
- Lancaster County Public Defender
- Immigrant Legal Center (formally known as Justice for our Neighbors)
Government Honors Programs
The NALP Fall 2010 “Snapshot Survey” of the Public Interest Employment Market indicated that federal government attorneys expect growth in several practice areas in the near future. Information about government employment opportunities is available at a Career Development Office presentation each year at the beginning of the Fall semester.
In addition, the Government Honors & Internship Handbook is a comprehensive online listing of internships and post-graduate opportunities for law students and attorneys. It lists all major federal programs, and many state and local programs as well. This resource has current, frequently updated information on specific opportunities and application criteria. The password to the Government Honors & Internship Handbook can be found in the Online Resources section.
Post-graduate fellowships provide recent law school graduates with many opportunities. Fellowships allow recent law school graduates, and outgoing judicial clerks, to launch careers in public interest law and typically last for one to two years. Because public interest organizations do not ordinarily follow the OCI calendar, it can be difficult to secure post-graduate public interest employment. Fellowships bridge the gap between graduation and permanent full-time employment. Fellowships can broadly be separated into two general categories: project-based and organizational.
Project-based fellowships allow fellows to create a new project at a fellowship sponsor. These projects are generally intended to address new legal issues at the host organization.
- The largest project-based fellowships are through Equal Justice Works and the Skadden Fellowship Foundation. These are also among the most prestigious and highly sought after fellowships.
- Other project-based fellowships include the Soros Justice Advocacy Fellowship, Echoing Green Fellowship, U.S. Fulbright Program, and the Institute for Educational Equity and Opportunity.
- Because deadlines are often in the early fall, students interested in pursuing a project-based fellowship should begin developing a proposed project during their second year of law school, or during the summer before their third.
- For more information on project-based fellowships, see Professor Jessica Shoemaker[Faculty and Administration]. Professor Shoemaker was a Skadden Fellow following her judicial clerkship. She is interested in working with students who may wish to pursue a project based fellowship.
Organizational fellowships are fellowships at existing organizations for a term of one to two years. Whereas project-based fellowships require fellows to develop a new project of their own, organizational fellowships have fellows work on projects created by the organization.
- Examples of organizational fellowships include: ACLU fellowships and Southern Poverty Law Center Fellowships.
Additional Fellowship Information:
Presidential Management Fellows
The Presidential Management Fellows program provides training and development for graduate students interested in the analysis and management of public policy. Two members of the Nebraska Law Class of 2011 were successful in navigating the PMF program’s rigorous and lengthy selection process. The goal of the PMF program is to create a new generation of leaders; it is an excellent opportunity for students with strong analytic, leadership and writing skills. The application period is typically in October each year.
The Skadden Fellowship
Skadden Fellowships Foundation selects academically outstanding law school graduates and judicial clerks for a two year Fellowship. The aim of the foundation is to give Fellows the freedom to pursue public interest work. The Fellows create their own projects at public interest organizations, and Skadden provides each Fellow with a salary, benefits and law school loan repayment assistance. This competitive program was established to provide greater funding for legal services to the poor (including the working poor), the elderly, the homeless and the disabled, as well as those deprived of their civil or human rights.
Equal Justice Works Fellowships
Equal Justice Works funds qualified and passionate lawyers who have developed innovative legal projects to serve communities in desperate need of legal assistance. During their two-year tenure, EJW Fellows receive a competitive salary, generous loan repayment assistance, and connections to their sponsors. In addition, the EJW Fellowship provides an opportunity to participate in a national training and leadership development program.
Public Interest Resources
Online Employment Resources
- Visit the Equal Justice Works link to find information about attending the annual Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair, one of the largest Public Interest Law career fairs in the country. You can also apply for a grant through the Equal Justice Works Fellowships programs, which fund hundreds of public interest attorneys each year, and learn about loan repayment assistance and forgiveness programs. The Equal Justice Works guide to law schools is also available online, to find out what public interest options are available at other law schools. This is a great resource for ideas on how to improve current programs or create new initiatives.
- The PSLaw Net website link an amazing resource for anyone who is interested in public interest legal work, but unsure what specific career options to explore. From explanations of different public interest areas and advice on pursuing a career in that field, to a database of job openings, similar to ROSCOE, PSLaw Net has just about any information a job seeker needs. Even if you cannot find a job you would like to apply for on this site, you may get a better idea of what is out there and what you are looking for, which makes it easier to use other resources to find it.
Online Financial Resources
Recent federal legislation, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, includes two provisions that are particularly relevant for law students and alumni. Income Based Repayment is available to borrowers with high loan debt and a relatively low salary. Public Service Loan Forgiveness is available to individuals working in a public service field.
- Income-Based Repayment (IBR) income-based-repayment.pdf is a repayment plan for the major types of federal student loans. IBR caps the required monthly payment at an affordable level, based on income and family size.
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) public-service-loan-forgiveness.pdf allows qualified borrowers to apply for forgiveness of the balance due on their eligible federal student loans. Borrowers may apply after mading 120 payments on those loans under certain repayment plans, while employed full time by certain public service employers.
- IBRinfo.org link a plethora of information about income-based loan repayment, including a calculator useful for figuring monthly payments.
- Heather Jarvis link a student loan expert. Her webinars and blog shed light on the complexities of the Income-Based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs.
In addition, the University of Nebraska College of Law has created a Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) to encourage and assist students who seek public interest employment.
- The LRAP was developed to provide financial assistance to Nebraska Law graduates who pursue public interest positions, and to help meet the need for competent, qualified attorneys working in the area of public legal services. Under this program, loans will be made to eligible graduates to assist them with repayment of qualified loans used to finance their legal education. The loan is fully forgivable at the end of each period in which the loan is made if the applicant meets the program’s cancellation provisions.
- Public Interest Law The use of law to provide legal representation to historically underrepresented people, groups, or interests.
- Public Service Law A legal career in a local, state, or federal government body. Many, but not all, public service legal careers also involve public interest work. This website includes public service law under the broader term “public interest law.”
- Pro Bono The short form of the Latin phrase pro bono publico, which means “for the public good.” Pro bono work is legal work done by an attorney without charging a fee. All lawyers, in private practice as well as public interest and public service lawyers, are encouraged by the ABA to complete pro bono hours.