Realities & Myths of Public Interest Law: Part I

A gold statue of Lady Justice with a bright blue sky in the background

by Bobby Larsen

Students often worry about their ability to find public interest work right out of law school and begin to panic as they see fellow 3Ls accepting law firm jobs. While jobs in the public sector are competitive and hiring may occur later than it does in the private sector, that isn’t always the case. Last year, 26 students, or roughly 21% of the class, were already employed in public service at the time of graduation, and at least eight more have joined them since. The percentage of Nebraska Law graduates working with nonprofit and government employers routinely exceeds the national average.

This is the first post in a multipart series where we will examine and attempt to dispel some of the common misconceptions surrounding legal careers in the public sector. We’ll be exploring the availability and timing of employment, salaries, and the workload of a public interest attorney. To kick off the series, 3L Bobby Larsen interviewed several recent graduates on the process of finding their first post-graduate job.

As I completed my first semester of 3L year last month, I began to grow concerned that I was “behind” my classmates who already have post-graduate employment lined up. Fortunately, conversations with the law college’s Career Development Office and recent alumni have taught me that most students who plan to pursue a public interest legal career do not have their first post-graduate job secured at this point.

I spoke to four recent Nebraska Law graduates, all of whom currently work in public interest law, about how they obtained their jobs. Their stories, printed below, have proven assuring and beneficial for me as I begin my own job search, and I hope they can provide the same assurance and benefits to other law students pursuing public interest law careers.

Alli Derr (‘18)

Employer: Nebraska Appleseed

Position: Staff Attorney - Child Welfare Program

Alli Derr clerked at Nebraska Appleseed throughout law school. Unlike some legal employers, Nebraska Appleseed does not have a structure where clerking is assumed to lead to a full-time position after law school. So, when Derr entered her second semester of 3L year, she began looking for full-time employment. Many public interest employers told Derr that she seemed like a great candidate, but they wanted someone who could start immediately and advised her to apply again once she passed the bar exam.

Derr also explored employment opportunities at law firms because so many of her peers seemed to be accepting job offers there. She said that applying for firm jobs felt like “the responsible thing to do, even though it wasn’t where I wanted my law career to go.”

Then, Derr received some great news. A position opened at Nebraska Appleseed and Derr was hired.

“I was lucky enough that a position opened up,” Derr told me, adding, “[T]he timing worked out perfectly. It was really, really lucky timing.”

Derr is thankful she did not accept a job for the sake of accepting a job earlier in her 3L year. She would tell current students interested in a public interest law career, “It really is worth the wait. You just have to be willing to wait and understand that working for a public interest organization is a lot different than a traditional legal career. Stand your ground and understand that folks around you might get firm offers in the summer or fall of 3L, but there are lots of really, really great public interest organizations in Nebraska that are wanting really awesome talent; people who are passionate. It was worth the wait and many of my colleagues [at Nebraska Appleseed] would really agree with that.”

Julia Dohan (‘20)

Employer: Colorado State Public Defender

Position: Deputy State Public Defender

Julia Dohan knew where she wanted to work after law school (Colorado) and what she wanted to do (work as a public defender). Right before her 2L year, she interviewed with the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office and was told a decision would be made at the end of the fall semester.

Not wanting to put all her eggs in one basket, Dohan traveled to Washington, DC for the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair. The annual event brings together hundreds of public interest legal employers from across the country. Dohan brought 200 copies of her resume and interviewed with as many public defender’s offices as she could. She left the Career Fair with offers from public defender’s offices across the country, which she relayed to her dream employer - the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office.

Dohan got the clerkship she wanted and spent the summer after her 2L year at the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office. She made sure to learn as much as she could. She asked multiple attorneys in the office how they took notes in client meetings, how they organized their week, when they went to visit clients in jail, and more. She had the opportunity to work on a jury trial, which her team won on a motion for judgment of acquittal.

After the summer clerkship ended, Dohan applied for a full-time job at the public defender’s office. She said the interview for full-time employment was much more casual than the interview for a clerkship because the attorneys knew her and knew her work product.

Dohan wound up receiving a full-time offer from the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office in mid-November of her 3L year. She was elated to have secured her dream job before she entered her final semester of law school.

Dohan’s story might not be the norm for public interest lawyers, but it demonstrates that with hard work, networking, and actively pursuing and forging a relationship with your dream employer, you never know what might happen.

Erin Olsen (‘20)

Employer: Legal Aid of Nebraska

Position: Housing Justice Project Staff Attorney

When December of her 3L year rolled around, Erin Olsen activated a job opening alert on ROSCOE, the law school’s online recruiting database, for public interest jobs in the Omaha and Lincoln areas.

“Then I tried my best to not think about it unless I got a job opening alert,” Olsen told me. “I focused on my public interest law clerk job and on solidifying my connections there to use as positive references.”

She also made sure her application materials were updated and ready to send to any potential employers. In February of her 3L year, she received an alert that Legal Aid was hiring an attorney for its Housing Justice Project at its Omaha office. Olsen applied within two days of the job being posted and interviewed the following week. By the end of that week, she had been offered the position. On top of the “relatively painless” application and interview process, Legal Aid was able to offer Olsen a part-time position for the period between graduation and passing the bar.

“I think there is some surface-level truth to the difficulty of getting a public interest law position as compared to a private interest position, but for the most part that gets over-exaggerated,” Olsen told me. “It seems like the biggest difference is not the amount of public interest jobs compared to private interest jobs but when the public interest jobs get offered compared to private interest ones.”

Olsen admitted that it was difficult to wait deep into the second semester of her 3L year when it seemed like all her classmates had been offered full-time positions months prior. (Although Olsen knew there were plenty of others in her position - law school just lends itself to comparing yourself to your classmates).

Olsen said that having a specific location in mind for future employment, as she did, can lengthen the job search for both public and private interest jobs. Ultimately, though, she had to remind herself what she wanted out of a legal career and was able to stay focused on her goals and find a career that she said is most in line with her values.

Hilary Sayre (‘20)

Employer: United States Army

Position: Judge Advocate General (JAG)

Hilary Sayre came to law school planning on joining the FBI after graduation. Then she met a Marine recruiter at a public interest fair who encouraged her to consider joining the Marine Corps JAG (Judge Advocate General) program. Sayre had not heard of the JAG program before but, after spending her 1L summer as a clerk in the Seward County Attorney’s Office, she applied to an Air Force JAG externship at Offutt Air Force Base.

Sayre got the externship as well as an Army JAG internship. After completing the Army JAG internship, she applied for a JAG position and was selected for active duty in early December of her 3L year.

“I think it is important for individuals who are thinking about public interest jobs to think about the desired job, then work backwards a few steps,” Sayre said. “I really do think success in public interest jobs is all about planning ahead and accepting jobs that might not be the dream job right away but set you up to be incredibly competitive later.”

Bobby Larsen is a third-year student at the University of Nebraska College of Law and a contributing writer for JDs Advancing Justice. Bobby is currently a clerk at the Lancaster County Public Defender’s office. He also serves as President of the Community Legal Education Project and Co-President of the Equal Justice Society. He is a member of the Student-Faculty Honor Committee and Pro Bono Committee and serves as an ex officio member of the Nebraska State Bar Association’s Legal Services Committee. He was selected in 2020 as one of the American Constitution Society’s Next Generation Leaders.