Today, lawyers choosing a public interest law career have many practice setting options. Traditionally, public interest lawyering was synonymous with a “legal aid” practice. In that model, lawyers represented clients at or near the poverty level in an array of civil legal issues.
More recently, the concept of public interest lawyering has expanded to include targeted work in non-profit and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These organizations may be local, state-wide, national, or international in scope. They often have a narrow focus, either on specific subject matter or a particular client population. For example, the organization’s mission may be to only handle death penalty post-conviction challenges or represent victims of domestic abuse.
In either the “legal aid” or “targeted” model, the lawyer generally will engage in one of a variety of activities: the direct representation of individual clients, general community awareness building, or advocacy/reform efforts. Many public interest lawyers find themselves doing a combination of types of practice over the course of their careers or, if they focus on one type of placement setting, moving within that environment between different case types or different activities.
A variety of factors may influence whether someone chooses to pursue a career in public interest lawyering. Some attorneys derive personal career satisfaction from ensuring that individuals’ financial status does not impair their access to the American justice system. Some lawyers derive career satisfaction by working in an environment in which there is a shared sense of “mission” with co-workers. Further still, some law students choose to attend law school in the first place because of their interest in a particular area of law, its application, or its reform.
Public interest law may also serve as a bridge for some attorneys; a public interest practice setting allows lawyers to gain exposure to, and experience in, a particular area of law before heading into private practice. For some attorneys, a public interest placement allows them the freedom to work in an area that interests them while still providing an economic safety net of a steady salary and benefits.
Further still, for some attorneys a law school clinical experience or internship was the catalyst. And for some attorneys, the existence of law school loan repayment programs for public interest careers was a tipping point.
Practice in either the traditional legal aid office or the specialized non-profit requires some shared core competencies such as effective communication skills and the ability to manage and prioritize work. Additional necessary skills, however, will vary by placement and focus.
For example, in the legal aid setting, some attorneys may have primarily a “litigation” docket because they are concentrating on family law cases. Expected skills for that attorney would include the full array of litigation advocacy competencies—developing a case theory, interviewing clients and witnesses, drafting and responding to pleadings, using alternative dispute resolution processes, conducting investigation and discovery, and trial advocacy.
Others in that same office may have primarily a “transactional” docket because they focus on estate planning. Expected skills for that attorney would include interviewing, drafting, and counseling clients in option selection. Still other attorneys in the same office may concentrate their practice on government benefits programs—such as obtaining disability benefits for a client—and so find their practice arena to be federal agencies with federal appellate review.
In the targeted placement, some attorneys may focus on large study projects and legislative initiatives, while others undertake impact litigation, and still others focus on individual client services.
Large study projects ordinarily include the collection and analysis of data that organizations publish and use first to explain why a particular problem exists and then to advocate various means to solve it. Legislative initiatives concern advocating for reforms to the law through legislative means.
Public interest organizations that undertake impact litigation attempt to use cases as vehicles for obtaining widespread reform. An example would be a challenge to the constitutionality of a law in the hope that a favorable judgment will impact certain behaviors (or failures to act) on a state or nationwide level. Class action lawsuits are sometimes used to foster change.
Each of the three mentioned targeted placements require its own set of skills (although some overlap may exist). Legislative initiatives require an understanding of the legislative process and legislative drafting. Impact litigation requires an ability to do case assessment and strategy, as well as familiarity with advanced litigation subject matters such as class actions. For individual client services, the expertise will largely depend on the type of services offered by the public interest organization.
Legal Aid Lawyering
There is a wide gap in service delivery for those who can afford legal counsel and those who cannot. In Texas, there is one attorney for every 354 residents. That ratio changes to one lawyer for every 11,000 residents when the measure becomes available attorneys for Texans at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. There are more than six million people in Texas who qualify for legal aid.
The major pro bono legal service providers nationally, and in Texas, are Legal Services Corporation (LSC) offices. Texas has three LSC-funded legal aid offices that cover the entire State: Lone Star Legal Aid, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, and Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas. Publically funded through congressional appropriation, LSC is a non-profit that was created by Congress in 1974. Its mission is to ensure equal access to justice under the law by providing civil legal assistance to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it.
The Texas Access to Justice Foundation is the leading funder of legal aid in Texas. Created by the Texas Supreme Court in 1984, it grants funding to more than forty organizations across Texas that provide free civil legal assistance to low-income Texans. All of these organizations provide potential employment opportunities for students interested in pursuing employment in legal aid lawyering.
Most Common Practice Areas
Given the vast diversity of the state, legal aid offices in Texas vary widely in their structure. These structural distinctions are reflected in the different “practice profiles” found in the attorneys working there. In the larger urban areas, legal aid offices tend to have “units” or specialized practice areas to which their attorneys are assigned. In rural areas, legal aid attorneys typically will have a more general civil practice that spans many case types.
Whether urban or rural, legal aid offices usually offer pro bono—which means there is no fee—legal services in family law (divorce, custody, and domestic violence), personal financial matters (consumer, tax, and bankruptcy law), housing, government benefits (social security and veterans claims, food stamps, and emergency assistance), estate planning and probate, specialized immigration matters, and ad hoc emergency matters such as disaster relief.
The career paths of attorneys in these offices also vary widely. It is increasingly common to find attorneys who have made public interest lawyering a long-range career choice.
“Targeted” Public Interest Lawyering
Practice in these settings can also vary greatly. Some entities are national, with smaller regional offices. Two examples are housed here at South Texas College of Law Houston: Human Rights First and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). Some entities have purely a state-wide or local orientation. Office size often dictates the profile of the practicing attorneys, and here, as with legal aid lawyering, it is typical to encounter a large number of recent graduates at the entry level.
Public interest groups undertake a spectrum of issues that is too vast to list in full. If there is a group or cause warranting advocacy or attention, chances are that there exists an organization advocating on behalf of that group or cause. For example, public interest attorneys advocate for immigration reform and assist unauthorized non-citizens, fight to enhance citizens’ privacy rights and litigate to curtail perceived government or private sector abuses, seek to defend citizens individually and collectively against various forms of discrimination, advocate for reform to the prison system, and try to protect against perceived infringements on citizens’ First Amendment rights.
Prospective public interest attorneys with specific interests and passions should take the time to research the broad array of public interest organizations operating in locations where they are willing to reside in order to find the correct fit and learn more about the particular platforms of these organizations. Even for those who do not yet have a well-defined practice area goal, careful research might lead students to learn about causes that had not occurred to them and pursue these causes as a public interest attorney in the future.
Financial Considerations for Public Interest Attorneys
As a general rule, public interest lawyering is not as financially profitable as mid-size law firm private practice, even within the same sphere of practice. For example, an attorney with the bankruptcy unit of a legal aid office will not earn at the same income level as an associate in a boutique bankruptcy firm.
The income gap often narrows when contrasted with small firm or solo practice. In general, salaries for attorneys working in legal aid or specialized public interest organizations are on par with those for public interest legal employment within the government. For example, in many regions, a local state prosecutor and a legal aid attorney will have comparable starting salaries and ancillary benefits.
The creation of Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs) in the last decade has somewhat altered the economic landscape for public interest lawyering. With a strong LRAP program, law school graduates faced with large student loans who also have a commitment to public interest lawyering are not forced to select the higher salaries of private practice in order to meet their loan obligations. Not all states have LRAP programs and not all law schools have LRAP programs. Texas, however, does have LRAP programs, as does STCL Houston http://www.ifausa.org/members/group.aspx?id=146463.
How to Use the Public Interest Law Pathway
The pathway accompanying this subject overview provides a core class progression for those interested in public interest law who do not know the specific area or type of law in which they want to practice.
Based on the range of possible skill sets public interest attorneys may need to acquire, students would benefit from taking at least one pretrial litigation course (such as Texas Pretrial Procedure or Civil Pretrial Advocacy), one advocacy course (such as Civil Trial Advocacy), one drafting course (such as Contract Building Blocks or Contract Negotiations & Drafting), and one ADR course (either the survey course or one of the listed mediation courses).
Additionally, to ensure an understanding of the legislative and regulatory environment, students would strongly benefit from coursework in Administrative Law and Legislation. State & Local Government may also be beneficial.
Finally, STCL Houston’s Interviewing & Counseling class provides important skills for interacting with clients and gathering information, and Case Assessment & Strategy offers a useful platform for understanding impact litigation—and how to approach litigation in general. Other courses listed on the pathway are required classes that further aid the would-be public interest attorney.
The range of available public interest opportunities, however, is incredibly diverse. As a result, when students develop a firmer understanding of the particular type (or range) of public interest law they wish to practice, they should modify or supplement their course progression with classes that provide further relevant skills and subject matter expertise. (Indeed, enrollment in several clinics requires that students first take certain courses that are not listed on the accompanying pathway.)
For example, a student who wishes to focus his or her career on impact litigation should consider additional coursework in Class Actions & Other Advanced Litigation and Remedies. Conversely, a student who realizes that he or she has no desire to litigate need not pursue the spectrum of litigation courses listed on the pathway.
As a final illustration, students interested in estate planning or family law would benefit from supplementing the accompanying pathway with courses that provide substantive knowledge of these subjects (as well as applicable procedure). For many specific subject matters, there are additional subject overviews and pathways that can provide students with further guidance.
Given the numerous and divergent opportunities available to would-be public interest lawyers, all of the courses are listed on the accompanying pathway as “recommended” even though many will certainly be “core” to particular career paths.Top