There are few professional fields that offer the practitioner more opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of others than the law. Nor are there many fields in which the need is so great: Studies show that only about 20 percent of those who need it receive adequate legal representation, and the poor are particularly vulnerable. While there are some practice areas to which a large number of lawyers are continuously attracted, the demand for good public interest lawyers continues to exceed the supply. Nonetheless, all lawyers have the ability, and many would say the obligation, to ensure that everyone, regardless of socio-economic status, has access to justice.
Lawyers can fulfill this obligation in a number of ways – one of which is pursuing a career in public interest law. This field can encompass a number of different practice areas, but the common denominator is that lawyers following this career path typically serve those who are traditionally underrepresented in the legal system. Examples of public interest legal jobs include:
- Assisting low-income clients at a legal aid clinic
- Providing representation to immigrants seeking asylum in the United States
- Advocating for legal and policy change on behalf of underrepresented groups such as children or the disabled
Pro Bono Duties
Other lawyers fulfill their obligation to ensure equal access to justice by providing free legal services, known as “pro bono” services, to clients outside of their regular legal employment. These lawyers recognize that no matter what area of law they have chosen to practice, they have a professional duty to volunteer their time and expertise when they can to people who may not otherwise be able to afford representation.
In fact, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rules state, “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”
Many aspiring attorneys begin fulfilling these professional obligations while still in law school. The ABA now requires law schools to offer law students ample public interest opportunities, and law students across the country are now actively engaged in making sure that our justice system works for everyone.
“Working for a public interest organization during law school is a great way for students to give back to their communities,” says August Farnsworth, Assistant Dean of Career Services and Professional Development at the University of La Verne College of Law. “Attorneys have a professional responsibility to help those in need, and it’s important to instill this value from the very first day of law school.”
But the opportunity to help others isn’t the only benefit for law students.
“Performing public interest work during law school gives students the chance to hone their legal skills, build their resumes, and explore a variety of practice areas to which they might not otherwise be exposed,” continues Farnsworth. “Students can gain experience in, for example, research, writing, and advocacy, which are the kinds of skills that all employers value, whether they operate in the public or private sector.”
Students who are interested in participating in public service while in law school have a plethora of options. At La Verne Law, for example, students can participate in:
The Disability Rights Clinic or the Justice and Immigration Clinic, where they earn class credit while working with real-life clients under the supervision of an attorney.
Externships with local public interest organizations where they gain experience in legal skills such as research and writing, interviewing clients, analyzing fact patterns, and more.
A Student’s Perspective
Focused on this call, 2L Taylor Bristol founded the La Verne Law Public Interest Law Foundation, a student group dedicated to assisting students who are interested in pursuing public interest work.
“I worked at the District Attorney’s Office and volunteered with Public Counsel’s General Relief Advocacy Project,” says Bristol. “Not only was I able to connect to my community and help those who need it the most, but I was also able to get some amazing hands-on experience.”
For Bristol, participating in something bigger than herself is one of the major benefits of doing public interest work.
“Public interest work can give you a larger sense of community,” she says. “Embracing the city or county in which you live, as well as its inhabitants, is a quick way to take oneself out of a ‘bubble’ and engage with others.”
- Lawyers have an opportunity, in truth an obligation, to represent those who otherwise do not have the means or access to representation.
- This call to service can begin in a lawyer’s career as early as the law school years, and opportunities are ample.
- Earning a law degree provides students with a myriad of opportunities and rewards, not the least of which is the ability to make a difference in the lives of those in need.