If you think a career in public interest law might be right up your alley, there are several ways you can find out more about the field before making that final decision. First, sit in on a trial or two at your local or state courthouse. Write down questions you have and terms or actions you do not understand. Then, talk to your school counselor and ask for help in setting up a telephone or in-person interview with a lawyer. Ask questions and get the scoop on what the career is really all about. Also, talk to your counselor or political science teacher about starting or joining a job-shadowing program. Job-shadowing programs allow you to follow a person in a certain career around for a day or two to get an idea of what goes on in a typical day. You may even be invited to help out with a few minor duties.
You can also search the Internet for general information about public interest lawyers and current court cases. After you have done some research and talked to a lawyer and you still think you are destined for law school, try to get a part-time job in a law office—preferably one that specializes in public interest law. Ask your counselor for help.
If you are already in law school, you might consider becoming a student member of the American Bar Association. Student members receive Student Lawyer, a magazine that contains useful information for aspiring lawyers. Sample articles from the magazine can be read at https://abaforlawstudents.com/stay-informed/student-lawyer-magazine/.
Public interest lawyers (PILs) may have different specialties, but all direct their services to a particular group of clients—those who may not have the means to pay for legal counsel. PILs often provide their services pro bono, for little or no fee. While the majority of their clients are individuals who are poor or on fixed incomes, PILS may also do work for public interest groups with a range of advocacy issues, such as the environment, adoption, or immigration.
Many PILs work for government-funded legal aid clinics and offices. For example, lawyers working for the Migrant Farm Worker Division of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) provide legal assistance to seasonal or migrant agricultural workers, some with alien status. These workers are mostly of Latino heritage. The TRLA provides civil legal service at no cost; its funding comes from a combination of support from the federal government and private foundations. Lawyers employed by the TRLA represent the rights of their clients regarding housing, employment, public benefits, and civil rights issues. They may also propose changes in welfare training and educational materials and services to these migrant workers. Lawyers working in this capacity are paid an annual salary, though much less compared to attorneys employed at a private firm.
Public defenders can also be considered public interest lawyers. Low income, or indigent, people charged with a crime are often assigned a public defender to assist with their legal defense. Public defender agencies, at the state and federal level, are supported by public funding. Full-time public defenders specialize in criminal law—offenses committed against society or the state, such as theft, murder, or arson. They interview clients and witnesses to ascertain facts in a case, correlate their findings with known cases, and prepare a case to defend a client against the charges made. They conduct a defense at the trial, examine witnesses, and summarize the case with a closing argument to a jury.
Other PILs choose to provide legal counsel or work as advocates for nonprofit organizations. For example, a public interest lawyer may serve as the director of legal services and advocacy for an HIV/AIDS organization. Duties for someone in this position might include influencing the policies and positions of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government regarding HIV/AIDS, monitoring HIV/AIDS issues and helping lead community alliances against the disease, and educating the public about political candidates' positions regarding HIV/AIDS. Other lawyers working for this advocacy group might provide legal representation, offer technical advice, and participate in interviews and forums about HIV/AIDS.
Lawyers employed at private legal firms may also practice public interest law. Many support the work of various organizations and charities by providing their legal expertise pro bono. In fact, the American Bar Association urges its members to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services a year.