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Podcast Episode Law

Spotlight on Public Interest Law

Is this Career Choice Right For You?

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Not all law students are headed to Big Law firms.  More now than ever, students want to do public interest work, as they seek a rewarding, balanced life, where they feel they can make a difference. What does a career in public service really involve? Which law schools are leading the way with curriculum offerings and opportunities for students? What do you need to know about financing law school if you are thinking of a career in the public sector? Our experts help shine the spotlight on this career path.

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Transcript:

Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process.  I’m Althea Legaspi.  There are many career paths for law students to choose from, and not all roads lead to Wall Street.  The appeal of public interest law is rising as students seek a rewarding, balanced life where they can make a difference.  What does a public service law career involve?  What opportunities and curriculum should you look for in a law school when pursuing public interest law?  And what should you know about financial support when you’re considering a career in the public sector?  In this Law School Podcaster segment, we gathered a panel of experts to get their take on these questions and to take a closer look at this career path.

Christina Jackson is Assistant Director, Public Interest Specialist at American University Washington College of Law.  Luke Bierman is the Associate Dean for Experiential Education at Northeastern University School of Law.  David Stern is the Executive Director of Equal Justice Works.  And Mark Kantrowitz is the publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org.  Together, they impart advice for students pursuing a career in public interest law.

First, what type of work might a lawyer do in the field of public interest?  Associate Dean for Experiential Education at Northeastern University School of Law Luke Bierman says it’s wide-ranging.  “Public interest work for lawyers includes anything lawyers generally might do.  It ranges from transactional kinds of work to litigation, civil, criminal, administrative.  It really depends on the kind of place and the kind of public interest work and employment that the particular lawyer has.  It’s really as broad as the practice itself.”

So, if the kind of work is similar in public interest and the private sector, how do these career paths differ?  David Stern is the Executive Director of Equal Justice Works, which was established by law students to create more opportunities in the public interest realm.  They also produce a free online guide to law schools that focuses on public interest law.  As someone who has worked on both sides, Stern says it’s more personal and satisfying working in the public sector.  “So, generally, legal services are available to the rich and to big companies, and not as readily available to middle class and low-income people.  So, there are, happily, a lot of people who graduate from law school who say, ‘You know what?  I just don’t want to go and work in a big law firm, and push papers for and do things that are part of the whole litigation process, which is, you know, discovery, which is a process by which the parties exchange information about each other’s case.  And with big complicated cases that’s a very labor-intensive and absolutely mind-numbing experience of going through cartons and cartons and cartons of documents, to make the decision about what documents get produced to the other side.  And a lot of young lawyers get very discouraged once they go to a law firm and they have a few years of that kind of experience, just reviewing documents rather than actually rolling up their sleeves and helping people.

“When I graduated from law school, I clerked for a couple of federal judges, and then I went to a small firm.  My judge said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to learn how to practice law, and the only way you’re gonna do that is to go and work with a really great practitioner.  Here’s this guy who appeared before us, you know, during our — my clerkship — he’s so fabulous; you should go and work for him.’  And he had a corporate law practice, and I went in there, and I cannot remember to this day whether or not we represented Friendly’s Ice Cream or the mall where Friendly’s Ice Cream leased space, but there was a fight between the two of them as to whether they renewed their lease in the right time.  And because it was… it had nothing to do with any issue that I cared about, I was… you know, I went through the motions; I did all of the writing and analysis necessary to represent our clients well.  But I have no recollection on which side I worked.

“And that was a really important ingredient to my happiness, is I wanted to make sure that the causes that I worked on were ones I cared about, cared about my clients, and you know, produced an outcome that really improved somebody’s life.  So the corporate and commercial transactions tend not to have that quality to them.”

If you’re interested in the public service sector, choosing the right law school is paramount.  As American University Washington School of Law’s Assistant Director, Public Interest Specialist Christina Jackson explains, applicants choosing a school should rely less on rankings and more on specific school offerings.  “The interesting thing is, particularly if you’re interested in the public sector, rankings, US News rankings, that type of thing isn’t quite as important, for two basic reasons.  The first is the types of employers that you’re going to be targeting don’t necessarily use GPA, class rank, those type of… journal or law review, that type of criteria, as their defining criteria.  And the second thing is you need to look at what your school is going to offer you, in order to give you the experience that you need, to go to the employer that you’re targeting.  So for instance, when you’re looking at law schools if you want to go into the public sector, you need to look at what are the experiential learning opportunities?  What are the clinics?  What are the externships?  How are you going to get practical experience?  Because for some public sector employers, there is no lag time, and there’s no training time — you must be ready to go directly upon graduation.

“You also need to look at what are the course offerings.  The public sector employers tend to be a little bit more focused on subject matter knowledge than the private sector may be, or maybe going forward.

“The other thing you need to look at is the places that the alumni are going.  Is the school known for being a public sector school?  Or is it known for being a private sector school?  And therefore, how are the resources allocated?  What are the student organizations that you can join?  What are the alumni that you’ll be able to be exposed to?  Where are there gonna be the connections for the type of employers that you’re looking for?  And that’s really the key.  If you are interested in a public sector employer after graduation you need to look at the schools that are going to help you get connected with those employers.”

Jackson adds that planning for a career in public interest takes extra homework.  “The biggest thing I tell students is to do your homework.  And that is so incredibly cliché, so what I mean by that is actually talk to people.  I know a lot of students get… or potential students get a lot of information on the Internet that’s fantastic.  Doing all of that research is great.  Look at the statistics.  See where people are going.  See what schools are telling you about themselves.  All of that, that’s really fantastic.

“But what you really need to do is talk to the people who are doing what you want to do, because they may tell you something completely different — ‘I took this one class that was so incredibly important, and if I hadn’t had that class, I probably wouldn’t have gotten this job.’  Or, you know, you want to work for the federal government, so you really want to be at a D.C. law school, for instance.  Something along those lines.  Oftentimes, I have students who come in and talk to me about what they want to do, and they haven’t talked to the practitioners who are doing that, so they aren’t sure.  There’s a disconnect between what they think they need to have, and what the employer’s actually going to want them to have when they graduate, and they may not have made the best decision in terms of classes that they’ve taken, or the school they have attended, that sort of thing.  So you really need to know what somebody’s going to want you to have at the end of three years, before you start on this long road of school and debt, and find out that you’ve maybe not made the best choice.”

Given recent economic conditions, the private sector has shed many jobs.  And the public interest realm is just as competitive.  While competition is high, Bierman says there are still opportunities.  “The legal field has become very competitive.  I don’t think that’s any news to anyone; it’s certainly no secret.  That doesn’t mean though that there aren’t opportunities to really find appropriate places and rewarding places to do the kind of work, and that does include the public interest arena.  Certainly the public sector employment and nonprofit employment has been squeezed over the last few years, as we’ve seen squeezing across the board in employment generally, not just in the law field but really across the board.  But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities and there aren’t ways.  And that’s why thinking about your career, what you want to get out of it, what a student… what a school can do to help support and introduce public interest opportunities and how that gets done, are all very important as one thinks about… as a student thinks about how to practice in this area upon graduation.”

While it’s no secret that the market for all law jobs, including public sector ones, is highly competitive, Equal Justice Work’s Stern says some law schools do employ their own.  “The public interest market for opportunities right now is pretty stagnant because there’s been a cut in funding from states and the federal government for programs that serve low-income people.  So generally, there are fewer opportunities for people to go into.  People are holding on to the jobs that they currently have.  There’s less turnover, and less opportunity.  Similarly actually, in the private sector, there’s also fewer opportunities.  A lot of the law firms have been cutting back their hiring practices.  So there are more unemployed recent law school graduates than ever before.

“The law schools have tried to solve this problem by employing their own.  They often will take a recent law school graduate and put them to work in a clinic, or to help them incubate new solo practices.  There’s actually a really interesting program at Pace Law School and at CUNY’s law school where they take recent graduates and they put them in a clinical setting where they can learn how to run their own law firm.  Because that’s not something that’s taught in law school.  And the goal is, is for the people who graduate from that program, is to actually set up sliding fee arrangements, so that they are accessible to a whole range of people who otherwise were without access to a lawyer.  So they would charge low-income people less money than they would charge those able to pay.  And it basically fills a gap right now that is, you know, really large, of the middle-income and low-income people securing access to lawyers.  For a fee.  You know, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s free services, but it’s a really neat program for launching lawyers into setting up solo practices or small law firms that would really serve a large percentage of the population that otherwise doesn’t have access to services.”

Stern adds that there’s potential need and a lot of turnover in the criminal justice arena of the public sector.  “There are a lot of prosecutors who are out there; not as many public defenders.  But that area is one where there’s just a large need, on really both sides of the equation.  Again, there are many people who graduate who want those jobs, and they’re very competitive to get, so I don’t want to make it sound like, ‘Oh, this is, you know, this is your ticket.’  But it happens to be a very large number of lawyers who are involved in the… if you were to go into a court, and you just watched people who came in and out, a lot of criminal justice issues are kind of a huge part of the docket on those courts.

“Another area is around poverty law.  The number of lawyers who work in legal aid programs around the country, trying to help low-income people solve their problems, whether it’s benefits, domestic relations, housing issues, food stamps, welfare, those kinds of things, those… there are hundreds and hundreds of lawyers who work in those legal aid programs, who really help those people who are in the most desperate circumstances secure access to the legal rights that they’re entitled to.  So, very rewarding work – also very competitive to get into those jobs.  And the one thing that’s the kind of pro and con: on the one hand you feel the incredible satisfaction of helping people who really are on the edge of despair.  And you help them get into a better situation, which almost always feels very satisfying.  On the other hand, turning away 90 percent of the clients that present themselves, because there are simply not enough resources, can really weigh down a lawyer’s psyche.  So, it’s not for everyone.  The people who do it, I find they are very satisfied, much more satisfied than those who are generally in the private sector, in terms of feeling like they’re making a difference on behalf of people who really need help.  But they also feel that burden of triage every day facing many more needy people than they can possibly serve, and feeling, you know, somewhat unhappy about having to turn away deserving people who they know, if they had enough time, they would be able to solve that person’s problem.

“One other area of growth, which again is something we’re trying to work on right now, is around homeless veterans.  The number of veterans who have given service to this country, who come back and find burdens or barriers to their reentry into life back in the States is really so disappointing.  The Department of Veteran Affairs has lots of programs and services that they offer, but many times it’s complicated to access those programs, and lawyers can many times help those veterans secure those benefits.  So we have 10 lawyers right now and we hope to grow it to 18, but that’s still a drop in the bucket  compared to the needs.  But the number of veterans who need lawyers to help them is really dramatic, and it’s growing a lot because of the people returning from service.  And you know, more lawyers are gonna be needed for that community.”

And there are also new trends and developments happening within the field and at law schools, which will aid in better training and placement in the future, as Jackson details.  “And so the first trend I think that might be perhaps the most important is going to be the law school piece.  And some schools do their post-graduate fellowships and that sort of thing differently, in that some will allow private sector employers to be included, students go to work for them, and will include the judiciary and will include the public sector and will set aside certain funds just for public sector, etc.  But there has been an expansion of these law school-funded post-graduation fellowships to enable students to go out and get the experience they need while they’re waiting for their employer to get over their hiring freeze, or they’re waiting for the bar passage, which happens a lot on the West Coast with the prosecutors’ offices, that type of thing.

“There has also been just in general an expansion of law student interest, and seeing the nexus between certain programs like a Presidential Management Fellowship program, which is a leadership program that the federal government has, or a Fulbright fellowship.  There are certain programs that are designed to be very broad, not just for J.D.’s, but for many graduate experiences, graduate degrees.  And a lot of students… J.D. students are starting to realize that these are gonna be ways in order to allow them to do the policy work that they might be interested in, or the advocacy work that they might be interested in, or to enable them to work for the federal government in a way that’s gonna be fulfilling, and not necessarily what they thought about in terms of a traditional practice.

“And then I think the last sort of new trend is in terms of hiring sort of generally.  And so the federal government has revamped the way in which they’re gonna hire entry-level through the Pathways program, and there are going to be some positions – while they won’t be attorney positions they will be entry-level positions appropriate for attorneys – that are gonna be available through that program.  And nonprofit advocacy organizations, those sorts of folks, still have all of the people they need to serve, particularly with the budget cuts they probably have… always have more than they can possibly serve.  And so they’re looking for ways to get funding for students to be able to work for them.  And so there’s just been this trend in terms of creativity, and everybody sort of working together to make sure that students are able to do what they love, because the economy has sort of beaten them up a little bit.”

Let’s take a closer look at some public interest programs.  Bierman details Northeastern’s: “At Northeastern we do a variety of things.  We have a very strong commitment.  It’s really one of the ethos of our law school, social justice, a commitment to social justice and public interest, tied in with the experiential education that we’re known for and have been doing for a long time.  Our cooperative education program is designed in many ways to help support students who are interested in public interest.  We have over 900 employers that students can go work with as part of the cooperative education model.  And that includes opportunities in a wide array of what would be characterized as public interest work – government, nonprofits, others around the world and across the country.  And we do have some financial support.  Indeed, we guarantee a stipend to every… at least one stipend to every student who wants to go do that kind of work, to ensure that we can help those students, indeed all of our students, understand and be involved in and bring the real important aspects of public interest work.”

Bierman describes the array of Northeastern’s curriculum offerings: “The curriculum for those interested in public interest would include sort of the regular kinds of courses.  Those are things that you would need to know.  But there are a variety of other things, particularly in the clinics where you go out and have clients who would be in sort of public interest settings.  And those might include a whole array of kinds of work that lawyers do to help people in the public interest.  But there are also specific courses that are designed to work in a wide array of what might be characterized as public interest, whether it be government, public defender, whether it would be in the health law area, or some of the developing technology areas, and intellectual property areas.  There are a variety of ways that curriculum development has occurred, keeping in mind public interest kinds of focus for students.”

Jackson details American’s program: “Our program is relatively comprehensive, in that we think about it in terms of courses.  We also think about it in terms of our pro bono honors pledge.  And then we think about it, thirdly, which may actually be more importantly, in terms of law practice being a service industry.  And so what we’ve tried to do, we have a separate office outside of our career office called ‘The Office of Public Interest’, in which we try to consolidate the advice about public interest courses, all of the funding options and assistance for loan repayment, and then getting students, even if they come in and they think, ‘I absolutely am gonna work in the private sector, and that’s all I’m gonna do’, which is absolutely fantastic, but getting them exposed to doing pro bono work and understanding that having a J.D. and getting this knowledge is a real gift that you can give to people, and help them through a problem or get them through a difficult part of their life.  And so we encourage all of our students to do the pro bono honors pledge, and we have a number of students with all different types of career aspirations that come into this program, and give back through our public interest program.”

And Jackson adds, American’s curriculum is grouped into five areas.  “You’re going to see constitutional law classes, anything from very basic to very specific, with respect to the First Amendment all the way to something very specific like political crime and terrorism.

“There are a number of general public interest law courses.  So for instance, an administrative law class, the federal government in particular loves you to have that type of experience because that comes in almost everywhere in any agency’s practice.  But there’s also some particular subject matter that seems more readily amenable to the public sector, like family law, elder law, that type of thing.

“There is a group of courses around health law, which has become a growing trend, particularly at our law school.  And so you’ll see things from the very broad health law, legislation and regulatory policy, to bioethics or something along those lines.

“Because our school is very strong in the international arena you will see a number of courses, again general to specific, but some very interesting things in terms of policy, in terms of particular subject matter, and then also in terms of having an international focus to some domestic things like environmental law, humanitarian law, and that sort of thing.

“And the final grouping centers around labor law, because that is a particularly strong area, I think, of public interest, and because right now there’s a lot of issues sort of surrounding particularly employment issues.  You’re gonna find a number of new course in that area that’s gonna help somebody go in that direction.  And that can actually help in either the public or the private sector.”

Clinical and experiential opportunities are important factors to consider for public interest law.  Jackson expounds on American’s: “The thing that you’ll find about clinical experience that I think is most valuable is you want to make sure that they are primarily direct client services.  So there are certainly some clinical programs across the country where it’s a little bit more brief writing, or a little bit more behind the scenes and that sort of thing, which is really fantastic, but if you’re interested in being a public sector attorney, you really need that on-the-ground hands-on experience.  And so you’re going to find we have several different clinics – immigration, domestic violence, general practice – that will give you lots of different subject matter, but will give you that ‘I have actually worked with somebody before leaving law school’ experience.”

And Bierman details Northeastern’s clinical and experiential offerings: “Northeastern has a pretty broad clinical experience.  We have a criminal clinic.  We have a domestic violence clinic.  We have… we just started a small business transactional clinic.  There is a poverty clinic.  There’s a number of clinics, much as you would find at other schools.  Again, what’s different here is the commitment that we have to experiential learning through our cooperative education program, and the fact that students go out and spend a year over four quarters in a variety of practice settings, one of which we hope – and almost all students do – in a public interest setting, and with the support that we provide them for that.”

While Northeastern has a pro bono requirement of a certain number of hours, American’s is currently not mandatory.  At Northeastern, Bierman says more than 30 percent of their graduates are employed in public interest jobs.  And Jackson says 27 percent of American’s 2011 class went into the public sector.  Both schools’ percentages are much higher than the national average.

Applying to schools that serve your learning needs for the public sector is critical.  And with the high cost of law school tuition, it’s also important to examine loan repayment assistance programs.  Fastweb.com is a free scholarship matching service, and provides other useful information.  And FinAid.org is a free encyclopedic guide to student financial aid, information, advice, and tools.  It also provides calculators that implement the various loan repayment plans.  Fastweb.com and FinAid.org publisher Mark Kantrowitz explains the benefits of the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007.  “The College Cost Reduction Access Act of 2007 implemented a variety of improvements in federal student aid programs, and paid for them by shifting some money from private lenders to the students.  So it reduced the subsidies for the lenders and increased the subsidies for the students.  Among other things, the law implemented a phased-in interest rate reduction on subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduate students.  It increased the income protection allowance for both undergraduate and graduate students.  And made a variety of other changes to the need analysis formulas and student aid programs.”

There’s also the Higher Education Reauthorization and College Opportunity Act of 2008, which established new loan forgiveness and repayment programs that benefits public interest lawyers.  Kantrowitz provides details: “Now the other types of loan forgiveness programs are upfront loan forgiveness, where each year you work in that particular occupation, a portion of your loans are forgiven.  It may be a specific dollar amount or a percentage of your loans.”

Kantrowitz advises to consider how committed you are to remaining in a public interest position when choosing which program fits your needs.  “The benefit of public service loan forgiveness is that instead of 20- or 25-year forgiveness, it’s 10-year forgiveness if you work fulltime in a public service job.  In addition, your loans have to be in the Direct Loan Program.  Now obviously, with public service loan forgiveness, you want to be in income-based repayment because it’s the remaining debt after 10 years in repayment that gets forgiven.  If you are in standard 10-year repayment there’ll be no debt left to be forgiven.  And there’s only three repayment plans that are eligible for public service loan forgiveness – standard 10-year repayment, income-based repayment, and income contingent repayment.  Income contingent repayment is like income-based repayment; it’s a predecessor plan.  But it’s not as good as income-based repayment.  So if you are interested in pursuing a public service career, you would prefer to be in income-based repayment.  So practically speaking, I usually just tell the students you want to be in income-based repayment in the Direct Loan program, and while working fulltime in a public service job.

“Now if your loans are in the FFEL program you can consolidate them to get them into the Direct Loan program at LoanConsolidation.ed.gov.  For most interested in public service loan forgiveness, pursuing a career in public interest law will be one of the better options.  Because someone working as say a public defender might be earning only 40,000 dollars a year, and the law school debt might be 120, 140 thousand.  Pretty much anybody who needs financial aid to pay for law school is going to graduate with debt, and the average debt is quite high these days, in the six figures.”

He also recommends students ask schools about their loan repayment assistance programs, which work in tandem with government assistance acts.  Though it’s a tough market and the public sector is highly competitive, these loan assistance programs, along with carefully choosing the school that will best impact your future prospects in this field, are paramount to helping you achieve your goals.  As Bierman relays, public interest law is both valuable to the community as well as beneficial to those practicing such admirable work.  “This is a really rewarding area.  And if it is something that students are passionate about, if it’s something that students think that they could really make a difference, they should pursue it and work hard to do well and to figure out the financial part.  But there are… there are opportunities out there.  They are wonderful opportunities and again, if we work hard and figure out the ways to finance it and to do good work so that students are well prepared, there are students graduating doing excellent work, rewarding work, work that contributes to our society in a number of ways.  And what we really need to do is help fuel that passion.”

For more information, a transcript of the show, or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit LawSchoolPodcaster.com.  Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school.  This is Law School Podcaster; I’m Althea Legaspi.  Thanks for listening, and stay tuned next time when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process, and beyond.

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