Is Public Interest Law Right for You?
Jennifer Wimberly is program associate at the Florida Bar Foundation in Orlando, Florida. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you went to law school because you wanted to “help people” when you graduated, there’s a good chance that public interest law is the right career choice for you. However, there are several important points to consider before you accept a public interest job.
How comfortable are you with regular client contact? More importantly, how comfortable are you with having regular contact with low-income clients? Most public interest law clients have incomes at or below the Federal Poverty Level. For 2007 that meant a single mother with two children had a total monthly income of $1430.
If you are interested in legislative or policy work and you are not interested in hands-on client work and litigation, you need to find out exactly what your duties will be before you accept a public interest law job. Look for a job where you will be regularly conducting research and writing memos on public policy issues. Otherwise you may find yourself miserable in a job where you must regularly meet with indigent clients and maintain an active litigation caseload.
What area of public interest law is your passion? It could be representing petitioners, usually women in domestic violence injunctions; representing tenants in eviction cases; representing migrant farm-workers in labor disputes; preparing advance directives for seniors; or helping the homeless or people who have a mental illness get public benefits, such as food stamps, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or Social Security disability benefits.
Are you willing to branch out into different areas of law? Frequently your public interest law client will have a problem with multiple layers. Consider the single mom who has come to your office for help because she was served with an eviction lawsuit. While interviewing her, you discover that because she has been a victim of domestic violence, she had not been showing up for work every day; as a result, she was considered a no call/no show one time too many and was fired from her job; with her last paycheck she had to make a choice of paying for her chronically ill child’s medicine or paying her rent; she paid for her child’s medicine and now faces the eviction lawsuit.
Ideally, in this type of case, as a public interest attorney you would work with other attorneys in your office to address this client’s needs holistically, first dealing with the most urgent and then prioritizing the others. For example, you might work on the eviction case while a family law attorney ensures that your client is safe by helping her with an injunction for protection against domestic violence; a public benefits attorney might help her apply for food stamps and Medicaid; and an employment law attorney might help her with unemployment compensation benefits. But if you work at an office with only two attorneys on staff, you could end up handling every legal problem your client has regardless of your specialty area. As emotionally trying as her case may be, when this client’s issues are resolved you will know that you’ve made a positive difference in her life when she needed it the most.
Can you handle the frustrations of practicing public interest law? Public interest attorneys can earn salaries much lower—often $15,000 to $20,000 lower—than attorneys in private practice, yet they may be required to carry the same caseload and bill the same number of hours. Private practice attorneys may think that you are not a very good or smart attorney because if you were you wouldn’t have settled for public interest law.
Clients will ask if you are a “real lawyer” because you give them free or low-cost advice that they do not want to hear. They will miss appointments and will not call you beforehand. Your clients’ phones will get disconnected a few days before trial, and you will have no way to contact them. Your clients may even cost you cases. You may rarely get a “thank you” from a client after you’ve put in countless hours of work on his case, and your paycheck that week might not be much of a “thank you” either.
Despite all of this, you may be the last hope the client has at turning a desperate situation around. You are giving a voice to the people who need it most. You could be the attorney who ensures that a child with developmental disabilities receives the free public education they deserve. You could be the attorney who makes sure that a local slum-lord never turns off another tenant’s electricity and water service to try to force them to move through a ”self-help-eviction.” You could be the attorney who works on community economic development and helps minority-owned small businesses become incorporated. As a public interest lawyer you will be the attorney who ensures liberty and justice for all.