Johnson headed straight for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she quickly discovered that Georgia had no workplace protections for gay and lesbian employees. “I had no idea what my rights were. I was complicit with how things were. I had never done anything LGBT-related,” Johnson says. “It was a bad experience. In hindsight, it gave me a passion.”
Because the law couldn’t help her, Johnson decided to head to law school. She had one goal: to advance LGBT rights, especially in the South and especially related to employment and economic security.
Johnson now works as director of policy and campaigns at Athlete Ally, a small national organization headquartered in New York City that uses the popularity of sports to lobby for gay and lesbian rights. Athlete Ally rallied sports figures and sponsors to object when Indiana passed a religious exemption law that seemed to enshrine discrimination against members of the LGBT community. The state, expecting the imminent arrival of basketball’s Final Four, backed down.
“I do see us making a difference—more than I thought,” says Johnson, a former college basketball player. “This is the next frontier of LGBT law. I wanted to be here for that.”
Public interest lawyers who follow their passion find homes at nonprofit organizations that litigate or advocate on topics ranging from reproductive freedom to voters’ rights, civil liberties, immigration, and more. They land at legal services organizations that provide representation to those in poverty, domestic abuse survivors, veterans, the disabled, and other underserved populations. They work in small alternative firms or set up their own.
The Power of Family History
Rachel Meeropol never deviated from an idea firmly rooted in her mind before law school: She wanted to work on prison law. Her father’s parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were imprisoned in 1950 on allegations of spying for the Soviet Union and were incarcerated until their execution at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, three years later.
“I spent a lot of time as a kid thinking about [my grandparents] being in prison for a period of time and maybe that came from a picture of my dad and my uncle as little kids walking up to visit their parents on death row,” Meeropol says. “Thinking about the human impact of our system of incarceration from a personal perspective made me really care about the issue at a young age.”
At the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City since earning her JD in 2002, Meeropol is now a senior staff attorney addressing issues of prisoner rights, as well as government misconduct, First Amendment rights, and Muslim profiling. For five years, she litigated Ashker v. Brown, challenging the use of long-term solitary confinement in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison to isolate inmates because of alleged gang affiliations. A settlement in the prisoners’ favor in the summer of 2015 extends to correctional institutions across the state, and Meeropol is monitoring implementation.
A Gender Divide of a Different Stripe
Johnson and Meeropol are among a sturdy faction of women who pursue law degrees specifically to undertake public interest work. For them, law is not merely a profession, but a tool for social good.
Research by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) in Washington, D.C., found that 7.3 percent of the approximately 42,000 law graduates in 2014 entered public interest law (defined as legal services, nonprofits, and public defender offices), according to Christina Jackson, director of public service initiatives & fellowships. This compares to 9.2 percent of the graduates who accepted judicial clerkships, 12.2 percent who went to government jobs (including prosecutors), and 51 percent who entered private practice. While jobs in other sectors have declined since the 2008 recession, public interest jobs have grown slightly each year.
Sixty percent of public interest positions in 2014 were filled by women, even though women accounted for only 47 percent of the law school graduates. So many women enter public interest law that it has created a gender divide of a different sort. Overall, 9.5 percent of women law graduates enter public service law compared to 4.3 percent of men.
Still, the competition for public interest jobs is intense, says Jackson, who runs PSJD, an initiative of NALP that supports law schools in their public interest programming. (See sidebar.)
Ann Cofell finds that candidates are so eager to join her office at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA) that they apply for positions as paralegals or lawyer volunteers, hoping to get on the inside track. As MMLA deputy director and supervisor of offices in St. Cloud and Willmar, Cofell began doing legal services work in this rural region of mid-Minnesota right out of law school. That was 35 years ago, she says, and, after a long pause, adds, “tens of thousands of cases ago.”
Cofell’s representation focuses on public benefits and family law, although she’s also handled housing, disability, and immigration cases. Her office is pioneering a domestic violence program with a local prosecutor to deliver “holistic” services to victims in certain felony cases. For her contributions, she was honored in 2015 with the Athena Award by the Women’s Fund of the Central Minnesota Community Foundation.
Originally, Cofell had an idea that she would do employment discrimination cases, but she yearned to work directly with clients. Now she does. “On every case I can feel like I’ve touched a person’s life. I can’t always make it better, but I don’t make it worse,” Cofell notes. As proof, one of her clients stopped by 20 years after the successful decision on her public benefits case, still proudly carrying the original ruling in her backpack.
Wrangling with Pay Disparity
After the JD, a 2004 study by the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education and the American Bar Foundation, found that public interest lawyers put in a median of 45 to 49 hours a week (compared to 50 to 55 hours in the private sector), but with less access to vacation, time flexibility, and family leave. Job satisfaction registers high on the type of legal cases they handle but drops significantly on opportunity for advancement, recognition, and compensation.
The annual pay at civil legal services in 2014, according to NALP, was $44,600 (median) for entry-level employees—although in some communities, the starting salary only came to the mid-thirties. Those in the 11- to 15-year range earned $65,000 median pay. Public interest nonprofits had slightly higher median salaries—$46,000 upon entry; $75,000 in the 11- to 15-year range. By contrast, median entry salaries at private law firms were $125,000 in 2014, with median entry pay at firms of two to 25 employees at $68,000 and at large law firms in major cities as high as $160,000.
The clustering of women in the low-paying sector of public interest law is something that should concern the entire legal profession, according to Katie Dilks, assistant director for public interest programs at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. In the NALP Bulletin in 2010, Dilks said low public interest pay contributes to overall pay disparity. She asks two questions: Does the low public interest pay mean that we value public interest practitioners less? Does the low public interest pay mean that we value women lawyers less?
But these questions haven’t stopped the streams of women opting for public interest law careers.
“You won’t make six figures, but you won’t be in poverty,” says Kahlida Lloyd, who practiced at legal services in the Virgin Islands for four years after graduating from law school in 2010. “You’ve got to be excited about the work. Transactional law—you don’t have to have a passion for that. Public interest law—you have to be committed to doing things differently. I knew that this is what I wanted to be and do, so in order to do that, I’d have to pay for it,” says Lloyd, an ABA Scholar in the Young Lawyers Division who is currently engaged in contract work in Washington, D.C.
More mechanisms have developed in the past decade or so to help young lawyers get started in public interest positions. Public interest law fellowships are sponsored by firms and foundations, including the Skadden Fellowship Program and Soros Justice Fellowships. Equal Justice Works, a 30-year-old nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., manages several funded fellowship programs that pay law graduates to work in public interest. In 2014–2015, Equal Justice Works sponsored 259 fellowships, 209 of which are held by women. Still, for every law graduate who is accepted, two others are turned away.
For her Equal Justice Works Fellowship, Brooke Weitzman has a position at the Operation Veterans Re-Entry program of the Public Law Center in Santa Ana, California. She works on legal matters of housing and public benefits for low-income veterans. In one case, she prevented a Korean War veteran from being tossed out of subsidized housing by proving the veracity of his reported income.
Weitzman, also an ABA Scholar, doesn’t actually have an office so much as a partitioned cubicle and a desk piled with papers. Because she can’t hang her 2014 diploma from the University of California, Irvine School of Law, she pins notes she’s received for her representation. “People are really grateful. The people we work with wouldn’t otherwise have access to any help, so they are the most vulnerable,” says Weitzman, who set out to use the law to help the homeless after a high school experience working in a shelter with AmeriCorps.
Before securing an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellowship at Rhode Island Legal Services, LaTri-c-ea McClendon-Hunt volunteered at legal services for a year. When she graduated from law school, her entire extended family showed up—she was the first person in the family to earn a post-graduate degree. Getting the first opportunity to practice public interest law, as she intended, was much harder.
Now that she has a fellowship, she is able to help people expunge criminal records and traffic convictions that present barriers to employment. “In some circumstances, it has really changed their lives—night and day,” she says. “Every morning I have that feeling: I’m excited to get up; I’m excited to go; I’m excited to meet with clients.”
Saved by Loan Forgiveness, or Maybe Not
Those who go into public interest law have another challenge: managing law school costs and debt. According to the ABA’s Governmental Affairs Office, the average graduate from a public law school in 2014 had $84,000 in debt; graduates from private institutions accumulated $122,000. Many public interest law students depend on loan repayment forgiveness programs, or LRAPs, offered by their law schools, places of employment, or government programs.
A 2007 federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program permits educational loans to be wiped off the books if the borrower completes 10 years of payments and simultaneously works full time in the public interest sector. But in 2015, the House Budget Committee recommended elimination of the program and the Obama budget suggested major cuts.
In response, lawyer Stephanie Woodward tweeted a 2013 picture of herself in cap and gown and wheelchair. “I went [to] law school 2 help disabled ppl like me who [are] discriminated against. W/o loan forgiveness I can’t do this work,” she wrote.
PSLF survived the 2015 budget, but observers anticipate that it will be targeted again.
Woodward, director of advocacy at the Center for Disability Rights in Rochester, New York, uses litigation, legislation, policy proposals, media outreach, and direct action to aid people in the disability community. She stepped in when city busses were passing up passengers in wheelchairs and when a restaurant remodeled but failed to make an accessible entrance, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act. She drafted federal legislation to give effect to a court decision requiring health insurers to provide home care for the disabled who are ill.
“There is so much discrimination out there. It’s not just about rights; it’s about acceptance,” Woodward says.
On a recent time sheet, Woodward documented 110 hours of work in a single week. “I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner here,” she notes.
Woodward has a loan repayment plan that allows her to pay based on her income. Without that, she says she would owe $3,000 a month. With it, she pays $600 a month for 30 years—but she is hoping to qualify for PSLF after 10 years.
Some lawyers are able to survive financially through law school scholarships or special funding.
Mitra Ebadolahi, a 2008 law graduate, was a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar at New York University, one of the best-known public interest scholarship programs. She now works as staff attorney on the Border Litigation Project, a national project of the ACLU operating from San Diego, California, and Tucson, Arizona.
“I went to law school very intentionally to learn the language—the language of the law,” says Ebadolahi, who emigrated with her family from Iran to Southern California. With knowledge of the legal system, she believed she would be able to help immigrants navigate unfamiliar territory.
The Border Litigation Project, less than three years old, deals with untested concerns about U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the largest federal law enforcement agency. Ebadolahi’s position combines legal issues on national security, racial profiling, and immigrant rights. She says many new government powers have failed to incorporate sufficient protections for vulnerable people.
Her cases include a First Amendment challenge on the right of citizens to photograph border patrol agents; a Fourth Amendment matter alleging the excessive use of force in the cross-border shooting of a Mexican teenager; and Freedom of Information Act actions seeking public documents related to child abuse and neglect in detention facilities.
“To be able to defend the Constitution and my clients’ basic rights—it’s a remarkable privilege,” Ebadolahi says. “I wish there were more opportunities for people with law degrees who care about justice to represent people who otherwise cannot access the system at all.”
Sidebar: Law Schools Step Up to Public Interest
Law schools are increasingly addressing the needs of students seeking public interest law careers.
Two hundred law schools subscribe to PSJD, the public interest initiative of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), says Christina Jackson, director of public service initiatives and fellowships. The site has a job board, fellowship opportunities, career fair information, skill seminars, and salary research.
Of the subscriber schools, 57 have dedicated public interest counselors and as many as 15 have separate public interest offices. Jackson notes that in 2014 schools funded 1,455 “bridge-to-practice” jobs aimed at public interest work. “There will be some pressure to go into a private sector, but we’re doing a good job of giving people a sense of their options.”
Hillary Exter is a director at the 25-year-old Public Interest Resource Center at Fordham Law School, based in New York City, which does individual career counseling with 100 students each year who are seeking to undertake public interest law. Exter worked as a legal services lawyer on housing and community development for more than two decades before joining Fordham in 2005, but, she recalls, she had not had the benefit of any dedicated public interest people where she went to law school.
Exter says Fordham also works with 300 students in hands-on public interest externships—two-thirds are women. “I think, sadly, it’s more acceptable for women to be going into helping professions,” she notes. “Both men and women enjoy the challenges of going into public service. It’s really transformative.”
The ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service maintains resource pages on its website with information on law schools and public interest work. A small number of law schools listed identify primarily as centers for public interest law—one is the University of California, Irvine School of Law, which opened its doors in 2009.
The 30-year-old City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, located in Queens, New York, describes its mission as public interest law. “There’s a huge need for lawyers to work in service of human needs,” says Julie Goldscheid, senior associate academic dean, who worked on women’s rights at Legal Momentum in New York City.
CUNY law students are admitted based on a demonstrated desire to enter public service law—60 to 65 percent women, according to Goldscheid. From day one, students participate in clinics and seminars about public interest law. “We have people at the school steeped in public service work, and students are surrounded by a community who are there to help,” she says. “They hit the ground running.”