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November 17, 2022 Articles

Reasons to Consider Public Interest Work

This area of law can offer what money can’t buy: life purpose, doing work that allows you to sleep at night, and a reason to wake up excited to go to work every day.

By Erickson Saye

For some law students—and many students of color—choosing to become a public interest lawyer is one of the most complicated choices during law school. And it is by no means an easy one. It’s a decision that involves not just choosing to skip out on interviewing for law firm positions during early interview week or permitting yourself not to take that corporation’s course. Often a public interest law career is a decision that significantly affects and shapes your future career, lifestyle, relationships, work-life balance, and—most importantly—financial well-being.

Balancing Community Needs and Financial Concerns

Public interest work is needed to better most communities and the world. Tasks like challenging mass incarceration and fighting for people’s rights provide a sense of advocacy that other career paths do not offer. Similarly, the number of advocates needed to fight these cases surpasses the current demand. The reasons for this are mostly financial.

This summer, I had the opportunity to be a fellow at the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School. I worked in the Challenging Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic. I did the work I imagined when I first pursued a legal degree, and I felt a sense of purpose and fulfillment with every interaction I had, the research I conducted, and each memorandum I drafted.

Although this was the work I knew I wanted to do and came to law school to do, the fact that I was getting paid $15.15 an hour led me to realize that I needed a firm job next summer. As a first-generation immigrant, I’ve seen my mother escape a civil war to come to America in hope of giving me and my siblings a better life than she had. I saw her work three jobs to provide for her family. Next, I started to doubt my career path because financial security is vital to someone like me from a developing country.

Through my fellowship this summer, which was my first experience working in the legal field, I saw many people, including myself, struggling with this either-or decision when it comes to public interest. What was even more surprising was that I was not the only one within the fellowship to realize this. Another fellow, who is a rising 2L from Michigan University School of Law, mentioned that she is pursuing a firm summer associate position next summer as well, due to the lack of financial support in the public interest area.

Qualifying for Stipends

Most law schools offer a stipend program to encourage students to pursue public interest and public service opportunities. Each summer, schools provide modest stipends to a group of students who intend to work for public interest and public service organizations during the summer months. The awards vary depending on the school.

Most school have requirements that need to be met for a student to be considered for awards. Like the range of the stipend, the requirements also vary depending on the school and location. DePaul Law School requires applicants to demonstrate commitment to public interest law and participation in Center for Public Interest Law and Public Interest Law Association activities, while the University of Chicago program is open only to JD students who secure eligible public interest or government summer positions. Eligibility for the fellowship is not dependent on academic grade averages, but if a student falls below half-time enrollment, takes a leave of absence, or leaves the university, the full amount of the initial award will be immediately due and payable to the law school student.

Why Do It?

Public interest law has challenges and certainly does not lend itself to a straightforward career path. However, it also has immeasurable rewards and can make it effortless to live from the heart.

Public interest law almost always means making far less money than you would at a private law firm. It may also mean that every day you get to do work that you are passionate about, stand up and advocate for underrepresented people in vulnerable situations who have no voice, and have a career that allows you to affect society and make the world a better place. Public interest law can offer what money can’t buy: life purpose, doing work that allows you to sleep at night, and a reason to wake up excited to go to work every day.

For law students who are considering pursing a legal career in public interest, I would recommend looking at funding options available to support your work. On top of law school stipends, there are many great organizations that are willing to provide funding support to students pursing or working in the public interest field.

Erickson Saye is a rising 2L at Loyola Chicago University School of Law and was a JIOP intern in 2022.

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