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After the Bar

Personal & Financial

Can You Create a Financially Viable Future in Public Interest Law?

Kara Blomquist


  • Public interest career advisors offer some tips on what you should consider when determining if a career in public service is right for you.
Can You Create a Financially Viable Future in Public Interest Law?

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Most new lawyers considering a career in public interest law are painfully aware of the pay gap. But just how large is that gap? And what other considerations should you be thinking about when you examine the financial viability of a career in nonprofit employment? Public interest career advisors across the nation offer some tips on what you should consider when determining if a career in public service is right for you.

Have Realistic Salary Expectations

Speaking broadly, entry-level public interest annual salaries range from $40,000 to $60,000, according to the 2018 PSJD nationwide public interest salary survey. PSJD is an online resource for public interest job seekers and employers created by NALP.

Plan for Loan Repayment

According to Lawson Konvalinka, a career counselor at The University of Texas School of Law in Austin, there are two options for loan repayment:

  • The public service loan forgiveness program, which forgives loans for students who have the right type of loan, work full time for an eligible employer (all 501(c)3 nonprofits are eligible), and make 120 timely payments.
  •  Loan repayment assistance programs, which are much more individualized and vary depending on your employer, school, and state bar.

“The information on loan repayment is out there; it’s available,” said Ken Lafler, assistant dean for student financial services at Harvard. “You just have to go out and seek it and treat loan repayment as a part of your career decision-making process.”

Breathe Easier after Securing Your First Job

Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public service and director of the public service venture fund at Harvard Law School, says that in her experience, many nonprofit jobs are more secure than private-sector jobs. Because nonprofits don’t have an “up or out” paradigm like that at many large law firms—which push associates out if they fail to make partner after a certain period—new attorneys may be more secure in their nonprofit positions.

“That’s not to say there isn’t sometimes risk,” Shabecoff said, referencing the early retirements many took in the nonprofit sector when funding for the Legal Services Corp., which helps fund many nonprofits, was cut. But Shabecoff said she hasn’t seen more financially driven job insecurity in the nonprofit field when compared to large law firms.

Konvalinka had other good news for prospective nonprofit attorneys: “It’s my experience that the hardest public interest job to land is your first one.”

Continue to Network and Build Skills

John McKee, the director for government and public interest at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder, emphasized the importance of personal relationships. “The smaller the employer, the more important it is to have these personal relationships,” he said.

Often, people come to an organization or firm seeking its services, but the organization can’t help; it then refers them to another legal organization. The opportunity comes when making that referral.

Do a good job, and the other legal services organization will know you and might consider you when it’s hiring. That will help build a network of people you can turn to should you find yourself looking for employment.

Another way to increase your job security is to bring other skills to the nonprofit, such as grant writing. “If you’re interested in nonprofit law, take some nonprofit management courses to figure out how they operate,” advised McKee. “Often when you’re hired as a lawyer at a nonprofit, that’s part of the deal. You need to help fund-raise. You need to become a grant writer.”

Don’t Discount Time-Limited Positions

Grant-based positions often provide a great first step into the nonprofit field. Prior to accepting a position, make sure the organization is a good fit, is doing the kind of work you want to do, and is doing it well.

Shabecoff encouraged students to see time-limited positions not just as short-term gigs but as “a really important transitional moment.” The employer could provide you with your first set of post-graduate professional references.

Money Isn't Everything

Alan Kahn, the public interest director at The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, urged students to consider more than money when choosing a career path. He pointed to a 2015 study that found that lawyers who made less money were happier than those who earned more, as reported by The New York Times. While not discounting the financial constraints that may come with a nonprofit career, Kahn said you should consider your future happiness when choosing among career options.

As many lawyers practicing public interest law can tell you, the field can be the path to both a satisfying career and financial stability.

The original version of this article appeared in the November-December 2018 issue of Student Lawyer magazine, published by the American Bar Association.