Within the profession of law, there are many diverse and interesting career paths. One of those career paths is the pursuit of public interest law.
Marquette University Law School defines public interest law as “advanc[ing] the interests of the poor, disabled, consumers, elderly, and others who lack equal justice to the legal system.”
Whether you are contemplating law school, about to graduate, or an attorney looking to make a career change, it is important to know how public interest law differs from other fields of law. It is also important to understand what to expect if you choose a career dedicated to helping advocate for people who may not otherwise have access to an attorney.
There are many important benefits to a career in public interest work – but there are also sacrifices.
It isn’t a secret that working at a public interest firm usually means that you will be earning less than if you work at a private firm. It is important to seriously consider the financial sacrifice that accompanies a career in public interest law.
In 2017, the average debt held by a graduating law student was $112,776, while the median starting salary for a public interest attorney was only $45,000. James Leopold, director of the Association of Career Professionals, stated that “[d]espite favorable changes in the federal loan repayment options available to law school graduates working in the public interest, there are still significant economic disincentives at play as law students consider whether or not to pursue public interest legal careers.”1
A quick glance at the numbers alone seems to make this career path untenable for attorneys with a high debt load. Fortunately, there are many programs that help bridge the gap between debt and wages for those that choose public service as a career.
The largest, and most well-known of these programs is Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). The Department of Education allows for the forgiveness of student loan balances so long as you are able to pay 120 income-based payments over a 10-year period while working in an approved career.
In addition to the PSLF program, many law schools – including Marquette and the U.W. law schools – also provide loan repayment assistance programs (LRAP) that help cover a percentage of your monthly student loan payment if you qualify. These programs are generally privately funded and vary widely depending on the school.
Outside of the purely financial factors, there are other benefits to working for a public interest firm.
Many public interest firms offer additional vacation time and more flexible scheduling than you would find in a big law firm.
While public interest firms demand the same dedication and hard work as large private firms, they do not share the same expectation of long hours, late nights and weekend work because much of their funding comes from public clients, and they have no need for a billable hour minimum.
The combination of flexibility and lower pressure can mean that you are able to maintain a social life with ease and eliminate some of the stress that comes with big law.
A recent study published in the George Washington University Law Review found that attorneys working in the field of public service enjoyed greater overall happiness, lower rates of alcoholism, and lower rates of depression than attorneys working in private firms.2
The primary factor that draws people into public interest work is the work itself.
It is satisfying and fulfilling to know that you are helping someone and making a real difference in peoples’ lives. That is not to devalue the work that is done in a corporate or big law setting, but seeing the impact of your work directly is a powerful motivator.
Public interest work also aligns very closely with the reasons people give for going to law school in the first place. Many incoming law students list things such as furthering justice, making a difference, and solving problems as reasons for pursuing a law degree. Public interest work allows you to realize those early and noble goals.
A career in public interest law is not for everyone, but it is a career that everyone should consider. The work is challenging, rewarding, and deeply fulfilling. So, the next time you are looking for a job, or looking to make a career change, do not overlook a career where giving back is the primary goal.
1 Staci Zaretsky, Will You Ever Be Able To Pay Off Your Law School Debt? Above the Law, September 26, 2017.
2 Douglas Quenqua, Lawyers with Lowest Pay Report More Happiness. The New York Times, May 12, 2015.