Finding A Public Interest Law School, Part 2

A big thanks to Dave for opening up a great can of worms. The comments to my post on Finding a Public Interest Law School have been, overall, fantastic.

I do want to add a few more cents of my own. Well, mostly dissents. (Bad bad pun, sorry.)

First, bigger schools do not mean more LRAP money. I know plenty of people in my office who went to big schools and, in some cases, (1) their school has no LRAP program at all, (2) they quickly became disqualified by earning too much (what?? how is that possible on a public defender salary??), or (3) they get such a minimal amount, it's obvious the school has "an LRAP program" in title only but isn't directing any funds toward it. Just because a school has a bigger endowment, doesn't mean their pushing any of it toward LRAP. So, if you want to know, ask. Say, "Hey, it said on your website you have an LRAP program? About how many alumni get LRAP money? How much do they get, on average? How long have they been out of school? Can I see a sample of the application?" They're there to answer your questions, so ask.

Second, I disagree with the "go to the best school you can get into" theory. At least in the public interest context, I think you have to go to the best school that suits your needs. And I think a big part of that is saying, "I know I'm not going to sell out and make as much money as I can, so I don't want to get into more debt than I need to."

Put it this way, let's imagine that at any given public defender's office new class of hires next fall, there will be at least one ivy league law school grad, and at least one state school grad. And, I'd say that's at least close to accurate for most PDs across the country. So, why is the ivy league grad in a better position? Are they more prepared? That depends more on what classes they took, where they interned, and what their real world experience is, just like the state school grad. Are they smarter? Not necessarily.

The only thing you're guaranteed to be is more in debt. (Unless, of course, you can get a free ride. In which case, take it.)

I agree that there's a difference between public interest in the public defender context and public interest in the ACLU context. But still, I think that a law school that truly puts more emphasis on public interest is going to be more likely to hire professors with this type of experience (as opposed to Supreme Court clerks), and therefore the faculty might be more likely to have more contacts in the public interest organizations. This, of course, varies from school to school, but it's a reason to consider a school with an actual public interest emphasis.

Regardless of the field, though, I think you'll find that the competition can be stiff for public interest jobs. If you read any of the law student blogs around here, you'll see that the ones looking for public interest jobs have just as tough of a time as the law firm types, if not tougher. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, the public defenders' offices and public interest organizations look at more than just your law school and your GPA. Your commitment and your experience are big factors (as are the connections you make during these experiences.) It came out in many of the comments, but I'll repeat it again - internships, pro bono work, are very valuable, and definitely worth your (unpaid) time.

As for Dave, I know that you didn't get a quick list of schools, but I hope that this gave you (and anyone else in a similar situation) some things to think about. Good luck!


  1. I agree, you have to go to the right big school (I applied to all these six, went to the only one that admitted me ;-):

    This NAPIL report declared that: six law schools provided 70 percent of LRAP funds in 1998-1999. In 1999-2000, three law schools (Yale, NYU, and Harvard) provided more than $1 million in annual support; three (Columbia, Stanford, and Georgetown) provided between $500,000 and $1 million; and 11 other LRAP programs provided more than $100,000 in annual support. Of the remaining 22 reporting programs, six provided between $50,000 and $100,000 in support; five provided between $25,000 and $50,000 in support; and 11 provided less than $25,000.

    Everybody who wants to do public interest, apply to these as your reach schools, don't waste your time applying elsewhere. When schools realize that it is easier to rise in the rankings by attracting more applicants by having real LRAP programs rather than window dressing, then all big schools will get better LRAP programs.

    I totally concur too about the 'best' school you get into. The best public interest school is likely the one that either helps with loans after school, or gives you a scholarship. Why would someone attend, say, American U and pay full price if they could get a full ride at Tulane if they wanted to do public interest? Because of US News? US News won't pay your $120K in debt, that will be on the backs of you, say, not being able to buy a house. Remember, make that decison when you apply or else you may feel compelled to take a firm job. Nobody doubts that a top NYU grad will have a leg up over a grad from New York Law School, particularly at those ultra competative PD markets (DC, San Fran, NY, Boston), but in many instances is not worth it to simply move up the rankings a slight bit.

  2. I would tend to disagree with the last post. If you are going into public interest law, think three schools, Yale, NYU, and Northeastern. The first two as your primaries and the third as your safety. Public interest at HLS is mostly in name only and it is a rare day you meet an HLS'er doing public interest work, indeed in ten + years of public interest work, I have only met one Harvard law grad, and she has since quit law. The same can be said for Columbia, Stanford & Georgetown (although Columbia of the latter three is probably slightly more common than the other two). The three schools I listed are everywhere in the public interest realm and will provide the connections you need to get in where you want to go.

    And to the "ultracompetitive" PD world, I work there, and have worked there, my three choices remain Yale, NYU & Northeastern, especially if you want to do death litigation.

    Note that I am probably right coast geographically biased as I have only worked in the midwest, south & northeast. As far as left coast schools, I should probably add that Hastings & Boalt have really beefed up their programs, but, again, I am right coast biased.

  3. I was just saying that NAPIL's numbers show what schools put out the dough for LRAP, and I have personal experience with people using NYUs, Harvards, and I know many people using Gtowns cuz I went there.

    Quite simply, if a person who wants to consider public interest is going to attend a school without LRAP, make sure the school is significantly cheaper than one with LRAP or else face much tighter finaces than if you attended a school with LRAP. It is a fact of life that you should think about now rather than worry about it 10-15 years into your career when you are not making nearly as much as starting firm lawyers yet you still have student loan bills coming due just as you are starting to think about sending your own children to college. People who don't think about these things may end up quitting not because they want to but because of finances. I doubt Bush is going to help create a national LRAP, but we really need one, in my view.

    OK, I just looked at the NE website and they clearly proclaim public interest specialty. In terms of criminal defense, there is one clinic where they state "Each student is generally assigned to a three-member team that manages an actual case in a local criminal court." Not to denigrate that experience, which I am sure is helpful to many students and their future clients, but I would hope that graduates from a top public interest school gets more than simply being part of a team that might handle one case. Perhaps someone could enlighten me more on what the indigent defense part of Northeastern education entails, because the website is not terribly inspiring, in my view. My apologies, I have never met a NE graduate in criminal defense. Before I could advise anyone to attend NE, I'd like to know what sort of clinical opportunities are available (just as future employers would want to know).

    PS I am geographically biased too - I have never practiced in Boston or any nearby states.

  4. public defenderApril 19, 2006 7:21 AM

    I got admitted to Northeastern and I really wanted to go there because of their co-op program. But I wasn't offered a penny of financial aid or scholarship. They said that's because most of their students can make that money doing co-ops for law firms. I told them I'd probably want to do my co-op at the public defender's office, so how could I make up that difference? They said, no, you'll end up doing at least one or two at a firm to help you pay for school. Gee, thanks for supporting my potential public interest career, I'll go somewhere else.

    I went to the cheapest school I could get, after taking scholarships and financial aid into account. I get LRAP too. I worked hard so my grades and my internship experience would distinguish me, even if the name of my school didn't. Everytime I compare finances with my colleagues, I'm glad I did.

  5. Northeastern person again - I only have first hand knowledge about one criminal clinic, which is the cert clinic - where a team of 2 students writes a petition for cert to the Supreme Court in a death penalty case. There are often several going at once.

    As I mentioned on the last thread, we have a newish professor who is currently beefing up the criminal defense area - he has a new clinic slated for 06-07. I do not know anything about it - I am not a criminal person.

    The clinics, however, are NOT Northeastern's primary experiential device. The co-op program is. And I know of people who co-oped at 4 different defender's offices, and had offers at 2 of the 4 for post-grad. Massachusetts just had a surge of defense attorney hires (CPCS), and at least 5 people i know are hired for permanent employment in the fall. The co-op program serves to create very strong relationships between the school and defenders offices. A friend of mine did a co op in Boston, NY and Connecticut public defender offices.

    I will also add to the topic of school finances - if Northeastern qualifies as a "safety" school for an applicant, then they will be throwing more $$ your way. They want to beef up their numbers. That is part of why I am there despite being accepted at higher ranked schools - I was able to get a hefty scholarship (about 50% tuition) where the higher ranked schools that accepted me offered me nothing.

  6. Regarding your belief "don't go to the best school you get into". I couldn't agree more.

    A prospective law student should look at his options 1) bad school with a scholarship or 2) good school full tuition. The difference in price at the end is likely to be $50,000 in tuition for the better school. The prospective the student should take is, "Is that school $50,000 better than the other."

    And if you're not a likely big firm candidate, it rarely is.

  7. I'm a student at Boalt Hall, UC--Berkeley, and worked at a public defender office before law school and expect to once again upon graduation. LRAP is a large issue for me.

    Under the leadership of our newish dean, Christopher Edley, Boalt is in the process of greatly expanding the LRAP program to provide students such as myself freedom of career choice. The tentative details are as follows, and will soon be published on the law school's website:

    LRAP is a forgivable loan program that helps Boalt graduates working in modestly compensated positions at nonprofit public interest organizations or government agencies after graduation. Our new LRAP will be, in many important respects, the most generous in the nation:

    New Debt Limit: The new LRAP will cover up to $90,000 in law school loan debt and up to $10,000 for bar exam period loans, making the total debt limit up to $100,000. (The current limit is $55,500.)
    New Contribution Point: For graduates with qualifying employment, Boalt Hall will repay 100% of your eligible debt if you earn $58,000 annually or less. (The current contribution point is $40,000.)

    Improved Contribution-Sharing System: The current program has a steep phasing down of LRAP assistance as income rises, and a complete cut off at only $52,000. The new changes will have a slower phasing down of assistance, and could provide LRAP eligibility for graduates with annual incomes as high as $100,000 (depending on your individual law school debt load, debt structure and repayment terms).

    There are other details, including eligibility for certain international jobs, and a limited pilot program for private sector, so-called “low-bono” jobs with salaries and work comparable to public interest work.

  8. I practice law in New York City and I have never met a public defender who went to NYU. In fact, I don't believe that I've met any other type of public interest attorney that went to NYU, outside of their Center for Constitutional Rights. They have a public interest fair, but the majority of people who attend this are from other schools. They simply house the forum. As for NYU's LRAP program, I have heard that the income ceiling is unreasonably low, especially if you intend on working in the NYC area (though it may have changed in the few years since I graduated). It's important to remember that just because a school advertises itself as public interest and somehow appears on US News Rankings (which aren't reliable) as high in that area, doesn't mean it's the truth. That having been said, no matter where you go to school make sure you have a demonstrated commitment to public interest. Join the local public interest organization, get a public interest fellowship, or volunteer; just make an effort. Just make the effort. When choosing the school, as many posters have stated, make sure you are in a position to get the experience. Some "not US News Top Tier" schools have earmarked prestigious fellowships with certain public interest organizations such as the ACLU, NARAL, and NAACP. You just have a to do a little searching and find out what you want.

  9. I just wanted to add to this conversation a little, although Zuska's been doing a great job advocating and recruiting for Northeastern. I'm a 3L there.

    Every school has clinics For most schools, if you're trying to figure out whether the school is "public interest"-y enough, the clinics are about all you have. Yeah, there's LRAP and student orgs, but mostly it's clinics. Clinics are cool, because students get to do actual legal work while in school.

    However, at Northeastern, we don't just have clinics, but we have co-op. Co-ops are 3-month-long full-time internships. We have to do four before we can graduate. That means that by the time we've graduated, we have AN ENTIRE YEAR of experience under our belt. Think of this in relation to a clinic, which is not full-time and often does not last the entire year.

    So for example, I'm going to be a PD after graduation. I'm on my third full-time internship at a public defender's office, and i did another one full-time for an appeals court judge. So when I start my PD job, I will have 9 months experience as a PD already. This is even without the criminal advocacy clinic, which I was unable to take.

    I love Northeastern. It has national recognition in many public interest circles. I am graduating very qualified for the legal job of my choice.

    When I was choosing law schools, though, I wasn't interested in any of that. My #1 concern was the students that would be my colleagues for the next three years and beyond. I wanted to be challenged by my fellow students to do more public interest. I wanted them to be more radical and more active than me. I wanted them to inspire me. That's why I chose Northeastern, and I haven't been disappointed.

  10. Im actually considering CUNY law school at Queens College in NYC. Although it's lower ranked, I know for sure I want a career in public interest, and that is what the school pride's itself on. Not to mention you can't beat the price and they have great clinics from what I hear. Another school to check out is SUNY Buffalo, although it's very competitive to get in.

  11. Anonymous, CUNY is a perfect example of a school that's not highly regarded in terms or rankings, or in your prospects for getting a big firm job, but is highly regarded in the public defender circles, especially in NYC.

    I don't know anything about SUNY Buffalo.

  12. As someone who went to a 'better ranked' school in new york, my advice is----Go to Cuny.

    Cuny has a pipeline to Legal Aid Criminal Defense Division like no other school in the city, as far as i can tell, and it seems like a great place to go for civil legal services as well.

  13. The NYCLawyer who has never met a public interest lawyer who went to NYU doesn't get out much. I went to NYU and am still taking 100% advantage of its LRAP program. And I can put you in touch with at least 20 classmates who are in public interest practice in NYC. Legal Aid, PDs, prosecutors, ACLU, Brennan Center, etc.

  14. My school is one of those that claims to have an LRAP, but not really. It has $25K a year that gets disbursed on one time only payments to about 20 grads, tops. Luckily, I am getting in-state tuition, or I would be completely unable to practice public interest law at all.

  15. So, I'm in my first year out of NYU Law carrying about $100k in debt and working in a grassroots organization on a fellowship. I am taking full advantage of NYU's LRAP and personally think it is really generous. It covers 100% of loans that come through the financial aid office based on the law school's established budget. And they cover 100% of your payments if you make less than $47,000. In 10 years I'll be debt free, and my guess is that NYU will have paid the overwhelming majority of my loan debt for me. The program's details can be found here:

    That's not to say NYU is the only place to consider. For example, if you want to practice in NYC, CUNY is great, affordable, and has a solid reputation. Yale reputedly has an amazingly broad and generous LRAP program. Harvard grads landed a ton of Skadden fellowships last year, for whatever that is worth.

    My advice to people considering law school for public interest work is along two lines. (1) Make sure that when you graduate you can pay off your loans on an entry level public interest salary. At many schools, this simply is impossible unless you are independently wealthy. (2) Don't understimate just how difficult it is to land a good public interest job once you graduate. I have several friends who graduated in good standing from law school who have just finally found jobs now, a full 9 months after they graduated--in areas of public interest law in which they previously had no interest. It was a tough journey for them. Know what you are getting into. And then do it anyway, because the world needs more people working in the public interest, even if it is hard and pays for crap.

  16. I have a slightly different approach to this issue, which is to poiint out how ludicrous the current "financial aid" system is in most law schools. Merit aid goes to those who have done well, without regard to their or their parent's ability to repay. In reality, all tha tis going on is the schools are trying to up their standing with US NEws by takihng ina few students with stellar numbers. It really has nothing to dowith rewarding the really good student.

    So if you are not lucky enough to be one fo these grantees, or the child fo a stupendously rich parent, you apply for financial aid. The better studsent you are, the less aid you will likely get as Hysccn all pretty much cut you off if you or your parents have any assets.

    Now consider the following:
    Student A has parents who are drunks and profligate spenders. Thanks to their ways, their brilliant child gets a full ride to a top private UG university that subsidizes tuition room and board for those whose parents make less than 100k a year. As a consequence, student A graduates debt free. Student A applies to a top LS and gets full ride grant (30,000 a year after Stafford loans). Student A graduates, gets 160k a year biglaw job, and pays off 90 k in Stafford loans in 3 years. Student A buys apartment in NYC, a nice car and a house in the Hamptons. Student A sends a 100,000check to Mom And Dad thanking them for getting the student through school, suggesting they might want to send a thank you note to the UG and LS too, since they all made it possible!

    Student B has moderately successful parents. Goes to a top private. Parents make more than 180000 a year but live in a very expensive area. Parents pay what they can- times are pretty good, in fact Student B graduates with no debt.

    Student B takes a few years off after UG school, supporting himself, basically has no money, and now applies to law school. At that very moment stock market craters, parents’ 401k is decimated by 50%, Home equity is slashed. Parents' pay is cut by almost 100,000 a year. Both approaching retirement age. Parents who haven't supported student in years say tough luck kid, we've done all we can and don't want to be burden on you in our old age. We're trying to put some money in the bank so that if we both get laid off, a possibility, we don't have to file bankruptcy and lose the family house. And of course we don't have much in retirement because we spent our extra dough on UG, and what was left cratered in the market.

    Student B says thanks I'll make do. School says no grants, tells parents to liquidate what they have at the bottom of the market to pay EFC. They say no. So Student B takes 200k in loans over 3 years figuring he can pay it all back with Big law job or LRAP supported government job.

    During school interest is accruing on an extra 100k in loans that have to get interest capitalized, and don't forget the "origination" and "default" fees that have to be paid up front as well.

    Lucky beyond belief, student gets a Big Law job at same firm as Student A. After 3 years Student B manages to pay back the same 90k as Student A, with no LRAP subsidy of course. Student B is now 110k in debt (LS loan balance, plus accrued interest and deferred fees.) Student B gets laid off from Big Firm job and manages to get a local DA job for 75k a year. LRAP subsidy not available, Student B still 110 k in debt.

    Or alternatively, Student B takes 70k government job straight out of school, LRAP subsidizes a little, but nowhere near all the 200k in loan payments. For the next 10-25 years student B is making payments. If lucky enough to get a raise, he moves out of LRAP subsidy range completely. Student B never buys a home, can’t find a significant other who wants to take on his debt, rents a small apartment for him and his cat, and parks his used 3 cylinder Geo Metro in the burbs to avoid alternate side of the street parking rules.

    So tell me, why does student A get grants and Student B get nothing from the LS? Both have the same opportunity to go 200k in debt. Both have the same opportunity to make big or little bucks on graduation. Both have the same chance for LRAP/COAP subsidy. The only difference is their parents. Does this make any sense?