How To Find A Public Interest School

Dave asks, "So what schools would you say are good for public interest?"

Well, Dave, I think it depends on the region. (If you've narrowed your search to a region and want to throw it out there, maybe the commenters will pitch in.)

I'm certainly not saying you can't go to Stanford, Yale, or Harvard and work in public interest. You can, and people do. I'm sure that there's not a law school in the country that hasn't produced at least one public interest lawyer, or that wouldn't tell you on your tour "Oh sure, we encourage pro bono and public interest work."

But I think there's a difference between that and a school that has a reputation for public interest. There are schools - sometimes lower ranked, sometimes state schools, but not always - that put more of an emphasis on practical experience and have more graduates entering public interest jobs.

(You may run into the chicken and the egg problem here - do students in lower ranked schools go to public interest jobs because that's all they can get? Or do those students genuinely leaning toward public interest gravitate toward these schools?)

Any school can put the words "public interest" on their website. And most do. The best thing you can do is ask around the public interest community and see where people in the field of your choice graduated from. This may narrow your search even more - if you're interested in environmental public interest in a particular state, you may find that everyone in that field went to one particular school that's known not only for public interest, but also for it's environmental classes or clinics. Likewise, if you want to be a public defender in an area, ask a few PDs in that area where they and their colleagues went to school. In some states, you might get one big resounding answer and quickly realize that X Law School is the place to go, or, at least, the place they hire from. In others, there may be more of a mix. But it will give you a sense.

As far as what to look for in a law school, the words "public interest" on a website aren't enough. I'd ask the career services office how many graduates they placed in public interest jobs in the past year and what these jobs were. (Some schools take a much broader view of what qualifies as a public interest job.) I'd want to know exactly what, if anything, the career services office did to help these graduated get their jobs (or were they just particularly motivated, doing their own leg work so that the career services office could take all the credit?) I'd look at the classes actually being offered for a semester or two (as opposed to the classes that are listed in a catalog but haven't been offered in a few years) - if you've got an entire lineup of corporate law and it's variations, it's hard to call yourself a "public interest law school." I'd take a good look at the clinics and make sure there's one that fits my interest (I'm a big proponent of clinics), and ask how difficult it is to get into the clinic, and what are the clinic professors' backgrounds.

I'd ask whether or not they have a loan repayment program for public interest lawyers. But it's not enough to just have one - I'd want to know how many alumni are actually receiving money, how much they're getting, and what types of jobs they're in. Then compare the number that are receiving repayment assistance to the number career services says are working in public interest!

That's a lot of information. If you're looking for particular names of schools, leave a comment with the geographical area and public interest area, and maybe you'll get some replies.

I have to admit, I didn't know any of this when I was looking for law schools. In a lot of ways, I was like the know it all - I didn't know what else to look at besides rankings. But the difference is, I didn't have access to any real live lawyers who were willing to give me advice about law school. So, take advantage of what you've got.


  1. I attend Northeastern, and I would say that our school is very strong for public interest. We are a top tier school, but in the 80's somewhere in the rankings.

    The things that I think prove that Northeastern is strong in public interest: The majority of co-op employers are public interest employers. There are a LOT of opportunities during law school to get connections and experience in public interest law. Greater Boston Legal Services is our #1 co op employer (well, probably other than judges).

    Most (if not all) of my professors have a public interest background, and continue to pursue scholarship and involvement in public interest areas. Our Crim rock-star professors was a public defender for years, and was one of the attorneys who represented Mumia for a while. Others did civil rights litigation (and still do).

    One professor is about to spend her sabattical doing research on low income mothers and the impact that divorce law has on low income families (i.e., those who can't afford lawyers).

    The professors often teach from a perspective of a public interest lawyer. Class examples and hypotheticals this quarter have included a woman who was kicked out of a homeless shelter and is danger of losing her welfare benefits; employees terminated for discriminatory purposes from low-paying jobs, and how to argue on their behalf in this at-will system, etc.

    We also have a first year class called Law, Culture and Difference that spends 1/2 of the year considering the concept of "lawyering" and what that means, and how to work that into a public interest framework, and how to shift power away from the corporate framework, and the second 1/2 of the year, small classes are working on projects (research and writing) for actual clients which are typically community based organizations in the community. The project I did in the fall was to work on researching ways to assist those leaving prison or jail in finding housing, employment and any necessary healthcare.

    Those who apply and interview for Summer Associate positions are in the minority. And they [we] are scorned. You can walk the halls much prouder if you accepted a position in a public interest arena than if you are going to a big firm. The usual status equations just do not apply.

    We do have a debt repayment program, but there is a problem - a lot of debt repayment funds come from alumni. If the alumni is working in public interest jobs - they don't have that much $$ to donate back to the school. It is there, and the school advertises each year how much it does distribute to loan repayment [i'm too lazy to look it up for this past year], I just think it would be nice if it were more.

    Another problem - we're a private school. Tuition just went up a couple thousand dollars so it's $34K and some change. And Boston isn't that cheap to live in.

  2. Ecellent post! It covers most of the bases I'd want to cover, I think, but to the LRAP portion I'd add: Ask about how the LRAP is funded? Does it have a permanent endowment that provides enough money to fund all who qualify, or is it just something that gets a donation now and then when the administration can't convince a few donors to direct their money elsewhere? Many schools have LRAPs, but some of them are hollow shells. Knowing how many students get money and how much they get will tell you whether the program is set up in a way to make it actually helpful. Finding out where the money comes from will help you get an idea if there's going to be anything there for you when your turn comes.

  3. I also posted some advice for choosing a public interest school last year. I can't believe I left off the LRAP!

  4. Great post and comments - definitely helpful.

    The region will probably be Chicago, as it looking like my wife is getting a job there (meaning we are moving from Los Angeles).

    Any advice on Chicago area law schools?

  5. Maybe I'm from a different generation (graduated from U of Michigan Law in 73), and maybe 30+ years of public interest work is making me cynical, but I think one goes into public interest law despite the law schools not because of them. Going into public interest work means that there are going to be the inevitable sacrifices: less salary, less prestige in the for-profit legal community, less recognition from certain groups, less likelihood for judicial and political appointments, and so on. But one does it anyway, despite the law school, despite the sacrifices, despite the incentives not to do it, because that's what one thinks is important to do. So in my view, it doesn't really matter where you go, as long as you learn what lawyering is about, and manage to find that essential, first entry level public interest job. In my mind, its the lack of the first job rather than anything else that ended potential public interest work for graduates. So if a particular law school is good at overcoming that obstacle, it's worth looking at.

  6. It's always a good idea to go to the best law school you get into. I'd modify that somewhat if you want to work in a specific geographic region--the local 800 lbs gorilla with lots of "connections" to the local community is gonna be better than the slightly higher ranked, yet far away school.

    That being said, be aware that going into public interest at a top law school is not the path of least resistance. The temptation of money and the "prestige" rankings of law firms, that route is the one of least resistance. You may be different from the majority of your peers if you want to do public interest, but that doesn't mean the school isn't "good" for it. Employers aren't impressed by the number of public interest attorneys a school produces. They're impressed by people with a passion and demonstrated enthusiasm for the field...this might be all the more clear if you can distinguish yourself as someone who had the choice to work at a biglaw firm (path of least resistance in those top schools), but was willing to give that up for your passion--for that higher cause and calling--whatever.

    Thus, what matters is the clases you pick and the activities you engage in during law school--take those clinics, do those pro bono projects, get involved in the law school's public interest organization, and pick those summer jobs that interest you (even if they don't pay). That experience will put you ahead and distinguish you from other applicants...and then you'll also have the excellent academic/professional reputation of your chosen school behind you (yes, we all know that to some (a great?) extent, rankings are total BS and an attorney from a 4th tier can be vastly superior to one from a 1st tier school, but c'mon--generally, big names instill confidence at first glance and lesser reputations must be overcome).

    One other thing worth looking into is where the recipients of various public interest scholarships attended law school. For example, the Skadden Fellowship.

    In sum, pick a school that's the best possible school. Then pick the path that's best for public interest.

  7. y'all dont know what it's like: being male middle class and whiteApril 16, 2006 1:47 PM

    I was accepted at northeastern and was contemplating Boston in general. I was unaware that the ABA certifies hippie communes. If you want to do public interest, Northwestern is your promised land. If you want to actually make money, you might want to steer clear. the environment seemed so hostile to non-public interest that I felt attending would have seriously hurt my career. the person taking me around made it clear that I was not going to fit in after giving the "we are open to all different points of view here" speech. They made me feel like an 'oppressor' just because I wore an open collar shirt and slacks and tried to negotiate with the financial aid people.
    Capitalists beware: if you want your career to end up in a shallow grave next to others branded 'enemies of the people,' go to northeastern.

  8. Dave-

    Hooray for public-interested Chicago law students! My law school is definitely not "the best" for public interest, but is well regarded in the legal community generally, which opens some doors. Plus, they're really working hard to get public interest people here, so the financial aid/LRAP is pretty good (at least it was for me.) Northwestern has a great reputation for clinics and LRAP, and focuses more on admitting folks with work experience between undergrad and law school. If you want to know more or talk specifics, email me. (

  9. I agree with all that advice (well, except for the dude who complained about NE). Anywhere you go, you can make your dreams come true. You'll get the degree, be able to pass the bar, and be able to set yourself up with a job in your desired field.

    I thought Gtown has a great LRAP program and puts lots of public interest people out. In part, it is because our class is so big. So MANY people go to firms, and I was one of few 2Ls who didn't do oncampus interviews for big firms. But, I felt like I had a lots of support from fellow students (firm oriented friends and others). I'd say I know at least 30 in my class that went into public interest careers.

    There were lots of volunteer opportunites, profs who'd done/were doing public service, and my entire class schedule was public interest oriented, specifically criminal law / indigent defense. The only non-oriented classes I had to take were first year, and those weren't that bad cuz they're on the bar.

    Good luck!

  10. I'd have to respectfully dissent on this matter from Blonde. Instead, I'd concur with the anonymous poster who recommended always getting into the best school you can (barring a large disparity in aid/scholarship $, but that's a whole other story).

    Why? A couple of reasons. First, generally speaking, the more prestigious the school, the better likelihood of it having a larger endowment. This matters for LRAP. Better endowment = better possibility of larger LRAP.

    Second, options options options. In certain ways, public interest employers are no different from private sector. They can be status conscious, too. They do care where you go to school, and they can and do care about the resumes of their attorneys. I think it is being wilfully ignorant to pretend that public interest employers are above such considerations.

    All that said, however, I do think that wherever you go to school, the most crucial thing is clinical work and/or employment. I.e., if you want to go work for a PD office, do a defense clinic and get some courtroom and client-contact experience. Go work for a PD office during the summer or the school year.

    Public interest employers might have less time and money to train nedw employees, so the more experience you come in with the better. There's no question they're looking for people who can hop right in.

    Moreover, this kind of work shows your commitment to working in the field. It will go a long long way toward eliminating doubt that, for example, you merely want to work for a PD for the minimum years necessary to just get courtroom experience.

  11. Might I suggest that it also depends on what you mean by "public interest." If you want to be a PD, or work in legal aid, find out which schools have a pipeline to the local PD/aid office. In Chicago, it will be Depaul more likely than Northwestern. If you mean advocacy outfits like the ACLU, or Hill staff, then you want the shiniest credentials you can get, which means the best school possible, regardless of location.

  12. Dave--Check out the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. ( drive from Chicago/numerous daily flights). I'm a student there.

    UST is a Catholic school that emphasizes "social justice" in the law. In doing so, they attract tons of students who are interested in public interest. It's very well connected in the community and because of the public-service requirement, many of the students volunteer with the numerous public interest organizations in the area.

    I don't think the attitude toward big-firm work is as hostile as Northeastern sounds, but a huge percentage of the students are planning to go into public interest. I felt like I needed to apologize/explain myself when I decided to accept a large-firm job.

    If you haven't heard of UST, that's because it's a fairly new school--it opened its doors about 5 years ago I think, but it is accredited. A well-kept secret is that it has one of the highest endowments in the nation which is great for scholarships and LRAP. There is an LRAP program (not sure how it's funded), clinics (immigration, family, and elder law), a school-sponsored public service board, & mandatory public service requirement.

    Since the school is new, it certainly isn't high on the prestige factor, but it's doing well. We were ranked #1 in "Quality of Life" by Princeton Review, and we've received awards for our legal writing program and mentor program.

  13. Northeastern is not *hostile* to big firm work - the majority of people at the school do not go there for that purpose. But they are not *hostile* to it. Just to clarify. I'm sure that the person who went on a tour picked up on a genuine vibe at the school, but he misread that vibe.

    i should know - i arrived at Northeastern with an interest in family-law related public interest work, and right now am on my way to big firm land for this coming summer, and most likely the same for post-grad. No hostility. Several of my classmates are going to big, reputable firms this coming summer, and 3L's after graduation.

    Northeastern has just as much of a blend of different interests and goals as any other law school - the scales are just tipped more toward public interest than they are toward big law.

  14. I know nothing about law schools or lawyering, so take this with a grain of salt, but I thought your "chicken and the egg" question was pretty interesting. I took a shot at answering it over on my blog.

  15. Although you are looking in Chicago, I note that you are in LA. Have you considered the University of Oregon? Not only does it have possibly the best public interest environmental law program, it has clinical work in public defense, environmental law, and other subjects. It also has an LRAP program, and is very focused on public interest, while still having the necessary, and often interesting non-public interest classes and opportunities in case you change your mind.

    If you want to do public interest environmental law, you should really look no further. Even if you want general public interest, it is a great school.

  16. I have been looking all over the country, but my wife just got offered a job in Chicago, so we will definitely be in Illinois for a while. While it limits my options, I at least have several options in the immediate area.

    Because of that, I don't foresee Oregon or Minneapolis being options at this point.

    But please, keep the comments coming. This has been extremely helpful. This is one reason I love blogs!

    Does anyone know what is an "average" amount to receive from an LRAP? I plan on becoming a public defender, so I know I won't be making much money. I know the LRAP varies from school to school, but what would a good amount be? This is definitely one of the concerns with being married and thinking about kids. I am trying to figure out what everything means financially for my family.

  17. y'all don't know what it's like: being male middle class and white.April 17, 2006 1:32 PM

    Zuska, you said yourself that summer associates are "scorned." explain to me how that is inconsistent with hostility toward big firm work?

    My comments were hyperbolic, but there was a kernel of truth. I made my decision not to go to that school because I would have been scorned if I told anyone I wanted to make money so I could afford a good life for my family and be able to send my children to good private schools. You come from a background of public service; I would be coming from a finance background. I felt like a space alien. For a place so "diverse”, it seems very much closed to a person like myself.

  18. It is true that in the social realm, there are more people who are looking at public defense, legal services, and other public interest employment opportunities than there are those looking for big firm work - or at least those are the most visible people. I do have friends who tease me for my summer choice (a few), but it is good natured. Scorn, I think so. With a smile and a smirk, I am teased for "selling out."

    But that is on a social level - to say that the entire school is "hostile" would to me go hand-in-hand with the proposition that there would be no opportunity for other types of employment if one were to attend Northeastern. That would be completely untrue.

    Northestern most definitely has an extremely liberal feel to it. From the top down. But I do not think (nor have I experienced) that any doors are closed on account of that "feel." I'm sure, however, there are more public interest doors OPENED as a result of not only the "feel" but the alumni connections, the connections brought by the professors, and the reputation that the school has in the public interest arena.

  19. I went to UVA, a law school that is renound for having "the most graduates at the most top law firms" or something like that. In short, we have a darn good reputation for creating biglaw superstars. Despite this, there is a thriving public interest I mentioned in an earlier post, public interest is not the path of least resistance. But I can't begin to explain how much the school name helps--even if there's no substance behind it. Public interest employers want to brag about their acquisitions and they want their attorneys to be formidable and well regarded. A name does that.

    But back to UVA's thriving public interest opportunities. There is loan forgiveness, there is an organization for public interest types, there is an annual conference, and there are oodles of pro bono opportunities. Annually, graduates and current students win recognition for their efforts in the local community and beyond. Annually, many graduates go on to government and public interest jobs (and no, I'm not counting clerkships). Clinic offerings (both full year and 1-semester) are numerous and varied. If the military is your thing, the Army Jag school is just next door to UVA. Each year the school sends a delegation to study human rights somewhere in the world over spring break...and there have been two recent World Court clerks...I could go on...

    Perhaps the only draw back of the institution is that there are fewer summer jobs near school than would be available in a big city.

    Again, this is not to say that lower ranked/unranked schools are not worthy, do not produce fantastic attorneys, or have a lower quality of education. I could never make such a blanket statement. It is merely that there are so many opportunities available at higher ranked schools--but they might just be a bit less prominent on the website or among the student body because they all face many more options. A national reputation means jobs anywhere and everywhere and in all sorts of fields. Etc.

  20. I think it depends on the type of public interest law you want to do. I fyou want to be a lawyer for the ACLU, you better try to get into Harvard or some other "BIG NAME" school because the one idealistic Harvard/Stanford/Yale grad is the person most likely to get that job.

    Some of the larger urban public defenders care about where you go to school too. IN New York, for example, many of the appellate defenders and the defenders there went to the "higher ranked" schools. It is important to have a commitment to your particular public interest issue but the school counts also.

    You can check this out by looking at the staff pages of some of the "public interest" places you are interested in.

    E.G. (New Hampshire PD even lists the schools)

  21. As far as what is a "good" LRAP in Chicago, here are some examples:

    John Marshall has some LRAP funding, but has to raise at least some of the money to fund it through events (they started a 5K run to raise funds last year) and they don't publish details on how much is typically given.

    DePaul allows all students who work in public interest to apply for LRAP as 3Ls, and will distribute funds based on number of applications and demonstrated need.

    Northwestern has replaced LRAP with "public interest fellowships," which designate a percentage of income that the student is expected to pay toward loans, with the University paying the balance, with a maximum contribution by the university of $12,000 per year. I'm not sure if there's a limit on how many years the University will contribute.

    U of Chicago has a program that guarantees $5000 for up to five years for any student going into public interest; they also give out public interest scholarships that increase that amount to $10,000 a year for up to five years.

    Some key differences among LRAP programs include whether a spouse's income and loan debt are taken into account in calculating the amount you receive and the "cutoff" earnings amount above which you no longer qualify for LRAP (some phase out, some have an absolute ceiling on earnings.)

    Hope that's helpful.

  22. As for an average LRAP amount, I don't know the average, but I can tell you what I get.

    I make about $50K in public interest, I graduated 2 years ago. I consolidated my law school and undergrad loans in a 10 year repayment, when there were very low interest rates. My payments are about $735 a month (so, just over $8K a year). So far, my LRAP has been about $4K a year. (Hopefully, future endowments will mean more money for me.) So, they pay almost half my loans.

    I can get LRAP for 5 years, assuming I stay in public interest. Since I'm on a 10 year plan, that means that after those 5 years, I'll have half my loans paid off, and LRAP will have paid half of that. (Or a quarter of my consolidated loan totals.)

    After 5 years, I hope to be able to take over the total loan payments myself. But, if not, I can spread what's left out into a few more years (even up to 30 years).

    I don't know if this average, but it seems pretty good to me.

  23. I'm interested in Public Interest Law in DC. A few law schools in this area attest to having a strong reputation in this field but I want to know if anyone in this forum can give me information from their personal experiences