Page 1

1. 800. 973.1177


Doing Some Good: Careers in the Public Interest [Randi Rothberg] Many students enter law school with dreams of saving the world, but most end up taking a different path and never look back. Here’s what they’re missing—and how you can get involved.

Jay Tustin remembers his classmates at

essentially voiceless,” says Rebecca Epstein,

donations from philanthropic organizations

UCLA Law with a chuckle: “If I had polled my

who began her public interest career at the

to send lawyers to handle death penalty

first-year class, 90 percent of them would

U.S. Department of Justice in 1997. There,

cases through nonprofit capital representa-

have said they wanted to work in the social

she worked on civil cases involving police

tion offices. Among those that have signed

interest.” Far fewer actually took such jobs,

misconduct, trying to remedy problems

on is George Soros’s Open Society Insti-

opting instead for traditional law-firm posi-

from the management perspective. “[It was]

tute, which has pledged $100,000 per year

tions that would help them pay off student

probably the most intense work I have ever

through 2003-an amount that Semel and her

loans. Tustin sees the same pattern in the

done. That literally felt like I was working on

associates must match with an additional

students he has taught in environmental law

life-or-death issues,” she says. Today, Ep-

$50,000 annually from law firms, individu-

clinics at Denver University and the Universi-

stein is a staff attorney at Trial Lawyers for

als, the American Bar Association, and other

ty of Colorado since 1992: “I’ve had hundreds

Public Justice, a nationwide public interest

foundations. “When you’re a criminal defense

of students, and maybe 10-tops-have fol-

law firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.

lawyer and you want to be as good as you

lowed through to public interest jobs.”

She tackles Title IX funding issues for TLPJ,

can, and you see something as awful as the

working with universities to ensure that

death penalty, it’s a challenge,” Semel says.

According to the National Association for

women in athletic programs get the benefits

She now instructs law students in capital de-

Law Placement’s Jobs & J.D.’s: Employment

they deserve.

and Salaries of New Law Graduates-Class

fense, as director of the new capital clinic at the University of California-Berkeley’s Boalt

of 1999, which surveyed 173 ABA-accredited

Like Epstein, criminal defense attorney

Hall School of Law. But she will continue to

law schools, only about 27 percent of U.S.

Elisabeth Semel found her calling in the

raise funds for death penalty representation

law graduates head for careers in the public

public sector. She became head of the

and plans to “hit California firms very hard.”

sector. While some work in organizations

American Bar Association’s Death Penalty

geared toward causes like human rights or

Representation Project in 1997, shortly after

For Doris Ng, a staff attorney for Equal

environmental protection, others land posi-

Congress phased out funded postconvic-

Rights Advocates, a nonprofit women’s law

tions in government or clerk for a judge after

tion resource centers that sent experienced

center in the San Francisco area, the battle

graduation. Women generally fly the public

lawyers into the ring for clients on death row.

is against sexism that prevents women from

interest route more often than men; a third

Today, more than 3,700 people are under

enjoying equal treatment in the workplace.

of employed female law school graduates

the death sentence in the U.S., some without

Ng’s clients demand access to opportunities

take public interest jobs, compared with only

the guarantee of a lawyer during succes-

that men claim; some, for example, want to

a quarter of employed male grads.

sive postconviction proceedings. Death row

be police officers and firefighters. “It’s very

inmates are many times left with inadequate

gratifying to know that you can make a differ-

representation, according to the Death Pen-

ence,” Ng says.

Voices from the Field

alty Representation Project. Others agree, and also cite on-the-job fac-

Most people browse the newspaper simply to keep abreast of current events, but JDs who

Semel is dissatisfied with the representation

tors that fuel their passion. For example,

opt for the public sector tend to take front-

available to defendants during all phases

Epstein enjoys working with “smart, skilled

page travesties to heart. “The number one

of capital cases. As a lawyer, activist, and

attorneys dedicated to similar interests,” as

reason for entering public interest law is the

fund-raiser, she works to amp up the ABA’s

well as the challenge of handling “intense”

great job satisfaction you get from using your

recruitment of law firms to assist with or

cases and issues.

degree to lend your skills to those who are

undertake capital cases. She also solicits


continued on back

1.800. 973. 1177


students are offered public interest courses in

and three division delegates each summer.

such diverse subjects as refugee and asylum,

Applications are available at www.abanet.

You may know from your first day as a 1L that

prisoners’ rights, and children’s rights. Also,

org/lsd and are due in June. Check out the

you’re destined to follow in the footsteps of

consider doing an independent study with a

“Student Organizing” section of the NAPIL

the attorneys profiled above. While enthu-

professor based on a specific public interest

page for more opportunities to connect with

siasm is a great beginning, there are many


other public interest law students.

Relevant Extracurriculars

Fellowship Opportunities

This is especially true in a field where funding

Perhaps the best way to prepare for a public

Competition for public interest jobs remains

constraints necessitate limited hiring. During

interest career is to participate in clinics

keen, partly because nonprofit employers

your first year, you generally have little (if any)

during law school. Clinics allow law students

have tight staffing budgets. A number of

say in scheduling your classes. Focus on earn-

to supplement their classroom learning with

organizations, however, do fund attorneys who

ing the best grades you can in such subjects

practical experience. And Reilly notes that

work in the public sector after graduation.

as contracts, torts, civil procedure, and other

public interest organizations-often under-

NAPIL, for one, pays recent grads to work for

1L rites of passage. Law school grades will be

funded and needing all the help they can get

two years on a project of their choosing or in

a factor in whatever field you choose-and they

from qualified, eager students-are perfect for

an organization selected by NAPIL. See the

often make or break perks such as fellow-

providing valuable hands-on experience.

“NAPIL Fellowships” section at

Getting a Head Start

concrete steps you can take during school to prepare for a public interest career. The more you distinguish yourself, the better.

ships, stipends, and clinic placements that

for more information.

can boost your public interest career. “It’s

“We did everything except represent our cli-

kind of a myth that grades are not important,

ents,” says Lisa Taylor, a 2001 graduate of the

Some law firms also provide public service

or not as important, in public interest law,”

University of Georgia School of Law, who was

fellowships to top-notch students. The Skad-

says Malcolm Reilly, a 2L at Brooklyn Law

involved with a public interest and community

den Fellowship Foundation, affiliated with

School who co-chairs his school’s public

service clinic. She researched and worked

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, has

interest student group. “Grades are always

with cases involving employment discrimina-

placed more than 300 law graduates and out-

important.” After the first year, strike a bal-

tion, divorce, and child care for incarcerated

going judicial clerks in public interest projects

ance between the core legal classes-evidence

mothers. Taylor-who is joining the Department

over the past 13 years. “We ask applicants

and corporations, for example-and classes

of Justice as a civil rights attorney-praises

to design their dream job, and we hope to be

that will help prepare you for public interest

her clinic not just for the career preparation

able to fund them,” says Skadden Fellowship

practice. “Take a diverse array of classes,”

it gave her but also for the inspirational op-

Foundation Director Susan Butler Plum.

says Joanne Kubiniec, a 2001 graduate of the

portunity to “translate the law” for clients who

University of Buffalo School of Law and former

might otherwise have been left in the dark.

executive editor of the Buffalo Public Interest

Hired for a year-with the general expectation that the highly competitive and prestigious

Law Journal. “Take classes that will be on the

Formerly president of the membership council

fellowship will be extended for a second

Bar, and expose yourself to everything.” After

for the National Association of Public Interest

year-Skadden fellows earn a $37,500 salary

all, before you can become a public interest

Law (NAPIL), Taylor says she always knew she

and get all the benefits normally granted to

lawyer, you have to become a lawyer. And

wanted to work at the Justice Department.

employees of the organization with which they

that means passing the Bar-which poses the

She advises students to participate in public

work. Also, the firm pays fellows’ law school

same challenge whether you’re headed to a

interest activities on campus, to submit case

loans (any that are not forgiven by the school;

top-10 firm, the District Attorney’s office, or

notes to public interest law journals across

see sidebar) for the duration of the fellowship.

the Legal Aid Society. Still, take advantage of

the country, and to join legal-oriented as-

Approximately 90 percent of Skadden fellows

relevant courses to gain exposure to interest-

sociations for both experience and leadership

remain involved with public interest law after

ed faculty, and to keep yourself up-to-date on


the completion of their term.

issues you will face as you begin your career. For example, students at American Universi-

For example, students may wish to consider

Skadden fellows work with a variety of orga-

ty’s Washington College of Law may choose

running for a position with the American Bar

nizations that provide civil legal services to

to add a seminar in human rights or postcon-

Association’s Law Student Division, which

the poor and disenfranchised; some examples

viction remedies to their course selection.

elects a vice chair of student bar associations

from the class of 2001 are the Urban Jus-

At Northwestern University’s School of Law,



1.800. 973. 1177


tice Center, the NAACP, Disability Rights

section for a current listing.

Advocates, the Juvenile Law Center, and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. About 25

Passion with a Price Tag?

fellows are chosen each year; applicants must have stellar transcripts and demonstrate a

Money is certainly a concern for graduates

dedication to public service.

entering the public sector-especially those with considerable debts. Reilly, a 2L at Brook-

Several firms offer summer public inter-

lyn Law School who moonlights as a regional

est fellowships. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius

coordinator at NAPIL, notes, “It’s not really a

sponsors four such fellowships each year.

legal issue, but a real-life issue.”

Students chosen for these positions enjoy all of the experiences and perks their classmates

Yet Epstein notes that the financial situation

get at firms across the country but devote half

is not as dire as some people imagine. “The

the summer to pro bono work on a project of

contrast is stark, because of how high law

their choice.

firm salaries are,” she admits. “But it doesn’t

The Job Search

ists that paychecks are “pretty decent” for

While judicial clerkships and public inter-

tions. Work in a judge’s chambers also helps

est fellowships are popular stepping stones

fill the piggy bank: According to the NALP

for public interest lawyers, these positions

survey, 1999 grads who took on judicial clerk-

are not available to everyone. A little extra

ships earned an average of $38,000-not a sum

legwork can go a long way in the quest for

to sneer at.

mean you’ll be dirt poor.” She assures ideallawyers who work in government organiza-

fulfilling employment. Tustin reminds recent grads that their careers Job fairs provide an excellent opportunity to

will take them many places-so public interest

drop a slew of resumés and peek at available

law doesn’t necessarily have to be the first

opportunities. Every fall, NAPIL sponsors a

stop. “What I think is most important is to

public interest law fair, the largest of its kind.

keep your goal in sight. So if your end goal is

Over 1,000 students flock to Washington, D.C.,

to work for the public interest, get there,” he

for the gala networking event, where they


meet some 200-odd employers representing a nationwide mix of organizations. Similar events are held by regional law schools. New York University holds the Public Interest and Public Service Legal Symposium; Suffolk University’s Law School in Boston and the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in Philadelphia also host public service career programs, as do Georgetown and George Washington University in D.C. Those hoping to jump into the public sector should also trawl the Web: Though popular job search engines will yield some employment notices, there are a number of sites maintained specifically for public interest law positions. Check out the NAPIL Web site’s “Jobs and Opportunities”


Doing Some Good: Careers in the Public Interest  

Good for career in the public interest. UCLA Law with a chuckle. Far fewer actually took such jobs, opting instead for Traditional Law-Firm...

Doing Some Good: Careers in the Public Interest  

Good for career in the public interest. UCLA Law with a chuckle. Far fewer actually took such jobs, opting instead for Traditional Law-Firm...