Public Interest Lawyer

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Duties: Provide legal counsel and services to underrepresented individuals as well as to nonprofit organizations and other public interest groups; perform legal duties as required

Alternate Title(s): Staff Attorney; a title, such as Environmental Attorney, that reflects a particular practice area

Salary Range: $30,000 to $90,000 (In USD as of Apr 26, 2015 )

Employment Prospects: Fair

Advancement Prospects: Fair


Education or Training - A law (J.D.) degree; on-the-job training

Experience - Previous work experience in public interest law is required or strongly preferred

Special Skills and Personality Traits - Legal research, legal writing, communication, interpersonal, and self-management skills; be enthusiastic, energetic, dedicated, compassionate, creative, flexible

Special Requirements - States require lawyers to be admitted to their state bar; federal courts require registration for lawyers to practice


Lawyer, Law Clerk, or Law Student  >>  Staff Attorney  >>  Senior Staff Attorney

Position Description

Public Interest Lawyers provide legal advice and services to nonprofit organizations as well as to individuals on limited incomes. They practice in all areas of law, including environmental, civil rights, consumer protection, health, family law, and environmental law, among others.

Public Interest Lawyers are employed in a wide variety of settings. Many work for public-interest law centers which advocate for legal reforms on behalf of the general public. These organizations work on social issues such as human rights, civil rights, women’s issues, education, voting rights, and the environment. Public Interest Lawyers review proposed laws in legislation and advise organizations on how the laws may affect their particular cause. They also draft legislation, as well as lobby legislators. In addition, these attorneys handle litigation. They take on civil action suits that affect the legal rights of a large group of people.

Some Public Interest Lawyers work for citizen action groups, special-interest organizations, lobbying groups, or other nonprofit organizations that advocate specific social concerns. These lawyers work as part of a team of scientists, policy analysts, and others to promote the particular goals of their organizations. The attorneys perform a variety of legal activities that include litigating, lobbying legislators, and organizing.

Many Public Interest Lawyers provide direct legal services to people. They mostly work for legal assistance programs that offer legal counsel and representation to those who cannot afford private counsel. These attorneys mostly handle civil cases, practicing in such areas as social security and disability benefits, health care issues, domestic relations, employment law, landlord-tenant relations, and consumer protection rights. Attorneys who work for legal aid programs sometimes handle criminal cases as well.

Some Public Interest Lawyers work in private or nonprofit law firms. Many of these lawyers do law reform litigation for nonprofit organizations. They might also provide low-fee legal services to people on limited incomes.


Average Public Interest Lawyer Salaries: 71,000 (In USD as of Apr 26, 2015)

Public Interest Lawyers typically earn lower wages than attorneys who work in private, corporate, and governmental settings. Their salaries vary, depending on such factors as their experience, job duties, employer, and geographical location. Salaries for entry-level attorneys generally range from $20,000 to $90,000 per year. Lawyers working in public- interest law firms usually earn more than those working in nonprofit organizations.

Employment Prospects

Opportunities for Public Interest Lawyers are available throughout the United States in urban, suburban, and rural settings. However, job openings usually become available when attorneys transfer to other positions or retire.

In nonprofit organizations, the hiring of new attorneys and the capacity to maintain staff levels is subject to the organizations’ ability to raise sufficient funds through grants and other development activities.

Advancement Prospects

Public Interest Attorneys generally measure success by winning cases for their clients and effecting social changes. For those who desire administrative or management responsibilities, opportunities are available but limited. The top goal for some lawyers is to start their own public interest law firm.

Other career paths lead to becoming lobbyists, elected officials, and executive directors of public interest organizations.

Education and Training

Public Interest Lawyers earn a juris doctor (J.D.) degree, usually from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association.

Many law schools offer clinics in which students can gain public-interest work experience. Students receive assignments to work with legal services offices, public defender’s offices, and other public interest groups.

Special Requirements

To practice law in a state (or in Washington, D.C., or a U.S. territory), attorneys must first gain admission to that state’s bar. For specific eligibility requirements, contact the state bar admission office where you wish to practice.

To practice before any federal court, Public Interest Lawyers must first apply for admission.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Employers look for candidates who are dedicated to their causes, which are demonstrated through their volunteer work. Because of their limited budgets, employers hire lawyers who do not need extensive training. Candidates may have gained their lawyering experience through law clerkships, summer internships, law school clinics, and volunteer work.

Public Interest Lawyers need excellent legal research and legal writing skills. Having strong communication and interpersonal skills is also important, as they must be able to work with many people from various backgrounds. In addition, they need strong self-management skills - such as the ability to work independently, prioritize and organize tasks, solve problems, and work well under stress. Being enthusiastic, energetic, dedicated, compassionate, creative, and flexible are a few personality traits that successful Public Interest Lawyers share. Unions and Associations Public Interest Lawyers join various bar associations to take advantage of professional services and resources as well as networking opportunities. Most are members of local and state bar associations. In some states, membership in the state bar is mandatory.

Many also belong to the American Bar Association, the National Lawyers Guild, or another national bar association. In addition, many of them join special-interest associations such as the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or the National Employment Lawyers Association.

Tips for Entry

1. While in high school or college, find out if a public interest career is right for you. Volunteer your services at a nonprofit organization, community group, or other public interest group that interests you.

2. Participate in conferences sponsored by public interest organizations that interest you. Meet lawyers, directors, organizers, and others to begin building a network of contacts whom you can call when you are ready to do your job search.

3. Many public interest employers do not have the budget to advertise widely for job openings. Thus, take the initiative and contact employers for whom you would like to work.

4. Check out your law school’s career center. Many public interest groups and legal services agencies send job vacancy information to these offices. Most, if not all law school career centers serve alumni as well as students.

5. Learn more about public interest law on the Internet. You might start by visiting the Equal Justice Works Web site at 

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