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10 reasons to become a public interest lawyer

This list was adapted by Equal Justice Works from the Inaugural Lecture of the Delaney Family Professorship, prepared and delivered by Philip G. Schrag, Delaney Family Professor of Public Interest Law, Georgetown University, on September 23, 2009.
  1. Camaraderie. Public interest law offices are places where the lawyers, and also the support staff, have a shared mission, which produces a sense of unity.
  2. Mentoring opportunities. Solid peer mentoring is a business necessity, and attorneys at all levels benefit from working closely together and developing their skills.
  3. Community. Public interest lawyers are part of a large national and international community of like-minded souls who encounter each other through their work, through periodic conferences, and through social contacts.
  4. Responsibility. A large degree of responsibility is given even to beginners. Client’s lives are in your hands – you could be assigned a major court case as soon as your first day.
  5. Flexibility. Public interest lawyers have a greater degree of mobility, because many people see the relevant specialty not as a particular subject matter but as public interest law itself.
  6. Money. Yes, starting salaries are usually low. But senior lawyers at nonprofit organizations tend to earn a comfortable living. And don’t forget – 10,000 private sector lawyers have been laid off since the beginning of 2008.  A government job may be a lot more secure than a job in a private firm. Further, legislation such as the College Cost Reduction & Access Act provides public service loan forgiveness and income-based repayment options, which can make entering public service quite easy.
  7. Work-life balance. You’re not a prisoner to the billable hour. You can have a life outside of your office
  8. Be on the cutting edge. Public interest lawyers get to work on urgent issues all the time. That’s the very nature of public interest work: it is law-reforming, a challenge to the status quo.
  9. Fun. It’s fun because when they are successful, public interest lawyers usually turn the tables on more powerful institutions, and it’s fun because upsetting the status quo forces you to be creative and innovative.
  10. Help others. Public interest lawyers represent vulnerable individuals and communities – they make huge differences in the lives of those who need help the most. A public interest attorney might enable clients to remain housed; limit the amount of time they spend in jail or improve the conditions of their confinement; help them to become employed or re-employed; enable them to go to school; prevent them from being cheated; enable them to enjoy physical security or an unpolluted environment; and in so many other ways. Most importantly, public interest lawyers also help clients understand how to exercise power, to advocate effectively for themselves even when the lawyers are no longer representing them.
The full text of the lecture appears here and you may also view a video of Prof. Schrag delivering the lecture. This article is also featured on the Nonprofit Career Month blog. -Aaron
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