Private Public Interest Law Firms

So far, I have discussed non-profit organizations, government jobs, and social entrepreneurship as different ways to practice public interest law. Today, I want to discuss private public interest law firms.

At core, most private law firms are mercenary – they work for whomever will pay their rates. There may be limits to this, of course. Corporate law firms can and do turn down work that would require them to advocate for repugnant clients or take abhorrent legal positions (especially if such work would exact a reputational cost), but that is not primarily the way they make decisions about what work to take on. And, regardless of whether they can turn down repugnant clients, they often don’t. Just look at the list of well-regarded law firms that represented former President Trump in his pernicious and quixotic quest to overturn the democratic results of the 2020 election.

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How to Transition to Public Interest Law Later in Your Career

Often when I talk to students, I hear some variation of the following: “I am going to go work at a law firm to pay off my loans for a few years and then I will go do public interest work.” When I hear this, I try to let students know the obstacles they will encounter. It is not as easy as they think it will be.

From the students’ perspective, this decision makes a lot of sense. What’s the harm in going to work at a law firm for a couple of years when you can pay off your debt, get some good legal experience, and still spend most of your career in public interest? What is a few years in the grand scheme of things!

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Social Entrepreneurship

Up to this point, we have discussed non-profit and government jobs as two common career paths for public interest lawyers. Today, I’ll tackle another path that often isn’t considered public interest work at all but that I think should be: social entrepreneurship. Simply put, social entrepreneurship is the idea that private companies can pursue profits while also contributing to the public good. In order to qualify as a public interest job, I think more than a nominal contribution to the public good is required. A company that donates a small portion of its profits to charity, without more, would not fit my definition of social entrepreneurship. Instead, I use the term to describe companies who exist primarily to make the world a better place, even if they make some money along the way.

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How to Avoid Burnout

It’s the time of year when law students are finishing their final exams and many are returning home for a few weeks of R&R before spring semester starts. This year, my students seemed more stressed than usual, probably in part because the pandemic won’t seem to go away. We powered through for awhile, but many people – including me! – are hitting a breaking point.

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Is Working for the Government Public Interest Lawyering?

In my post on the taxonomy of public interest lawyering, I focused on public interest work at non-profit organizations, but there are several other types of public interest jobs. One category of public interest lawyering that might appeal to you is government. It is by far the largest category of public interest jobs. It is also more common for lawyers to spend part of their career in government and part of it in the private sector than it is for people to jump back and forth between non-profits and law firms. It may seem like an attractive option. The salaries are slightly higher than at non-profits, and the hours may be less.

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