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.
A private public interest law firm, however, is a for-profit firm that makes values-based decisions about what work to do, and whose goal is, at least in part, to have a broader social, political, or economic impact on the world. Sometimes these firms are organized around a particular issue like employment discrimination, police misconduct, union organizing, or asylum. They may or may not charge their clients for their services. Much of this work is possible because of the fee-shifting provisions that exist in many federal statutes. Even if they do charge their clients directly, they may charge reduced rates, so-called “low-bono” rates, because their clients may not be wealthy enough to pay full price.
These firms still need to make money, so they cannot make decisions solely based on their values. And the business model may not work for every issue if the legal system is not set up in such a way as to allow lawyers to make money at it. A good example of this is eviction defense. There is no fee-shifting statute and your clients may not have money to pay their rent, let alone your fee. Unsurprisingly, I am not aware of any private public interest law firms that do eviction defense.
But when it works, it can represent a lucrative way to practice public interest law. You will make more money at a private public interest law firms than you will at most non-profit organizations, though salaries are still lower than at corporate law firms. For people who want to go into public interest law, but who need to make more money because of family obligations or other financial needs, private public interest law firms can be a good fit. It is also easier to transition to other public interest jobs from these firms than it is to transition from a corporate law firm, as I discussed in a recent post. Non-profit lawyers will respect work done at a private public interest law firm in a way they won’t if you chose to work at a corporate law firm. Some public interest lawyers bounce back and forth between non-profits and private public interest law firms throughout their career, something unheard of in the corporate sector.
There are downsides. These firms tend to be on the smaller side. That means that like non-profit jobs, there are fewer openings at private public interest law firms than there are at corporate firms. A summer associate position may or may not lead to a permanent position, so you will need to be proactive to get one of these jobs after law school. A good place to start looking is with Harvard Law School’s “Private Public Interest Law and Plaintiff’s Firm Guide,” available online here.
Perhaps the biggest drawback is that these firms need to make a profit, so money has to factor into their decisions about what work to do. I would note, however, that you never really get away from this entirely (unless you work for the government). Non-profits also need money to operate. They just get it through fundraising rather than by billing clients. Non-profits often make decisions about what work they do based on what work will allow them to fundraise successfully.
Private public interest law firms are an important part of the public interest ecosystem. There will never be enough non-profits to do all of the important legal work that needs to be done. In fact, we should be encouraging more firms to engage in values-based lawyering. For young lawyers, private public interest law firms can represent a rare opportunity to practice public interest law and still have a lucrative career.