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Private Public Interest Firms
Oct 20, 2022

Donated to PSJD by the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at Harvard Law School (OPIA), with contributions from the Center for Public Interest Law at Columbia Law School (CPIL)


When lawyers and law students think of public interest practice, they typically think of legal services or public defender offices, not-for-profit organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, or government agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a district attorney’s office. Frequently overlooked is another important segment of the public interest market: private public interest law firms. Private public interest law firms are involved in many of the same issues addressed by not-for-profit public interest legal organizations and government agencies – but in a law firm setting. A second, and overlapping, category of private firms known as “plaintiffs’ firms” represents individuals and groups seeking to redress injuries with monetary damages, commonly in the fields of employee rights, consumer rights, personal injury, medical malpractice, product liability, antitrust violations and securities fraud.

There is no official test for what establishes a firm as a private public interest law firm. It is a somewhat elastic term, used to describe private, for-profit firms that dedicate at least a significant portion of their caseload to matters that have some broad social, political, or economic impact. While most are small, firms that fall under this broad definition come in a great variety of sizes – everything from a solo practitioner to a multi-city, 100+ lawyer operation – and work in an even greater range of subject areas – everything from criminal defense to international human rights to plaintiffs’ firms. There is also no clear-cut dividing line between a private public interest firm and a plaintiffs’ firm. As a result, we make no attempt to categorize the firms in our directory, though there are many that should be considered plaintiffs’ firms.

In a 2009 paper titled “Between Profit and Principle: The Private Public Interest Firm,” Scott L. Cummings (UCLA School of Law) and Ann Southworth (UC Irvine School of Law) describe private public interest law as such: “This category marks a range on a continuum, including firms pursuing different mixes of work and articulating various visions of the public interest.” In the article, they seek to explore the field of private public interest work. The authors examine private public interest firms by looking at the history of the field, the various theories of public service and its role in the legal profession, and the recent developments.

Cummings and Southworth define private public interest firms as “a range of ‘hybrid’ entities that fuse ‘private’ and ‘public’ goals…for profit legal practices structured around service to some vision of the public interest. They are organized as for-profit entities, but advancing the public interest is one of their primary purposes—a core mission rather than a secondary concern” (p3, 6). The authors point out that private public interest firms are often in “pursuit of a political mission beyond client service” (p3). They explain that interest “has increased as the field has become larger and more complex, and as law students seek alternative public interest careers” (p2).

Where, then, to begin thinking about career opportunities in a private public interest firm? This guide will address some basic questions:

  • What are private public interest law firms and how do they differ from other private law firms?
  • What is the difference between a public interest law firm and a plaintiffs’ firm?
  • How does a public interest firm operate?
  • What is it like to work in a public interest firm?
  • What do public interest firms look for in the lawyers they hire?
  • Where can one search for more information about specific public interest firms? Private Public Interest and Plaintiffs’ Firm Guide


Like traditional not-for-profit public interest organizations, public interest law firms usually have a particular social, political, or economic vision that includes helping underrepresented groups and/or promoting change. Public interest firms, like traditional not-for-profits, pursue cases that will advance their vision. A public interest law firm may, for example, represent employees suing their employers for unlawful discrimination or consumers charging a financial institution with deceptive practices.

However, unlike traditional not-for-profits, public interest firms operate as for-profit businesses. Public interest firms rely on the fees generated by their cases, rather than foundation grants or tax dollars, to pay the rent and their lawyers’ salaries. Thus, a public interest firm looks not only at the merits but also at the potential profitability of a case in deciding whether or not to take it on. As Jahan Sagafi ‘01, who has worked at two plaintiff’s firms, explains, “The important unifying feature of both is that we are fighting for justice on behalf of individual human beings whose rights are being violated by more powerful interests (usually corporate or governmental.) One way to distinguish between nonprofits and private public interest firms is that the former tend to represent the poorest of the poor, while the latter tend to represent populations that are less specifically limited and less extremely disadvantaged.” While both settings generally allow their attorneys to represent disadvantaged people against more powerful interests, private public interest firms do so with the understanding that they still need to make some sort of profit at the end of the day to survive. Firms have different means for ensuring their financial solvency. Some firms split their practice so that profit-driven client work can subsidize the public interest docket. At most such firms, associates will usually be required to work on both kinds of matters. Other firms choose to only represent clients that will further their public interest agenda but simply more strictly scrutinize the financial implications of each case.

What distinguishes a public interest firm from other private law firms? One public interest firm lawyer describes the difference this way: “Subject matter of the cases is the key to defining a firm as a private public interest law firm. The lawyers at my firm have ‘religion’; they really care about what they do. They are committed to their beliefs.” A second important distinction, offers another attorney, is the kind of clients public interest firms represent: “I represent people who are disenfranchised and powerless. We do a lot of similar things that government attorneys and public interest groups do, but we are able to make some money while accomplishing something good at the same time.”

Common areas of practice for public interest firms include:

  • Criminal defense litigation
  • Civil litigation
    • Employment rights
      • Labor law (i.e., representing unions)
      • Employment rights
        • Wage and hour (e.g., overtime pay)
        • Employment discrimination (see below)
      • Occupational health and safety [does anyone actually do this?]
    • Civil rights litigation
      • Employment discrimination
      • Disability rights
      • Other civil rights (e.g., police brutality, prisoner rights)
    • Immigration
    • Consumer protection
      • Financial products (suing banks)
      • Insurance liability (e.g., bad faith claims)
      • Antitrust
      • Product liability (e.g., defective consumer products, exploding Pintos)
    • Personal injury
    • Environmental protection (toxic torts and more)
  • Policy work
  • Lobbying
  • Transactional

Clients range from individuals with specific disputes, to small groups of plaintiffs with similar complaints, to large “classes” of similarly situated plaintiffs. In a class-action lawsuit, a number of similarly-situated people who have been injured but do not have the resources individually to sue the responsible party, band together in a single case. Some firms represent primarily individual clients while others may do almost exclusively class actions. This can be an important distinction for the student looking for the right fit.

Public interest firms are often, although not exclusively, “plaintiff-side”; that is, they represent the party bringing suit, usually against a corporate or other institutional defendant. One exception to the general rule that public interest law firms represent the plaintiff side is criminal practice, in which public interest law firms represent the accused defendant. One can argue that civil-side plaintiffs and criminal-side defendants are naturally grouped together in social justice litigation, as both tend to be disempowered entities. Civil plaintiffs allege that something was wrongfully taken from them, while criminal defendants allege that they are being wrongfully denied of their freedom. Other exceptions include the representation of clients such as not-forprofit organizations in defensive actions, including evictions, the protection of first amendment rights, employment matters, and contract disputes.

Examples of recent cases handled by public interest law firms reveal the tremendous range of issues such firms work on:

  • An action on behalf of an employee injured by exposure to toxic chemicals
  • Defense of a Mexican immigrant faced with deportation
  • A suit on behalf of public employees to insure the right to discuss union issues at work
  • A sex discrimination suit on behalf of women brokers against a major Wall Street firm
  • A suit on behalf of agricultural workers against strawberry growers for using a potentially harmful pesticide without adequate warnings
  • A case on behalf of African-American families denied housing at an apartment complex which used a system of racially-coded applications
  • A suit challenging a police department’s routine use of dogs trained to bite their targets
  • Negotiation of a new lease for an artist in danger of losing his studio
  • An action on behalf of hundreds of tenants against a landlord for maintaining an apartment building in slum conditions over many years

Nor is public interest firm work confined to litigation. Private public interest firms work, for example, on affordable housing projects, as well as on corporate governance, tax and real estate issues on behalf of non-profits or provide advice to clients.

What’s in a Name? Public Interest, Plaintiffs’ Firm or “Corporate” Firm?

Whether a particular firm should really be considered a “public interest” firm can in some instances be open to debate. At either end of the spectrum between what is public interest and what is purely commercial, it is relatively easy to characterize a given firm. A firm that handles court-appointed criminal defense work for indigent clients or represents immigrant workers against “sweatshop” employers is doing what almost everyone would agree is public interest work. If such cases make up the bulk of their practice, they can clearly be said to be a private public interest law firm. At the other end of the spectrum, a law firm that almost exclusively represents large corporate clients in disputes with other large corporations would not likely consider itself, or expect others to consider it, a public interest firm.

There are many types of work between these two extremes where the public interest nature of the case may lie in the eye of the beholder. As one veteran public interest lawyer put it: the determination as to what is really public interest work is “very subjective . . . almost everyone thinks they work for a public interest firm.” One category of firms that illustrates this definitional problem is firms that specialize in representing plaintiffs, individually or in large class-action suits for significant damages. Often referred to as plaintiffs’ firms, these firms may, for example, represent investors suing the officers and directors of a large corporation for fraud or mismanagement. Because they may be representing pension funds and/or individual investors who could not afford to sue on their own, and because they are often working to recoup losses caused by greed or even criminal malfeasance, such firms can reasonably argue that they are working in the public interest. But others would contest that designation, pointing out that the institutional investor clients are often as powerful as corporations and that such cases, in which millions of dollars in damages may ultimately be awarded, yield very handsome fees for the attorneys.

Another area in which the “public interest” label can be controversial is in personal injury litigation. Firms that represent plaintiffs in relatively routine personal injury cases – car accidents, workplace injuries, and medical malpractice – are not generally considered public interest law firms. Less clear is how to characterize a firm that handles personal injury cases that raise a broader social issue such as an allegedly defective automobile or other consumer product. Such firms may consider themselves to be a breed of public interest firm. Similarly, a firm that handles the occasional personal injury case as a means of generating income to subsidize its public interest docket may self-identify as a public interest firm. Adding to the complexity of characterizing plaintiff side personal injury firms is the criticism some firms have drawn for seeking prodigious damage awards in which they secure large contingency fees. But Jahan Sagafi says “helping injured people get maximum compensation by asserting their interests against powerful insurance companies is socially valuable.” And he points out that “the reality is that the vast majority of plaintiffs’ lawyers make less than they would as defense lawyers, but they do it because they enjoy the social justice impact they have.”

Jahan Sagafi argues that there should not be a distinction between private public interest and plaintiffs’ firms because “all plaintiffs’ firms are public interest firms in a way that is easily distinguishable from corporate firms.” He maintains that all plaintiffs firms are “generally mission driven.” They have a social justice goal that looks beyond merely advancing the interests of particular clients, and generally seek to represent disadvantaged people (e.g., the poor, working class, people of color, people with disabilities, non-citizens, small businesses, etc.), against more powerful interests, but they’re private (so they exclude government and nonprofits).” However, some attorneys go a step further, arguing that representing corporate clients can also advance social justice. Brent Landau ‘01, an attorney at Hausfeld LLP, argues that, “Public interest does not mean anti-corporation. There are corporate wrongdoers and corporate victims, just like individuals can be wrongdoers and victims. Enforcing the law and protecting victims is in the public interest.”

However, Stephen Rosenthal ‘96, a partner with Podhurst Orseck, P.A., believes that there are distinctions to be made. He says that one should not ignore the reality of the marketplace and that most private plaintiffs’ firms are businesses which necessarily focus on revenue, albeit differently than hourly-billing defense-side firms. Although these plaintiffs’ firms genuinely pride themselves on representing the powerless and victimized, their case-intake decisions are often driven by the potential profitability of the case, which requires evaluation of considerations like the merits of the claim, the likelihood of success, and the extent of the damages. “The notion that firms are acting directly in public interest in those cases,” he says, is a bit different. “While the firms may take the case in furtherance of a genuine public interest in, say, deterring future negligent conduct or improving public safety, those decisions are frequently infused with an assessment of the economic viability of the case.” He says that the distinction should be more “functional” than looking at the “substance” of the practice area. One way to approach this, he suggests as “practical, not value-laden,” is that to look at how the firm plans to make its fees. Contingency fee cases seeking purely injunctive relief typically offer greater social value than fee potential, so the work might be more fairly characterized as social justice. Those that seek damages for the individual client, on a contingency basis, are more likely to be motivated by economic imperatives. Class actions present something of a hybrid, given their scope.

The mission of this guide is not to resolve the debate but to make law students and attorneys engaged in a job search aware of the subjectivity of the “public interest” label when it comes to private firms. Whether or not a firm should be considered a “pure” public interest firm, a straight-out plaintiffs’ firm with no public interest dimension, or something in between, is a determination that can be made only after examining the details of a given firm’s practice; even then it may be open to reasonable disagreement. What is most important in considering a particular firm is to get behind the label to examine what kind(s) of cases the firm handles and whom they represent, and whether these cases and clients fit your own wants and needs.

How They Operate

Public interest firms frequently get their cases by referral from other law firms, public interest agencies, bar associations, or clients. Public interest firms may also garner media attention for high-profile cases, leading clients with similar issues to seek them out.

These firms generally charge clients for their services and make decisions on whom to represent with at least some concern for the finances of a case. Frequently, public interest firms are paid on a contingency basis. In contingency cases, the firm does not charge the client a fee unless he or she wins the case. If the case is won, the firm takes a percentage of the settlement or court award. If the case is lost, the client pays nothing. Plaintiffs’ firms work on contingency in the great majority of their cases.

Public interest firms must necessarily choose the contingency cases they take on carefully – by first investigating the facts, judging the likelihood of success, and estimating the expense of litigating the case before agreeing to represent a client. One lawyer describes the process by saying that her firm “has to be pretty selective about what cases we will take on. We think about what resources we will need for a case and what time and resources we will be giving up on other cases by taking a particular case on.” Having made a careful decision about a case at the outset, however, the firm sticks with a case no matter what: “If it’s worth pursuing, it’s worth pursuing to the end.” Another attorney explained that his firm pursues only 10% to 20% of the cases that potential clients bring in. The firm goes forward only with those cases that both have a good chance of being successful and where the firm believes there is some social benefit to be achieved through the case. Jahan Sagafi puts it this way: “One other implication of the case selection realities is that being selective allows us to focus on socially-beneficial cases; by definition, a case that will lose is usually (not always) a case that should not be brought. That control over our docket is a key aspect to being a social-justice-oriented plaintiffs’ lawyer.”

In non-contingency cases – e.g., immigration, family law, and landlord/tenant disputes – firms may charge an hourly fee or a flat rate. Because public interest firms must earn their way through their public interest practice, they may do little or no pro bono work. They may, however, be able to charge rates that are lower than the rates charged by traditional private law firms because their smaller size or less luxurious setting keeps their overhead costs down. Some firms charge on a sliding scale based on the client’s income.

The for-profit nature of public interest firms creates distinct advantages and disadvantages compared to traditional public interest settings such as the government and non-profits. A major advantage is the potential for considerably higher salaries for the attorneys. However, with that potential comes the responsibility for looking at the economics of every case. Many firms will not represent a client who cannot pay if there is no potential to at least recoup the cost of the litigation. One lawyer admits that some of his more “heartbreaking moments” have been turning away people who have been wronged because the case had little financial merit. Lawyers also admit that there can be pressure to settle a case, even if the client wants to litigate, when the cost of litigation will be higher than the expected award. Another drawback for some lawyers is the discomfort of having to bill low-income clients at all. One practitioner who thoroughly enjoys her criminal defense and immigration practice reports that she makes considerably more than she would as, for example, a state public defender. Nevertheless, she laments that she “hates collecting the money,” as even her reduced fees represent “a huge amount” from her client’s perspective. This practitioner “wishes she didn’t have to think about the monetary aspect of her cases.” Another lawyer explains, “You have to have an entrepreneurial spirit to work in private practice…You have to make it happen.”

What It’s Like to Work in One

Lawyers are drawn to public interest firms by a passion for the issues their firms address and the clients they serve. Universally, public interest firm lawyers cite the shared commitment of their colleagues as a major advantage of their practices. One attorney summed up his experience: “You get to work with a group of people who are colorful, people you would really enjoy hanging out with. You get to work on amazing cases, and then you go home knowing you have helped someone.”

In general, public interest firms are smaller than conventional, big-city corporate firms. The smaller public interest firms are comprised of fewer than ten attorneys, with the larger firms having as many as thirty-five or more lawyers. Some firms are bigger. Firms that pursue more plaintiff-side work – i.e., major tort or financial cases – tend to be bigger than those that do more traditional public interest work. The relatively intimate work environment offered by most public interest firms creates the potential for close working relationships and real collegiality. However, the potential for a mismatch or even clash of styles is also heightened. In an office with only a few attorneys the personality mix can be critical. In researching and interviewing with a public interest firm, pay close attention to the feel of the office – how the attorneys interact, whether one or two strong personalities set the tone for the office, etc. – to determine whether or not it is a good fit for you.

Because they are generally smaller than traditional commercial firms and put fewer attorneys on each case, public interest or plaintiffs’ firms tend to give young attorneys a greater share of responsibility. As one partner described her firm: “New associates get plenty of responsibility – as much as they can handle.” A lawyer at a different firm – a large one, by public interest standards – described the level of responsibility for associates there as follows: “In their first year, associates will be doing the same work they would in their fifth year at a big firm.” Another benefit to the lean staffing of cases is that attorneys at all levels of experience tend to see more court time in public interest and plaintiffs’ firms. Describing how she spends her workweek, one attorney stated that she “is in court all the time.” “Some years I have lots of trials,” she explained, “other years, not as many. It is rare for me to have two weeks without going to court.” Smaller size is not without its drawbacks, however. A small firm may have a more precarious income flow; a year or two without winning or settling a major case can create financial instability for the entire firm.

The number of hours worked by public interest firm lawyers varies considerably from firm to firm. Most public interest lawyers report, however, that their hours are more reasonable than those of their corporate-firm counterparts. On average, lawyers work 50 to 60 hours a week, with longer hours when on trial. As one lawyer put it, “It’s not a crazed existence.” Another described her work schedule as follows: “If I don’t have a trial coming up, I might just work one evening a week. If I do have a trial, I work 24/7.” One lawyer explained that a major benefit to her practice was her ability to keep her life in balance, saving enough time for her family and for outside interests. Another observed that while the pay was higher at her public interest firm than at the nonprofit where she had worked previously, the hours were longer.

Public interest firms offer at least the possibility of salaries that are significantly higher than those earned by traditional non-profit or government lawyers. There is quite a bit of variation in salaries among public interest firms depending on their size and the nature of cases they handle. At some public interest firms, associates receive salaries comparable to attorneys in legal services or state government offices, in the $40,000 to $50,000 range; at others, even new associates are paid closer to $80,000 a year. In contrast to not-for-profit organizations and government agencies, most public interest law firm lawyers also have the potential to receive a bonus in a profitable year. Plaintiffs’ firms offer an even wider variation in salary because there is the potential in successful firms that handle big-money cases for salaries that are as high as or higher than in any Wall Street firm. In both public interest and plaintiffs’ firms, salaries for experienced attorneys may in part reflect how much business they bring in and/or how many cases they handle.

The facilities and resources of a public interest firm may also be more generous than those of a non-profit or government office. Private public interest practitioners commonly remark that they appreciate the strong resources – in terms of staff, equipment, and space – that their firms offer. All things are relative, however, and the same lawyers report that their firms’ resources, while ample compared to a non-profit, pale in comparison to those of a traditional large corporate firm. Though it is impossible to generalize given the wide range of firms, the chart below compares private public interest firms with nonprofits and corporate firms.

Relative to corporate firms Relative to nonprofits
  • Lower compensation
  • Smaller size
  • Slightly fewer hours
  • More responsibility
  • Culture that is much more social justice oriented
  • Fewer resources
  • Work requires self-starters, people who can figure it out on their own, people who are assertive and want to drive a case forward
  • Higher compensation
  • Varies, but similar in size
  • More hours
  • Often the same responsibility
  • Culture that is more oriented to financial sustainability
  • Work requires people who are practical and thrive in a market-based competitive environment

Landing a Position

Securing a position at public interest firms can be much more challenging than the process for traditional large firms, largely due to the smaller size of the firms. Public interest firms do hire entry-level attorneys and even summer associates, but more sporadically and in much smaller numbers than the large corporate firms. Although some private public interest firms hire students directly upon graduation or after a clerkship, others hire attorneys with a few years of practice experience. However, even these firms may have summer positions for law students or may be willing to consider a recent graduate with exceptional experience. In addition, several private public interest firms that have not traditionally hired attorneys right out of school or clerkships are now offering fellowship positions for new lawyers.

Many public interest firms are interested in hiring summer interns but some are unable to do so until they can gauge how much work they will have for their summer associates/law clerks. There is no uniform summer hiring timeline and the process can range from late summer until the spring. This variable hiring timeline can pose a challenge to many law students, especially when weighing summer position offers that may come before other firms have even begun interviewing or responding to applications.

Entry-level hiring poses its own challenges. Due to the limited size, most firms simply wait until they have an opening. Jahan Sagafi recommends reaching out repeatedly to a firm (e.g. 2-3 times during the year) to ensure that you give yourself the best chance at finding an open position at the right time. As he explains, “Because plaintiffs’ firms hire in bursts in response to moments of need (and not on a particular schedule), writing six months too early can be just as useless as writing one month too late. Multiple letters and emails can help grab the firm at the right moment.” For lateral hiring, public interest and plaintiffs’ firms draw from a variety of practice settings. Experienced attorneys may come to public interest firms from district attorney’s or attorney general offices, other government agencies, large corporate firms, legal services offices, or public-interest nonprofits. For both lateral hiring and summer positions, it is important that applicants sufficiently research prospective firms to determine their practice areas of the firm and confirm they align with the interests of the student/attorney. A public interest firm’s docket and expertise may shift over time or a firm may develop a niche practice area that predominates, while still advertising casework in a wider array of practice areas

What They Look For in the Attorneys They Hire

Public interest law firms look for the usual credentials when hiring, such as a strong academic background and good research and writing skills. However, unlike traditional law firms, public interest firms also look for experience in and commitment to the subject areas of the firm’s practice. Public interest experience, in the form of clinical work, summer jobs, and/or academic-year activities, is critical. Likewise, because of the significant responsibility young attorneys are given in public interest firms, these firms seek candidates who are selfstarting and quick to learn. One lawyer describes her firm’s hiring strategy: “We want energetic, hungry people with good writing, critical thinking, and entrepreneurial skills; people with a passion for and experience in public interest work.” Another said, “We want to hire people who can take initiative and be proactive.” One partner explained that her firm is “very driven” and looks for that “level of commitment in people it hires . . . we look for people who have the ability to handle a lot of pressure and people who are committed to civil rights in a very aggressive way.” Likewise, due to the typically smaller nature of many firms, public interest lawyers stress the importance of judging how well an applicant will “fit” at the given firm; this quality highlights the importance of interviews and previous experience to the hiring process. Because every firm is unique in its specific goals and vision, applicants should be sure to use their cover letter to demonstrate that they believe in the firm’s mission. If feasible, they should also try to note something particular about the firm they are applying to that draws their interest, which can be picked up from its webpage.

Advice to Law Stuents from Private Public Interest Lawyers

We asked a number of private public interest firm lawyers for their advice to students interested in career opportunities in public interest firms. Here’s what they had to say:

  • When investigating a firm, look at what kind of cases they do, for whom you will be working, what kind of structure the firm has, and what kinds of things they let new people do. Your investigation should be content driven; you should seek to find out what they actually do at the firm.
  • To find a job in a public interest firm or any other area of the law, you have to NETWORK! Rely on alumni from your law school and keep in touch with people you work with during the summer. You really need to keep in touch with people you have worked with to stay well connected.
  • When considering a firm, have very frank conversations with the firms’ associates and hear from them the kind of work that you would be expected to do.
  • It is important to understand the practice of the firm that you are looking to join and the kind of cases they are involved in, especially since in most public interest firms, there is some portion of the caseload that does not involve public interest work. Be clear about the kind of responsibilities you will be asked to take on and make sure that is the kind of work you enjoy and care about doing.
  • Many public interest firms are very issue specific. So a student who wants to work at a firm should be sure they want to devote his or her time to the area in which that firm focuses. Ask, too, whether there are other types of cases you will be asked to handle just to bring money into the firm (like real estate closings or divorce cases) and make sure you are OK with that.
  • You should ask yourself before joining the firm if working there would be a learning experience. Will you be working with people who have good skills and a strong commitment? Will you be given opportunities to engage in all aspects of the cases that the firm handles?
  • There is a difference in the kind of training a new lawyer would get in a public interest firm versus a large, traditional corporate firm. In a small public interest firm, you are likely to be given a lot more responsibility sooner – taking and defending depositions and drafting pleadings long before an attorney at the same level at a big firm. On the other hand, because larger firms have more resources, they have the time to make sure that everything is perfect. A new lawyer might write fifteen drafts of a document and have each reviewed by a more senior lawyer. That can give you great writing skills.
  • Think of the lifestyle and the kind of environment you will be walking into. My firm is much smaller than a corporate firm and hence has a more personal atmosphere. We don’t have to wear suits, for example, and it’s a comfort level that I like. Also, try to make sure you will like working with the people in the firm. In a small firm, people’s individual personalities really come out.
  • When students get into a summer program at a firm, they shouldn’t just work on the “cherry” cases or on a reduced schedule. They should try to work as hard as the lawyers, and put in as many hours as they do to get a realistic picture of what it’s really like.
  • Number one: don’t compromise, and number two: don’t rationalize because of pressures, financial or otherwise, getting into something you don’t want to do. Do volunteer work if you can’t find a paying position working with the issues that interest you; it’s a great way to get visibility as someone who is committed to the specific public interest issues.
  • Ask yourself, do you love the subject matter? Do you love the clients? Ideally, you should answer yes to both, but you’re in big trouble if you go into something in which you like neither.
  • Look for honesty and integrity in the firm’s lawyers, and a commitment to their clients’ objectives. That is what, for me, makes a public interest law firm good.


Many private public interest lawyers say that they love what they do because they care about the cases they work on and that they work with people who are interesting and committed. One attorney said about his firm, “If you spend a day here, you’ll know why it’s so great. People are having fun. They find themselves and the work that they do worthwhile. It’s a very positive atmosphere.” Public interest firm lawyers boast that they reap the personal fulfillment of working on issues they believe in, while enjoying the financial rewards of private practice. As another attorney described his practice, “It combines the best of both worlds. You get the opportunity to push your ideals in full action, but you don’t have to live with financial constraints.” Of course, no practice setting is perfect. Because public interest firms do operate as for-profit businesses, their lawyers may feel frustrated by the financial realities that affect which cases they can accept. Attorneys in some firms complain of pressure to take on those cases that will generate the highest fees rather than cases that are most deserving or most in keeping with their interests. But for public interest firm lawyers, the emotional, intellectual, and financial rewards of their practices more than outweigh any disadvantages. Their positive descriptions of the work they do everyday speak for themselves:

  • “There are so many people from my law school class who are unhappy with what they do. I like what I do.”
  • “I appreciate the ability to decide what cases I want to bring. I have a dream job because I can focus on the cases that I am interested in.”
  • “Our cases are a million times more interesting [than commercial cases], attorneys get more responsibility, and we’re on the right side!”
  • “The most rewarding aspect of my job is that I can go to my desk and pull out at least 30 cases where I feel that I have really had an impact on something. I like that I am able to take cases that attack inequities in society that won’t be challenged otherwise. I like affecting lives in a way that matters.”
  • “I enjoy coming to work every day.”