Careers with Nonprofit Organizations
The vast majority of public interest law jobs are found in the nonprofit and government sectors. Within the nonprofit sector, the practice settings you can work in and the issues you can focus on lie along an extraordinarily broad spectrum. From lobbying to litigating, from work in a big city to work in remote regions abroad, from hands-on work with the impoverished to protecting civil liberties through appellate advocacy, there is a near-infinite amount of rewarding work to be found in the nonprofit sector.
Here are a few examples of the types of work that public interest attorneys perform with nonprofit organizations:
- Civil Legal Services – In the U.S., thousands of public interest lawyers work with civil legal services organizations, providing free representation to those who are on society’s margins and unable to afford legal help. Legal services attorneys help clients on a wide variety of non-criminal matters, including public benefits, family law, disability issues, employment, farmworker issues, community economic development, housing, homelessness, elder law, etc.
Legal services programs are typically structured as independent nonprofit organizations, responsible to secure their own funding to operate. Many, but not all, receive the bulk of their funding from the Legal Services Corporation, a congressionally chartered funding organization created to ensure that low-income citizens have access to legal help in civil matters.
The legal services movement has a rich history. It is worth learning about its many triumphs, as well as the challenges it has faced and continues to address today. The National Legal Aid & Defender Association provides an informative historical account on their website's "About" page.
- Public Defense – Public defenders provide free representation to those who are accused of a crime and unable to afford legal counsel. Note that public defender organizations may be structured either as nonprofit or government entities; this varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In practice, public defenders handle all types of criminal matters, from minor theft crimes to homicide, and sometimes do specialized work with specific types of defendants, such as juveniles and death row defendants. Public defenders do a great deal of litigation on both the trial and appellate levels. You may learn more about the history of public defense in the U.S. through the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s website.
- Issue-Specific Advocacy – Many nonprofit organizations focus on specific legal issues, or on helping a specific group of people in need. This advocacy may be performed via direct representation of clients, through policy work and lobbying, or a mix of both. Some of this work overlaps with that done by civil legal services and public defenders, like advocacy for the homeless or death-row defendants. There is seemingly no limit to the types of issues on which public interest advocates may focus: child welfare, civil liberties, environmental work, government reform, human rights, justice system reform, labor and employment, and much more.
- International Issues/Non-Governmental Organizations – The international public interest arena has become very popular, with many public interest advocates working on a broad array of international issues from the U.S. or by going abroad. Many public-interest minded law students are familiar with the work of organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, as well as quasi-governmental bodies like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. If you are interested in an international public interest career, note that mastery of a language besides English will open many doors to you. You can learn more about international public interest careers in PSJD's International Resources Section.
This is not an exhaustive list. You can learn more by searching among the thousands of employer organization profiles and job opportunities in PSJD.
Category: Public Sector Career Paths