If you’d like to do more with your life than just make a good living, instead dedicating your career to improving other people’s lives and trying to leave the world better than you found it, public interest law could be for you. It has traditionally been described as the practice of standing up for the little guy, and it’s about ensuring that people still have access to the rights and protections enshrined in law, even if they can’t afford to hire lawyers. Public interest lawyers are often driven by a strong belief in justice, and to the people whom they help, they’re heroes. They have an essential role to play in a healthy democratic nation.
What does public interest law involve?
Public interest law involves using elements from several other fields of law to protect the public interest, especially the interests of poor or marginalized groups that might have difficulty asserting themselves through other channels. In this country, it is often traced back to Louis Brandeis, the Supreme Court Justice who encouraged fellow lawyers to consider becoming champions of ordinary people after expressing concern that many of the country’s most capable lawyers were being snapped up to work for corporations and potentially defending actions inimical to the public interest.
People come to this kind of work from many different backgrounds and at different stages in their careers, sometimes wanting to give something back to the community after enjoying success in other areas. They may specialize in a particular kind of case or – especially if they begin at the start of their working lives – explore different areas and build up their knowledge and skills to the point where they have the capacity to take on complex intersectional cases. Some become policy advisors or move into politics themselves, using their expertise to push for better legislation.
Training as a public interest lawyer
There are several different ways to approach becoming a public interest lawyer, but they all begin with becoming a juris doctor (JD). Traditionally this has required on-campus study, requiring most students to relocate, and often involving very high fees. Today there are also online options available.
Completing a degree in jurisprudence at Cleveland State University takes just ten semesters, with extensive coursework supported by experience at one of a number of ABA-accredited law schools around the country. Wherever you study, it’s vital to take the opportunity to network because this will significantly improve your chances of moving quickly into a range of juris doctor jobs, in an organization that fits with what you want to do.
There are numerous contexts in which working as a lawyer can change individual people’s lives, but only one in which you can really hope to change wider society. Working as a public interest lawyer gives you the opportunity to make a real difference in the world, bringing justice to people who would have no hope of accessing it otherwise and ensuring that the little guy sometimes gets his day.
Working in public interest law
Can you work as a public interest lawyer and still make a decent living? Fortunately, the answer is yes. Some people do it by working pro bono for clients who are in need but can’t afford to pay, alongside more lucrative careers in other areas of law. Many law schools encourage and even help to arrange pro bono work because the right kind of cases can do a lot to help lawyers at an early stage in their careers to make a name for themselves. Other types of cases are simple enough that undergraduates can work on them under light supervision, gaining useful experience in the process.
Most people who dedicate themselves full time to this sort of work after graduation do so through non-governmental public interest organizations which may not pay as well as the big corporations they sometimes go up against but ensure their lawyers are provided for. It’s often easier to find work with an organization like this than it is to go into practice with an established law firm, so some people do it as a means of building up experience in the workplace. Others feel a real passion for it and can never be satisfied doing anything else.
Human rights law
Though it’s often considered to be a branch of international law, human rights law goes beyond treaty commitments. It includes Constitutional rights (addressed below) as well as a number of pieces of Congressional and state legislation. Although it is not a signatory to some major international agreements on human rights, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the US prides itself on having its own system which has developed over time and includes things like the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The patchwork of laws resulting from this can be challenging to interpret and is difficult for lawyers who haven’t specialized in this area to draw on without expert advice.
Although they can sometimes overlap, human rights law is distinct from humanitarian law, which falls wholly under the purview of international law and constitutes the set of treaties designed to protect individuals caught up in wars, including combatants and non-combatants. In recent years it has been invoked in several instances related to the actions of US troops abroad and the treatment of prisoners detained in US custody in war zones.
Lawyers work to ensure that everybody’s human rights are protected in situations like this, with some also noting that their work helps protect the reputation of the armed forces, and of the country as a whole. Ensuring that the US armed forces comply with international law also reduces the risk of US military prisoners or civilian hostages being mistreated by their captors and may help to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.
Today more than ever, protecting people depends upon protecting the environment, and courses focused on public interest law now usually incorporate a focus on environmental law. This deals with issues like the protection of waterways, air quality, waste disposal, pollution prevention, and the clean-up of pollution when accidents occur. It also addresses the protection of the natural environment: everything from National Parks to important biodiversity hotspots and green spaces of value to local communities. From a legal perspective, this is a highly complex area involving federal and state laws as well as significant amounts of local and context-specific regulation.
Most lawyers working in the field specialize in one specific type of issue, such as groundwater contamination, so they can become experts in all the relevant precedents. In some contexts, international law also plays a role when treaties such as the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter or the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean come into play.
In the US, the most fundamental rights and freedoms we enjoy have their roots in the Constitution, and an understanding of constitutional law is essential to defending them. At its most fundamental, the Constitution guarantees every US citizen five basic rights: the right to freedom of speech and expression; the right to a fair trial; the right to free media; the right to vote in public elections; and the right to freedom of worship.
In addition, citizens are protected from having their property sequestered by the state without compensation (with some exceptions, such as proceeds of crime) and have a number of rights pertaining to the process of arrest, trial, and sentencing, should they fall foul of the law.
Protecting consumer rights
Consumer rights law aims to ensure that people can purchase products and services without being subject to scams. It regulates misleading advertising and ensures certain quality standards. It also covers things like the correct listing of ingredients on food packaging, hygiene and cosmetic products, and endeavors to protect the public from products made without due regard for safety.
Public interest lawyers can’t afford to get involved in every instance but use test cases and class action suits to facilitate change, and advise organizations of their legal responsibilities. Additionally, they tackle unfair trading practices and exploitation, helping to ensure that consumers have fair and free choice in the purchase of goods and services, including essentials like household fuel.
Working on minority rights issues
There are still many minority groups living within the US whose members struggle to see their rights fully recognized or who suffer frequent abuses of their rights. Public interest lawyers interested in remedying these problems tend to focus on just one or two such groups to get a complete picture of the disadvantages they face and the legal instruments used for or against them in the past. This is a field in which there are often opportunities for lawyers to get creative, looking for ways to use the law in order to create new, valuable precedents which advance the position of the group rather than just maintaining the status quo.
Often marginalized people do not have much understanding of what their rights are, and don’t seek out legal help directly because they don’t expect anybody in a position of authority to care about them, so some lawyers participate in research projects aimed at better understanding the type of work which is most needed from them.
Not every public interest lawyer comes in after the fact to work on things that have gone wrong. They work in-house or as consultants, in policymaking, whether for government, private enterprise or third-sector organizations. In this context, their role is to ensure that things don’t go wrong in the first place, and part of the way they do this is to encourage inclusivity. This involves anticipating how any given policy might impact different groups within society at large and identifying the legal protections that might be brought to bear on their behalf.
They make sure that their employers are fully aware of what the law requires and the different interests at stake. They also help to clarify ways that groups that might appear to have competing interests can be accommodated without falling foul of the law.
Where clear examples exist of how one group of people is being denied opportunities afforded to others, it is sometimes possible to cite existing protections in order to remedy the situation. In other cases, especially where there is no useful precedent, public interest lawyers need to draw comparisons to illustrate the discrepancy and make a case for equal treatment.
This isn’t always as simple as it may seem. In arguing for same-sex marriage, for instance, lawyers came up against the assertion that there was no inequality because gay men had the same right as straight men did to marry women, and vice versa. Hence, they had to build a case that considered the purpose of marriage as commonly understood, establishing in the process that that purpose had changed since its origin as a legal institution. A similar approach was required in tackling Jim Crow era laws which didn’t refer to the color of people’s skin but discriminated against African Americans indirectly by focusing on other traits disproportionately represented among them.
Working to help refugees
One area in which public interest lawyers are in high demand at present is in organizations supporting refugees – and with the climate crisis rapidly worsening, that’s likely to become a still more urgent situation. Many migrants don’t need anything complicated, but simply need help with getting their paperwork processed so they can apply for asylum. Without the necessary help, however, they risk being stuck in detention for prolonged periods. Following the policy of detaining adult and child refugees separately, there is also a significant number of refugees in need of help to track down children who have gone missing, which can be extremely challenging and often requires legal support.
Once they are established in safe accommodation, refugees often need other kinds of legal help, and not just with the processing of their asylum claims. They’re vulnerable to numerous forms of economic exploitation and often fall prey to scams because they don’t know their rights. Just having the option of consulting a lawyer about relatively simple matters can make a massive difference to their quality of life and ability to engage with life in the US.
Defending endangered localities
As well as working to protect the natural environment and specific groups of people, public interest lawyers acknowledge the important relationships which can exist between people and land. These could be cultural – for instance, the relationship of Native American tribes to ancestral lands – or a consequence of a particular way of life which is not viable elsewhere, such as that of bayou farmers. They can also be a consequence of poverty making it impossible to move, which often goes hand in hand with dependence on mutual aid within a locally situated community.
People in situations like these are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters, where the law can play a role in ensuring that proper mitigations are in place and compensation arrives with adequate speed. They are also vulnerable in the context of land grabs by big corporations and pollution, which damages the local environment. Lawyers aiming to support them try to help them stay in place wherever possible and, where that cannot be achieved, find solutions that keep communities intact.
Supporting community advocacy
One of the first things that a public interest lawyer needs to understand is that they won’t understand certain aspects of the issues at play as well as people on the ground. Familiarity with legal mechanisms does not equate to comprehending all the sociological and psychological effects of any given situation or the perspectives of those dealing with it. This means that the most important thing you can do before taking action is to listen – and keep on listening throughout the whole process and be willing to change your approach if you’re told you have misunderstood.
In many of the cases which you work on you will not be there to lead, but rather to play a supporting role as community activists do. In that role, you can help people who have dedicated their lives to helping those around them overcome the hurdles they couldn’t tackle on their own, benefiting their entire communities.