-- Radhika Singh Miller, Equal Justice Works
Law school is a common choice for many – including those dedicated to fighting for justice and serving those in need. Public interest lawyers represent the underprivileged and work for systemic change; however, this tireless work often comes with a lower pay check than private practice positions.
For those hoping to enter public interest professions, there are a few important considerations to think about when entering law school. Choosing a law school is based on individual circumstances, but many times public interest-minded students have different priorities than their peers.
Students often consult guides or rankings when looking at law schools. While it can be beneficial to attend a well-regarded school, there are a number of factors to weigh, and the decision should not be made based on rankings alone. For a public-interest-bound student, three significant considerations to think about when choosing a law school are: experience and training; professional guidance; and financial assistance.
Experience and Training
Public interest positions are coveted opportunities that require dedication and skill. Because public interest organizations often do not have the resources to mold new lawyers, successful candidates for entry-level positions must gain training and experience while still in law school. For those serious about pursuing public interest, consider law schools that offer professional skills training as well as direct client contact and courtroom experience.
While you are in school, participate in field placements and clinics, especially those geared toward your area of interest (such as homelessness, criminal defense or immigration). Take advantage of professional skills training courses, such as trial advocacy, which are great resources for you to develop desired skills and can distinguish you from other graduates.
Consider a school’s dedication to helping students secure public interest positions. Many schools have a public interest law department; some even dedicate a public interest advisor to counsel students on courses and career opportunities. And many small schools offer tremendous support to students looking to enter public service. Each school is unique – base your decision on your own priorities, and find a school that will give you the support you want and need.
The most important consideration when deciding among law schools is often the cost of attendance and the level of financial assistance available. Law school tuitions have skyrocketed and continue to rise with increased administration fees, costs of living and extra expenses. Set cost as a top priority throughout your legal career: during your school search, while enrolled in school, and after graduation.
Many think those with JDs will earn enough money to compensate for the high costs of the degree, but this higher salary argument does not ring true for most public interest attorneys. Many public interest lawyers begin their careers earning around $40,000 (if not less) and never see a six-digit salary. Educational debt can affect your immediate lifestyle as well as future life choices. You need to be realistic, assess your financial situation, and determine the availability of aid (including grants, scholarships and loans) as well as repayment options after graduation.
In addition to academic scholarships, a number of schools offer public interest grants and scholarships. Seek these out first as grants and scholarships don’t need to be repaid! Foundations and independent organizations also offer additional aid opportunities.
Many law schools offer Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs), which provide funds to help graduates working in the public interest make monthly payments on their educational loans. A law school with a comprehensive LRAP can help defray the high cost of attendance. If you need to borrow, which most law students do, compare the LRAPs provided by the law schools you are considering and determine which will be the most helpful to you.
With this information, you can piece together the separate factors to see which school is right for you. You may choose a local public school because it costs less and provides field placements in the area, or perhaps you’ll choose a school in a big city because it has an immigration clinic and provides an LRAP to help cover the costs of repaying your educational loans. Each student’s choice is unique, and Equal Justice Works can help you see all your options and figure out what is right for you.
Looking for more information? The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools provides a snapshot of a school’s public interest offerings and how helpful they are to students interested in pursuing a career in public interest. The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools also offers guidance on public interest grants and scholarships offered by law schools.
Radhika Singh Miller is a program manager at Equal Justice Works focusing on educational debt relief initiatives. An expert on educational debt relief, Miller served on the Student Loans Team in the Negotiated Rulemaking for the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) in 2008 and has extensive knowledge of this landmark legislation. She conducts educational webinars and presentations; advises schools and organizations; and advocates for legislation and policy. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, Miller was a staff attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice in Washington. She received her J.D. from Loyola Law School Los Angeles.
Equal Justice Works is the national leader in creating public interest opportunities for law students and lawyers. Collaborating with the nation’s leading law schools, law firms, corporate legal departments and nonprofit organizations, Equal Justice Works offers a continuum of opportunities that provide the training and skills that enable attorneys to provide effective representation to underserved communities and causes. In 2011, Equal Justice Works will celebrate 25 years of mobilizing the next generation of lawyers committed to public interest law. Equal Justice Works is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. For additional information about Equal Justice Works, please visit www.equaljusticeworks.org.