From our law school admissions and career consultant, Nicole Vikan:
Prospective and current law students are often confused about what it means to practice public interest law—and they are usually excited to learn about the wide range of work that falls under this umbrella. Public interest law encompasses work done not with the primary goal of making a profit, but rather to protect individual rights, advance justice, or enhance the public good. Therefore, public interest law includes the following employers:
- Government agencies, which represent the country and its citizens in a wide range of practice areas. For example, lawyers handle consumer protection cases as Assistant Attorney Generals, work on employment and labor law issues at the US Department of Commerce's Office of General Counsel, and write public health regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Non-profits, which assist individuals and groups seeking justice and advocate for social change. At legal service providers, attorneys engage in direct service with clients seeking asylum, housing rights, or custody of their children, among other issues. At legal reform organizations and "think tanks" (such as the ACLU and the American Enterprise Institute), attorneys may use a variety of methods, including litigation and legislative advocacy, to affect change nationwide on particular issues (e.g., juvenile justice, racial discrimination, or gun control).
- International organizations, based in the US and abroad, which focus on trade, treaties, economic development, or human rights. Employers include government agencies like the State Department and Department of Commerce and intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank.
- Prosecutor and public defender offices, which handle criminal law cases. To prosecute individuals for criminal offenses, one must work for the government, either at the federal level for a US Attorney's Office or at the local level for a State Attorney's office. Lawyers in public defender offices represent indigent clients accused of crimes; people with resources to pay for representation must hire attorneys from private law firms.
- Public interest law can be business-oriented, as evidenced by the current economic crisis and the many government agencies involved, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve Board. Moreover, public interest law can be "conservative" or "liberal," depending on the organization, think tank, or congressperson for whom one works (there are many lawyers on the Hill, in appointed and elected positions!).
The opportunities are vast—as is the salary range for these jobs—and I am happy to address questions! Post them as comments, or email new questions to me here.