Want a Public Interest Job? Find Out How to Get One Here!

DreamLots of people go to law school because they want to do public interest work. Sadly, fewer people end up actually doing it.

Here’s an interview with my fantastic law school roommate, Gráinne O’Neill, who’s living the dream! She’s a real, live public interest lawyer, and she’s got great tips on how you can be one, too.

Read on.

Alison: I’m a 1L and I came to law school to do public interest work. What should I do to make that happen?

Gráinne: The first thing you should do is get internships everywhere you can.

Don’t worry about your grades.

Spend all available time doing work for free for organizations similar to those you want to work for when you graduate.

It will be easier to get those internships during the school year. You should take every opportunity to do that.

Ignore everything on campus.

Take classes that interest you and are directly applicable.

Your goal is to meet people and to let your future potential employers know that you seriously want to do the work that they are doing. Your future employers do not care about what clubs you were in or what you got in Corporations, but if one of their friends and colleagues calls and says that you were wonderful during your 1st semester 2L internship it will mean a lot!

You should use your time in law school to learn about the law.

This might mean that you get good grades, and it might not. Do not worry about this.

Learn the applicable areas of law and get as much real world experience as possible.

It is much harder to get a public interest job because there are far fewer positions — applicants that stand out have relevant real world experience.

I’m a law student, and I want a public interest summer job. What should I do? Is there any difference between getting a 1L summer job and a 2L summer job?

Employers will prefer to hire 2Ls of course, but here is where your internships during the semester become relevant. You will have to work for free, or maybe get work study. This is discriminatory to the 99%, but is also the reality.

Getting a public interest job during your 2L summer is easier — you will have had more internships, and you will had your 1L summer for experience.

You should go and work in a place similar to where you want to work when you graduate and make connections and do a good job there!

You never know who is going to be in a position to give you a positive casual recommendation, so do your best!

I’m applying to law school and I know I want to do public interest work when I graduate. What are the three most important factors I should look for in a school?

Hmmm…this is a really hard question, since unlike firm jobs, public interest jobs really are unique.

I can say that having a clinic in your chosen area of public interest work is a real plus for later on when you are looking for work.

Going to a school known as a ‘public interest school,’ like CUNY, can also work in your favor. However the same prejudices and clubby old boys network exist in the public interest world as in the firm world, so there’s an argument for going to the best school you can, in the geographic region where you ultimately want to work.

Additionally, it is good to think about your debt upon graduation. If you can graduate with no debt (through scholarships, or at a school that costs less) that will make your life measurably better upon graduation. (I have $130k left on my loans and I think about it every day.) Even if you are taking advantage of an LRAP program it is intimidating to owe more money than you can imagine while doing public interest work! So be cautious and frugal.

Can you tell us about what you do every day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you applied to law school?

I work in criminal justice policy at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. It is like a dream come true.

I spend my days crafting ways to make the world a little bit better.

I’m not sure I understood the world I was entering when I started at law school, and I couldn’t have envisioned this particular job, but I am very, very happy that I ended up here.

I would advise everyone reading this to follow their instincts, to make brave decisions about their careers, and to know that while well-meaning career counselors tell you to follow a safe path, you are carving your own path, and you should make your own decisions.

Your choices are your own, and your life will be your own unique creation.

Don’t settle for something less than what you want, enjoy what you have, and make your friends at firms pick up the check!


Read On:

Want to read more interesting interviews? Check these out:

Have questions for Gráinne? Leave them in the comments!

Image by jhamble via stock.xchng.


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  1. I’d like to add a few words of wisdom from others:

    Cass Sunstein, who came to speak at my school, told us that when something he was working on was fun, he knew he was on the right track. (The address was at least a year ago; that’s my best recollection of what he said.) In response to my question seeking advice, he told me to find a way to solve a particular problem.

    And Thoreau commanded
    Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.

    From my perspective, “[i]gnore everything on campus” is a bit strong and may depend on the school and your interests. My school has lots of events and a large concentration of public-interest minded students. In addition, I think there can be value to, say, serving on a journal. In addition to being a traditional achievement, it provides you another networking pool and can provide additional support, in the form of feedback from student editors, for writing a comment. This can be a great learning experience and chance at publication, which is a great accomplishment and chance to advance legal scholarship and help those in practice.

    In addition, good grades can be important for government honors programs, judicial clerkships, and some internships. However, although learning is under a student’s control, grades are not. I agree with focusing on learning as compared to grades.

    • Absolutely, I think you’re right! It’s always hard to choose what activities to focus on in law school, because there’s so much going on all the time.

      Journals, grades, clubs, etc. are all arguably “important,” so it’s really an issue of finding the right personal balance, and then going for it.


  1. […] Guide to Law School site has a section dedicated to pursuing a public interest legal career. With tips from a public interest lawyer on how to get a job and guest posts from Equal Justice Works on financial options and support for public interest law […]

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