Preparing for a Law Career in Public Service
December 3, 2021
Through public interest practice, lawyers can provide access to the legal system to those facing barriers, pursue individual justice for clients in need, and achieve structural changes that positively impact communities— and even society as a whole. In this guide, you’ll discover how to get involved with public service and public interest law opportunities during and after law school.
A successful legal career starts with a successful legal education. Prospective law students can ensure they get an excellent education by carefully evaluating the schools they apply to. While location and tuition cost are significant factors that will impact this decision, presence of robust clinical opportunities, availability of financial support for summer public service positions, strength of the a school’s pro bono program, and the accessibility of faculty, are all important considerations for students with a desire for public interest law and public service.
Once a student is enrolled in the law school of their choice, they should work with their mentor or academic advisor to plan a course load that, among other things, prioritizes the prerequisites for the opportunities they’re most interested in. Students should also take advantage of their summers and plan ahead to participate in opportunities including clinics, externships, fellowships, and pro bono work.
At the University of Arkansas School of Law, students can participate in clinics that make up the law school’s in-house public interest law firm. Students take the lead and get an opportunity to represent real clients. They receive course credit for their work and are closely mentored by faculty members who are skilled and licensed attorneys.
Another opportunity that students should consider is a public service externship. Through an externship, students can earn academic credit while working in the community with practicing attorneys for a government entity or non-profit agency. Depending on the externship, students may be required to finish certain prerequisites or pursue a specific certification beforehand.
A summer fellowship working for a public service or public interest employer is another opportunity for students to explore a practice area, gain relevant experience, and develop relationships with potential mentors and future references. Fellowships are often unpaid, which makes pursuing them complicated for students who rely on summer income.
The University of Arkansas School of Law has a robust summer fellowship program and provides approximately $5,000 to selected law students to support otherwise unpaid public service positions. Fellowships like these tend to be competitive at most law schools, so students should make extracurricular and course-selection choices to reflect a demonstrated interest in public service on their applications.
Pro bono programs are another great way to get involved in public service while attending law school. The American Bar Association defines pro bono as “legal services without fee or expectation of fee for the good of the public.” In the context of legal education, pro bono programs allow law students to provide legal services without pay or academic credit while working under the supervision of a licensed attorney. By volunteering, students can see the value of pro bono first-hand, work to improve the legal system, and gain valuable connections in the law community. Some law schools, such as the University of Arkansas School of Law, recognize students who excel in pro bono with awards and fellowships.
As they approach graduation, students may find themselves pulled towards a particular career path. This decision could be informed by their clinical or externship experiences, what they learned in the classroom, personal passion, or something else. Graduates seeking a public interest career can go on to work for federal agencies, local government offices, public interest organizations, and private organizations that focus on pro bono work. There are many practice areas to pursue such as immigration law, consumer rights, and anti-discrimination law.
The attorneys who pursue public service consider it a fulfilling and necessary profession, and many are able to gain practical experience while in law school. To quote the founder of The Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman, “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.”