For attorneys or law students seeking to make a difference, there is public interest law. Although the financial rewards will certainly not be as high as you would find in the private sector, many who do practice in this area achieve personal satisfaction in advocating for a cause, ideology or issue that may directly benefit an individual or society generally.
Public interest law denotes an area of practice whereby certain issues of public importance, depending on your point of view, is sponsored by a nonprofit organization. The first public interest legal organization was probably the American Civil Liberties Union which, since 1920, has defended the rights of individuals in religious expression cases, free speech issues, and against unreasonable government intrusion. Although many view the ACLU as a liberal or left-leaning organization, it has defended the rights of neo-nazis and other hard Right groups and even the controversial conservative radio commentator, Rush Limbaugh.
More visible public interest legal organizations include public defender offices, public prosectors, legal aid, and other government agencies. Federal and state attorneys general offices provide consumer protection and investigate labor law issues, immigration and public health issues. Positions in these organizations may offer outstanding benefits, job security, and salaries that many find more than adequate.
Non governmental funded public interest legal advocacy groups include the Sierra Club, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Death Penalty Resource & Defense Center, prisoner or Inmate advocacy groups, and the Innocence Project, among hundreds of others. The latter group has similar organizations in law schools that use law students and dedicated private attorneys to investigate certain controversial convictions and has succeeded in finding overlooked or neglected evidence, employed new DNA technology, or uncovered prosecutorial misconduct that has exonerated numerous inmates, some of whom had been incarcerated for decades or had been on death row. They also lobby legislators and the public for reforms in the criminal justice system.
With the passage of a number of environmental regulations and legislation, including the Clear Air Act and Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Protection Act, the environment has been a focus of public interest legal groups since the 1970s. The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s first allowed the beneficiaries of a law to sue an agency rather than waiting for a regulated industry to do so. This has allowed environmental groups to directly bring lawsuits to protect endangered species or protect certain land from development.
Also, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has furthered the efforts of groups to gather valuable information to pursue the policies and agendas of certain public interest organizations.
Other issues that have brought public interest legal organizations into existence are single issue groups devoted to making consumers safe from defective drugs, defective products, unsafe food, and seeking immigration and campaign finance reform. Taxes, marijuana and drug reform, term limits, education, gay rights, social security, women’s issues, abortion, population control, and military groups all have legal advocacy groups as well.
Not all public interest groups are tied to liberal groups. There are numerous Libertarian, family focus, tax groups, and others that promote through lobbying and the courts to advance their conservative cause. Such Right leaning organizations as the Heritage Foundation, the National Legal Center for the Public Interest, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, the Pacific Legal Foundation, National Right to Life, Libertarians for Life, the Center for Individual Rights, and the Institute for Justice are just some of the conservative legal organizations that are advancing certain principles. These groups usually focus on property rights, economic liberties or the dismantling of restrictive government regulations, social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, and limiting government power.
Although a successful lawsuit may yield an award of attorney’s fees in some cases, most public interest groups are funded by government grants, membership dues, and private contributions.
Nearly all law schools offer courses in public interest law with a number of highly ranked schools such as Stanford, Yale, and Cornell, encouraging its graduates to become advocates for consumer rights and other public issues. A number of law schools including Northeastern University School of Law focus exclusively on public interest law.
For lawyers seeking a new career or a start in the legal field, public interest law can bring excitement and passion to a particular cause and offer benefits beyond compensation. There is probably a public interest group that fits anyone’s particular ideological bent or vision and which may offer a rewarding experience. It can also be bridge for attorneys seeking future positions in private law offices that may represent corporate clients or individuals in similar issues or give them an entry into the political and business worlds.
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