The range of public interest law firms and organizations is quite broad: rights groups, government watchdog groups, and Legal Aid Societies to name a few. In addition, quasi-governmental entities, some of which have regulatory functions, shape policy and resolve disputes. Both groups of entities are indispensable to a fair economy and functioning democracy, as they allow all stakeholders to be heard and all issues to be raised concerning important societal questions, policies and laws.
Persons who become subject matter experts and advocates in these areas tend to be deeply informed and effective policy advocates, and often move between private law practice, lobbying firms, unions, think tanks and professional associations. Each of these paths can provide a wealth of professional challenges, growth and success.
Pathways for public interest lawyers
The visibility of public interest law has exploded in recent years, as have the number of entities that have risen to propel it. As our politics become more fractious, it spawns new and offshoot interest and advocacy groups, each seeking to have a say in influencing national policy or Supreme Court jurisprudence.
Public interest advocacy is often issue- or constituent-driven and can have wide-ranging implications. The recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case, that reversed Roe v. Wade, is an example of a case that was litigated on both sides with the support of public interest groups and the lawyers who represent them.
Public interest groups and government watchdog groups have been around for decades, fighting for the protection of individual rights and the interests of the public. A few well-known examples of such groups include the American Civil Liberties Union, Innocence Project, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Common Cause. As well, Legal Aid Societies and Neighborhood Legal Services in communities all across the country have been serving low-income communities and indigent defendants who may otherwise lack the resources to have an effective voice on issues that directly affect them.
Funding and resources for such groups come from a variety of sources, including corporate and private donors, federal, state and foundation grants, fundraising campaigns and amounts recovered as attorney fees.
Lawyers who work in and with these organizations find it a way to channel their passions, to work for the greater good and make a difference in the world, the reason why many chose to go to law school in the first place. In terms of career advancement, the work can be challenging and varied. Lawyers may engage in meaningful class action litigation while also serving to conceive and influence policy and legislation.
Positions for lawyers are also available at unions and think tanks. In these contexts, lawyers represent and guide the organizations, often taking part in formulating strategy for public advocacy and organizing efforts. Lawyers who work in these organizations are less likely to directly engage in organizing or public advocacy, however, as doing so may transform their role as representative and counsel on legal matters into one of participant or lobbyist in business or social matters, eliminating any claim of attorney-client privilege for related communications. Law firms with active lobbying practices often bring on former politicians, who are also lawyers, to handle those types of matters.
Quasi-governmental entities and professional associations
Where whole industries seek to govern themselves, whether pursuant to a delegation of authority by a legislative body or to proactively promote fair and equitable business practices without the weight of government oversight, it typically requires industry members — the "governed" — to agree to submit to a supervising body which holds jurisdiction over them and their ability to operate. These bodies in turn require members to submit certain claims and disputes to the body's jurisdiction for review and resolution.
Examples of quasi-governmental entities include the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which registers and regulates Wall Street trading firms and their employees, the National Futures Association, which does the same for professionals in the futures and commodities industries, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which oversees virtually everything touching college athletics and, like the other referenced entities, has its own disciplinary system and forum for adjudicating disputes and imposing discipline. There are many others, as well.
Lawyers at these organizations play a variety of roles, mostly related to overseeing compliance with governing rules, and enforcing compliance where necessary. They also propose and draft rules to fill gaps in legislative schemes, adapt existing rules to evolving business and technological realities and identify where new legislation or regulatory authority may be needed.
They also administer a specialized forum for resolution of disputes. These specialized forums allow lawyers and experts with technical knowledge to use industry specific language and discuss issues that, due to their complexity or technicalities, might confound lay jurors, or cause unnecessary delay or extend proceedings.
Some professional associations also provide a variety of roles for lawyers to work with membership in order to maintain minimum standards of competence and conduct. Lawyers manage the process bar associations perform in their quasi-governmental functions, including developing and administering licensing examinations, credentialing new admittees, adopting ethical rules governing how lawyers interact with clients, the public, the courts and one another, and imposing continuing legal education requirements to ensure practitioners stay abreast of developments in the law. Where violations are suspected, review and disciplinary actions may follow.
Many of the issues and constituents served by public interest groups are also handled by private firms and some in-house groups on a pro bono basis. Pro bono work from inside a law firm provides public interest-oriented lawyers opportunity to do good, even as they seek to do well financially. Yet, for those fully committed to a cause, or with abiding empathy for a group or set of issues, deepest satisfaction comes from all-in service to the cause, group or issues.
Serving in public interest requires significant financial sacrifice, beginning with compensation that can be multiples below the starting level of many private practice and in-house peers, as well as scant opportunities for bonuses or upward financial moves. Realities such as family, home ownership, education, saving for retirement and daily financial matters also make a long-term career in public interest difficult, and often impractical. Which is why few public interest opportunities will hold a modern lawyer's interest for the duration of a 30-40+ year career, as once was true.
That is why it is important to periodically take stock of one's career, and career progress; to assess where you are, identify your next opportunity and decide how you plan to get there. One thing is for sure, if you don't stay on top of evolving issues and trends, you could well miss the boat and risk falling behind.