As a practicing-PI attorney, I can say with confidence that this YLS fact-sheet is an excellent primer for PI interested law students:
To understand the charts below
- For employment trends charts, the year is the class year, e.g., 2016 is the class of 2016.
- For employment trends charts, the percentages are based on the number of full-time (long-term) PI-employed graduates divided by the total number of graduates. The total number of PI-employed graduates are in parenthesis. For these purposes, “PI” includes what the ABA required disclosure defines as “Public Interest” and “Government.” Thus, if a school has 3 Public Interest and 5 Government grads, then PI-employed graduates would equal 8.
- For Skadden and EJW charts, the year is the fellowship class year, which is not the same as the law school class year. I.e., a c/o 2015 graduate could be in the EJW 2017 class year.
To see what organizations fellows were placed in,
To see what organizations fellows were placed in,
For judging a school's PI culture, I'd look more at the total number of graduates from each school rather than the percentage alone because PI is self-selecting whereas biglaw is the default (at the top schools). For instance, Michigan has a higher percentage than CLS, but total number wise they're roughly the same.
There are also some nuances to these numbers. For instance, the majority of students at Michigan, UVA, and Cornell go to government, whereas the majority of Harvard, CLS, and NYU go to PI.
For purposes of this data I combined them because government and PI people are both self-selecting and have similar motivations.
All top law schools have a Loan Repayment Assistance Program, which are programs that assist students who choose to enter public interest or government employment with repaying their law school debt. Usually, this assistance takes the form of a forgivable loan that disperses in annual checks/deposits that equal your annual repayment burden on your law school debt. For instance, if you owe 100k at graduation, then you would pay ~10k a year under a 10 year repayment plan. The annual check/deposit from your LRAP program would equal ~10k. But some schools have better LRAP terms than others.
Each program various with regard to: (1) how much your adjusted gross income affects your LRAP benefits; (2) how long you have to work until you can leave the LRAP program without owing your law school repayment for the LRAP benefits; (3) whether your spouse's income counts for purposes of calculating your LRAP benefits; (4) whether your benefits change if you combine the LRAP with the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program; and many more. This section will attempt to provide the barebones of each schools' LRAP.
Below are anonymous testimonials from PI students and alums at the T14 schools.
University of Chicago Law School
Not a common choice for students seeking public interest work, except for some government positions. But even then, only a few of my classmates were seriously seeking gov't work. UChicago is far better at Biglaw placement (and lately, clerkships) than anything else. That said, it is not the case that UChicago has nothing to offer PI-minded students.
The Mandel Legal Aid Clinic has some incredible opportunities for exposure, especially in the realms of public defense, innocence work, police accountability, environmental litigation, and international human rights. The other clinics may also offer good exposure opportunities but I am just less aware of them. In particular, UChicago's clinic turns out incredibly talented and well-prepared public defenders.
Because the school does not attract a ton of PI-minded students, you do not have to compete for jobs or fellowships against people with similar resumes to yourself (more than one interviewer mentioned how hard it was to distinguish resumes from certain other schools). This also means that the PI network at UChicago is tight, and comprised of people who really wanted to do PI work. This network has become important in my life post-graduation, for both personal and professional reasons. We all seem to have had an experience in which an interviewer asked why we went to UChicago if we wanted to do PI work. We also all seem to have had an experience in which an interviewer said that UChicago was such a rare sight in their resume pile that we got an automatic pass on the first level of review. In my experience, interviewers all said that while UChicago was unusual for a PI candidate, it was also a school that had the reputation for turning out diligent and smart lawyers, so it was only a plus factor.
Note, the school only has three journals, and those journals are not particularly well-suited to PI-type writing. Where other schools have journals about criminal or social justice issues and the law, or other specific topics, UChicago has only Law Review, the Journal for International Law, and Legal Forum. This is really not that big of a deal, but this is one resume point that will be harder for you to obtain, possibly. This is a bigger deal for PI students who want to clerk right away. Consider writing on the journals, even though it might not relate directly to your interests.
UChicago generally has one or two EJW or Skaddens per year, skipping a year every now and then. Career Services has one (1) person dedicated to public interest, and reviews of this person are very mixed. My personal experience was: meh. Not a huge help, but not a hindrance. On the issue of major fellowships,I did not love the PI Career Services here, as I felt they really did not encourage or facilitate students through the application process for prestigious fellowships very effectively. I obtained a well-regarded (but not Skadden/EJW-level) fellowship on my own, entirely without the knowledge or help of the PI Career Services office.
The LRAP is great until it isn't. If you make under $80k in a PI job during the ten years after you graduate, LRAP pays 100% of your IBR payment. But the process for reimbursement from the school is extremely (unnecessarily) bureaucratic and slow, and must be repeated every year. Also, if you make $80,001 you get nothing at all (it might be $79,999 vs $80,000 actually). No sliding scale. But your spousal income is not factored in at all. While most PI jobs start out below that $80k cap, it is common to make more at some point during the ten years, so you do end up paying at least part of your loan yourself before PSLF comes in and wipes out the rest.
In hindsight, would have maybe been better off going to a Columbia or Berkeley or Stanford, but I don't have any major regrets. Had to hustle a lot harder to get what I needed, but I am currently in a job/on a career arc I love, at least partly thanks to the name on my diploma. UChicago is not trying to be the public interest school of choice, but it also is not totally worthless in that regard. If a PI career is ALL that you are interested in getting from law school, maybe consider elsewhere. But if you want the specific experience or legal education that UChicago offers, then know that it is not impossible to also get into a PI job.
Columbia Law School
I think Columbia is a great choice for students interested in public interest or government practice. The school has a separate office dedicated solely to PI students called Social Justice Initiatives (SJI). SJI does everything that a typical career service office does (advising, resume/cover letter help, etc.) but they also have relationships with the vast network of CLS alums working in public interest and government. This network can help get students internships/externships, as well as post-graduate jobs. SJI also helps support students financially to attend PI law conferences and helps support the numerous PI-focused student organizations hosts events. CLS is known as a "corporate" school, but it's PI community is vast and impressive.
CLS has tons of opportunities for out-of-classroom learning experiences. Up to 30 credit hours at CLS can be non-graded credits, which means that you can take up to 30 hours of clinics, externships, and fieldwork (more than any other law school). In addition, CLS offers a full-time, semester-long externship in the federal government in Washington, DC, and it also offers human rights semesters abroad. SPIN (Student Public Interest Network) is the main PI student organization where PI students of all goals can socialize and meet fellow students.
The post-grad employment in PI and government is fantastic. There are students who obtain ultra-competitive positions at nonprofits, Skadden/EJW fellowships, DOJ Honors, district attorneys offices, public defender offices, and honors fellowships at federal agencies. The school also offers inhouse fellowships for PI students to pursue their project-based or issue-based advocacy goals with organizations across the country doing impact litigation, direct services, and public interest advocacy.
NYU is a great place for people interested in public interest. The school has a separate career services office for public interest students (the Public Interest Legal Careers center, or PILC), and it’s a huge part of what sold me on the school. I watched some really naïve kid walk in there with some vague interest in international human rights, and leave with three possible realistic career paths and a list of possible internships that would be good stepping stones. While I was there, my PILC counselor was really with me every step of the way and it was a huge support – she helped me with my resume and cover letter, helped me pick places to apply, held mock interviews for me, and put me in touch with NYU alums who had the jobs I was interviewing for.
One of the truly great advantages of NYU is the crazy good professors. Burt Neuborne, who directed the ACLU under Reagan, teaches the First Amendment as well as Civ Pro and Evidence with a great social justice slant. Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and argued cutting edge death penalty cases before the Supreme Court teaches Racial Justice, a death penalty clinic, and an Eighth Amendment class. Wilma Liebman, who chaired the NLRB under Obama, taught my labor law class. Sally Katzen, the Administrator of OIRA who was responsible for reviewing all the regulations in the Clinton administration, teaches administrative law. Really, these people are legends, and it’s amazing to get to learn from them.
The clinics are also really special. You can work at the ACLU, represent death row inmates in Alabama, work for a nonprofit like Make the Road New York, participate in ongoing litigation on behalf of employment discrimination plaintiffs, etc., under the close supervision of practitioners. It’s a great opportunity for substantive experience - someone in my clinic even got to take the deposition of an expert in a First Amendment case (while most of my friends in big law have yet to even defend a deposition, let alone take one).
Finally, the community is the best. Going to school with so many passionate people committed to public interest helped me keep going, and provided a source of support and comfort when things got difficult.
I feel really lucky to have had the opportunities I had at NYU, and I'm so glad I decided to attend.
UC Berkeley (Boalt) Law
I chose the school partly because of its location to reputable public defender offices, and partly because of its reputation. What I know now after going through the process of internships / job applications and working in real world for a few years is that school matters less than the work you do when you're in law school.
Berkeley's career services are adequate. I say adequate because there is not much more Berkeley, or most other law schools, can do for you at the end of the day. You're not going to get some kind of incestuous hookup between Berkeley career services people and the prestigious public interest offices. That's not how this works. Career services is not going to find you a job. Do they know some good offices to intern for? Yes. Do they know some of the people at those offices? Yes. Can they help strategize where to apply and intern? Of course. And I would hope that rings true for just about every law school. At the end of the day, public interest success is what you make of it. It takes hard work and more than a little luck to get the job(s) you like out of it. Intern, intern, intern. This matters more than anything else you can do. Prove yourself by demonstrating that you are for real about the type of work you want to be doing.
The big name prestige certainly counts for something when it comes to applying nation-wide. However, I don't know that public interest offices think there's something special about Berkeley over other T-14 schools. I do believe I had a great advantage over many other applicants in my Midwestern state because of the value of having Berkeley on the resume. Still -- students from lower-ranked schools who interned in the locations they wanted to work have high degrees of success. If I had gone to my state's flagship school and interned in public defender offices there, I probably could have landed the same job I have, without any of the debt.
The debt is real. Think very hard about it. I honestly do not know if it's worth taking on in this current political climate. Boalt's LRAP program is solid. I've experienced pains in dealing with it -- they're a well-meaning but small-staffed office. You need to plan ahead when dealing with them. On the whole, it helps a lot in ways that my colleagues who didn't come from T-14 schools cannot enjoy. But think critically about whether you want or even need to put yourself through all this debt.
And God, PSLF... I have nightmares about what will happen now that Trump is in office. If you're between a full ride at a T-20 in the state you want to practice public interest law in, and a small or no-scholly at Boalt, then take the full ride. The extra pinch you get from having the T-14 name at the top of the resume is not worth it when you can get the field of public interest law you want from other schools.
"But isn't the 20% rate of students at Cal who go into public interest worth something?" Well, maybe. I mean, it's neat to go to school with so many similarly minded people who also like public interest law. But it's less notable than you might think. Most law schools are liberal. Most T-14 schools are also liberal. You're going to be meeting the same students with the same general student culture at almost all of them. Yes, there are the more conservative standout schools. UVA, though, also has a strong public interest reputation. This is a relative issue and should not be driving your decision on where to go to school unless you're keen on joining some very specific student groups that don't exist elsewhere.
Northwestern University School of Law
I have incredibly mixed thoughts on going to Northwestern as someone who wanted to do public interest. Yes, I was in the minority. Yes, the school lacked structure for PI students. But at the same, time, Northwestern was perfect for me and my goals, and it absolutely got me where I wanted to be.
I think part of being successful at getting the PI job you want at Northwestern is being self-sufficient. The school isn't going to baby you and set things up for you the way that they do for students who want firm jobs. But Northwestern also has a lot of things that make for great resume-building for people who want PI jobs. I did two different clinics that were relevant to the work I wanted to do after law school, and I got to do a lot of real, substantive work--on both litigation and policy. Northwestern also has a few journals that are relevant to PI work, and on the smaller journals it's fairly easy to get published. Plus, being in Chicago gives great opportunities for internships both during the summer and during the school year. This is all great for resume-building and ultimately getting a job after graduation.
My friends and I who wanted PI jobs pretty much all got what we wanted, but it wasn't exactly an easy road. That said, I think I absolutely went to the right law school and I now basically have my dream job.
Georgetown Law is a fantastic place for anyone interested in public interest law, and it’s easy to see why Georgetown has more students who go into public interest and government service than any other law school. Career services has a separate office (OPICS) devoted solely to public interest students that is staffed with six full-time employees. The student public interest community is also large. Do you want to be a public defender? There are over 100 1/2/3Ls that want that, too. Prosecutor? Same. Government? Same. Legal services? Same. There’s also a more public interest oriented first year curriculum (Section 3) that really helps manage the detachment from reality that is the hallmark of 1L life. For those worried about the temptation of abandoning the public interest dream for the security of a huge private sector paycheck, the presence and support of other public interest students can be helpful. There’s also a Public Interest Fellows (PIF) program that provides programming activities during the semesters.
For me, the most important reason I’ve loved Georgetown so much is that I’ve had ample opportunities to gain the kind of practical experience that has made me very competitive for jobs. Georgetown is an amazing location for internships, especially because it has the best reputation in D.C. I’ve worked for top-level agency heads, a Senator, and an enforcement arm of an agency. Building that experience and professional network has been crucial for interviewing and to keep abreast of opportunities as political winds continue to change. Georgetown also has one of the best clinical education programs in the entire country. Want to work on civil rights, environment, asylum, public defense, litigation? There’s a clinic for that. The experience I’ve gained in these positions has made law school, and Georgetown, worth it. That said, it’s been very helpful to come into law school knowing exactly what I wanted to do. For those that don’t want to work in government and find the public interest environment difficult (e.g. the budget at your dream organization gets cut.) Georgetown has its own fellowship programs that helps students get experience partnering with D.C. organizations.
Georgetown’s LRAP is great. Assuming you’re making less than 75k, you’re not paying a dime in loans. Getting rid of PSLF may change that calculus for folks, however, so I still suggest you bargain hard for tuition discounts (wherever you go). Georgetown also has the Public Interest Law Scholars (PILS) program, which automatically lets you take 1/3 off tuition and can be combined with merit/need aid. It’s one of the few ways you can go to school without paying tuition at a T14.
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