Tips for Law School Applicants Interested in Public Interest Law

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My good friend and the person who served as my mentor when I was in law school (more than ten years ago!), Marni Lennon, is the Assistant Dean for Public Interest and Pro Bono at the University of Miami School of Law. Because so many law school applicants express a desire to use their legal education in the public interest, I asked her to provide some insight about comparing opportunities available at different law schools. There are also some great tips here for prospective law students who do not plan on working in the public interest, but hope to incorporate pro bono efforts into their law school experience and law practice upon graduation.

Are you looking to find a way to give back through your legal career? Good news! The opportunities for service learning, civic engagement and hands-on training are growing at law schools. Finally, the world of legal education is embracing the notion that hands-on training opportunities in the public sector are good for everyone. Legal education is a privilege — with that privilege comes a responsibility to give back. Not only do students gain the chance to develop critical lawyering and advocacy skills through pro bono work, but law schools get to celebrate the efforts of their students. WIN – WIN!

One of the challenges you face is figuring out what the campus culture and programs are like on each of the campuses you are considering. So, how can you learn about pro bono efforts at the law schools you are researching? Do your homework!

1) Look on the law school’s website. Compare the schools. Make lists of the programs you are interested in and which schools have them. (From Ann: Also great to mention these programs in your personal statement!!!!)

2) Speak to the folks in the recruiting/admissions office. Ask them what they perceive as the strengths of the school. Do they mention public interest? If not, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t wonderful opportunities, but it might not have permeated the campus culture yet. Keep digging and ask them to refer you to faculty/administrators in clinics or public interest programs. (From Ann: a great question to ask at LSAC Forum events too.)

3) Get in touch with student leaders who are involved with public interest/pro bono. They are on the ground floor. Keep in mind that students choose many paths – some will get involved in clinical programs, some will be involved in externships and others will be very active on campus and with community outreach efforts. Ask for a few names and get a feel for the school.

So, you are going to be a law student and you want to gain some experience? Great idea! There are many ways to get involved on a volunteer basis. Contact local legal services/legal aid agencies and see if they are open to having you volunteer. Sometimes, just by giving a day a week, you can find yourself working alongside an attorney who is thrilled to have an extra set of hands and you can gain experience at the same time. Great ways to get involved are to volunteer for clinic intakes, know your rights presentations, community talks and research projects.

Any community involvement which helps you to get to know the face of an issue is a good step. Check with your local volunteer organizations for opportunities to work with varying populations. Large cities like Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York and others have volunteer organizations where you can take part in several different projects. Google your way to your local community opportunities for volunteering.

Are there attorneys in your community who have been recognized for their pro bono work? Contact them and see if you can shadow them to court, meet them for coffee and gain a glimpse into the world of practice. Their guidance could be invaluable.

Once you are at law school, take the following steps to ensure that pro bono advocacy can be a part of your path:

1) Make a beeline for the student groups with advocacy and outreach projects. They might be the public interest law group, the criminal law society, the society for human rights or others, but be sure to find your way and ask folks what they do through their groups.

2) Meet with the clinical faculty and regular faculty with practice experience in the areas in which you are interested. Don’t wait; they are real people – human, interesting, dedicated and usually receptive to the eager students who want to make a difference through law. If they aren’t, don’t be discouraged – there are many more around the corner. Keep going!

3) Get advice about the courses which will put you in a position to gain experience. Ask about courses with field components, opportunities for externships, certified legal internship status (which allows you to speak in court!) and skills training courses such as litigation skills, mediation, mediation-advocacy and more.

4) Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you – seek them out! Speak to your career planning folks, current students, faculty and attorneys about the best ways to get involved. Make the leap! It will be rewarding, fulfilling AND practical as you develop your lawyering skills.

Thank you so much to Dean Lennon for taking the time to share her passion and information with readers of LawSchoolExpert. Here is more about the incredible opportunities available through the University of Miami School of Law’s HOPE Program.

3 thoughts on “Tips for Law School Applicants Interested in Public Interest Law

  1. Ann, these are some great tips. You mention community involvement, which is especially important because it can pave the way for future internships, fellowships, or even staff attorney positions. Several of our Fellows can attest!

  2. Bryant left this comment on the old blog:
    I have a question regarding choosing a school for public interest law and hopefully this is the right venue. I discovered a law school that touts itself as the premier public interest law school in the nation and it does rank in the top ten in this category as well as the top ten in clinical training. It’s in the city I want to live and the tuition is so cheap (comparatively speaking of course) that it makes a career in PI law a real option. The only problem that I have so far is that it’s “ranked” as a tier 4 school. Is it stupid of me not to consider my potential dream school b/c of it’s overall “ranking”? How will this overall “ranking” affect me if I decide not to go into public interest law?”
    Bryant, I’m assuming we’re talking about CUNY here but I don’t know what the other schools are that you’ve been accepted to. If it’s NYU then I think you are making a mistake, but otherwise I understand the temptation you’re feeling to attend the 4th Tier school.
    My advice is for you to talk to lawyers in Public Interest in the NY area and see what they tell you. Good luck!

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