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How to Find & Finance a Rewarding Career in Public Interest Law

Published September 26, 2023

Photo of Rachael Herbst.

Rachael Krupski: Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

If you've ever dreamed of making a positive impact through a law career, public interest might be the path for you. But navigating this field can be both exciting and overwhelming, especially when it comes to finding opportunities and financing your journey. To shed light on this fulfilling career choice, Professor Heather Abraham, director of the Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic at the University at Buffalo School of Law, held an informative webinar earlier this year. Stick with us while we explore the key takeaways from the webinar, offer insights, and provide advice on how to kickstart your career in public interest.

Heather's Journey: From Minnesota to Making a Difference

Portrait of Prof. Heather Abraham.

Prof. Heather Abraham

For inspiration, let's look at Professor Heather Abraham's journey. Originally from Minnesota, she began her quest by serving in the U.S. Peace Corps in Guatemala. Her passion for making a difference led her to progressive politics in Minnesota and eventually to work with the U.S. Senate.

Throughout law school, Heather was determined to diversify her experiences, making the most of summer, fall and spring opportunities, especially through pro bono work. She tried different jobs on for size—like providing direct legal services at a Legal Aid Office, participating in a legislative policy fellowship with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and working as a research assistant for a professor. To broaden her exposure to different practice areas, she volunteered over 300 pro bono hours doing things from divorces for low-income families to door-to-door legal advice to tenants living in foreclosing properties to inform them of their rights under a new federal law.

After law school, she further honed her skills by working as a federal law clerk at the trial and later appellate levels. Then, she proposed her “dream job” to Equal Justice Works, which funded her fellowship that sought to reduce homelessness through a mix of direct legal services and upstream services like establishing a “Community Outreach Court.”  

Her journey continued as she joined Georgetown Law in the Civil Rights Clinic before finally taking on the role of Director of the Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic at UB School of Law in 2020.

Diversify Your Experiences: The Key to Success

Heather's journey teaches us a valuable lesson: diversify your experiences. Aspiring public interest lawyers should embrace every opportunity to gain hands-on experience. Consider roles such as research assistant, where you can learn from experienced professors, as well as positions at Legal Aid Offices to directly serve the community. Policy fellowships can provide a deeper understanding of the legal system's impact on society.

Heather stresses the importance of pro bono work and how volunteering your time and skills to help those in need not only benefits the community but also enhances your legal knowledge and experience.

Public Interest Options: Where Can You Make a Difference?

Public interest law offers a plethora of career paths to explore, each with its unique opportunities for impact. Non-profit organizations, government agencies and public defender and prosecutor roles are popular choices. For those who prefer private practice, some law firms focus on public interest cases, allowing you to advocate for social justice while working in a private setting. Academia is another path, where you can educate and inspire future generations of lawyers.

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Financing Your Public Interest Journey

One of the major concerns for students pursuing public interest law is financing their education and career. Heather shares valuable insight on various options:

  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): This federal program allows qualifying borrowers to have their loans forgiven after making minimum payments for 10 years while working in government, nonprofit, and other qualifying positions.
  • Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAP): Many states, local bar associations, schools, government jobs, and law firms offer LRAPs to assist lawyers with loan repayment.
  • Public Interest Fellowships: These fellowships provide financial support to recent law graduates pursuing public interest work. Two common post-graduate fellowships are those hosted by Equal Justice Works and Skadden, but there are many others.
  • Summer Fellowships: Look into summer fellowships like the Buffalo Public Interest Law Program (BPILP) to gain experience and financial support during semester breaks.

Tips and Advice for Public Interest Success

Heather's insights go beyond just finding funding and opportunities. To truly thrive in the public interest field, consider the following tips:

  • Have a Variety of Hands-on Experience: Working in different areas of law and providing various services will expand your skills and make you a more well-rounded advocate.
  • Be Flexible and Open-Minded: Public interest roles can be competitive, so be prepared to be flexible about locations and opportunities to gain the experience you need.
  • Network and Seek Guidance: Reach out to professionals through informational interviews and networking events to gain valuable advice and connections.
  • Use Your Career Office: Your law school's career office can be a valuable resource, offering mock interviews and guidance tailored to your interests.
  • Communicate Your "Why": Stand out as a candidate by conveying your passion for public interest work and the personal connections behind your dedication.

If you want to explore the world of public interest law further, don't miss the webinar with Professor Heather Abraham. She addresses essential questions, such as finding your dream job, navigating law firms, and the role of grades in public interest careers.

The journey to a fulfilling career in public interest law may have its challenges, but with determination and passion, you can make a significant impact and advocate for positive change in our society. 

Additional Resources

Photo of Rachael Herbst.

Rachael Krupski: Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications at the University at Buffalo School of Law.


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