Although there is a huge gap between private sector and public interest salaries, public interest jobs offer a number of key advantages over private practice. Below are six advantages of public service work.
Furthering the Public Good
A primary reason lawyers and others undertake public interest or pro bono work is to further the public good. Helping underserved people, groups and causes can provide a feeling of personal satisfaction and achievement that you might not gain defending large corporations in private practice. Public interest work can allow you to achieve greater goals beyond earning a paycheck such as working to effect societal change, supporting an important public cause or providing equal access to justice to needy individuals and organizations.
Public interest and pro bono work also provide the opportunity to become involved in your local community by performing public service activities of a legal and non-legal nature. For students, it is sometimes easier to find internships with public interest employers than with law firms and for-profit organizations.
Valuable Work Experience
Law students and new lawyers, paralegals and other legal professionals can gain valuable work experience in the public interest sector. Such experience is important in a time when jobs are scarce; many employers do not have the time or resources to train new attorneys and legal personnel. Since small firms want to hire candidates who can hit the ground running and large firms often funnel substantive legal work to experienced associates, working in the public interest sector can help you gain the work experience you need. Public interest work is a great stepping stone to private practice and employers appreciate a commitment to public service.
Better Work-Life Balance
Public interest jobs typically offer a better work-life balance than law firm jobs. 9-to-5 work weeks, flexible schedules and part-time opportunities are common in the public interest sector. Unlike private practice, individuals employed in non-profits, the government and legal service organizations are not under pressure to meet high billable hour quotas, gain face-time with partners or spend free time on client development activities. The culture is more relaxed because the focus is on service rather than profit.
Exposure to Multiple Practice Areas
When you join a law firm, you are typically assigned to a specific practice group. However, public service and pro bono work can help new grads explore a variety of practice areas while performing valuable work. At a legal service organization, for example, you might assist with a variety of cases ranging from landlord/tenant, and immigration issues to child custody and civil rights. You will gain valuable insight and useful knowledge in the procedural and substantive issues surrounding many areas of law.
Mentoring and Networking Opportunities
If you are a student or new graduate, public interest work can also help you gain mentors, networking contacts and job references. While law firms and corporations are often focused on the bottom line, public interest venues are less focused on profit. Therefore, they may offer more time to develop mentoring relationships and contacts.
Recognition and Honors
Lawyers have an ethical obligation to provide public service and give back to the community. This duty also extends to some other legal professionals such as paralegals. Many law firms and legal organizations recognize and honor lawyers and legal professionals who have demonstrated leadership in their community by engaging in public service and pro bono activities. Hiring managers also appreciate a commitment to pro bono and public service work. Therefore, this type of work experience can be a great resume-booster.
For more on public interest careers, including pros, cons, salaries, skills and resources, see this Guide to Public Service Careers.