Careers in Public Interest and Government

We educated, privileged lawyers have a professional and moral duty to represent the underrepresented in our society, to ensure that justice exists for all, both legal and economic justice.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Overview

The John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law at Stanford Law School serves as the hub of all public interest programs at the Law School. Levin Center staff work with students and alumni to develop summer and long-term job searches at public interest organizations, government agencies, as well as at private public interest law firms. Scroll to the next section to read more about public interest law practice.

We can help you clarify your professional goals, identify a timeline that makes the most sense for your particular job search, review resumes and cover letters, offer mock interviews, and consult with you as you evaluate offers. We also administer public interest scholarships, summer internship funds, and postgraduate fellowships. Current students are invited to attend the workshops, panels, substantive skills trainings, and other activities we sponsor throughout the year. We also urge you to review our Public Interest Job Search Resources before meeting with a Levin Center advisor. To schedule an appointment, please contact an advisor directly via email.

We also rely on faculty, alumni, and upper-class students to provide guidance and help mentor incoming students through our Public Interest Mentoring program.

Please note that the Office of Career Services (OCS) works with students and alumni pursuing summer and long-term job searches with private sector employers including traditional large law firms, corporations, investment banks and consulting firms. OCS also assists students seeking judicial externships and clerkships.

Post-Graduate Placement Advising

Post-graduate fellowship and government honors programs frequently provide the best avenue to enter public interest law practice immediately upon graduating. The Levin Center develops individual plans with each student about how to best engage in these processes. Stanford law graduates have been very successful in obtaining prestigious Skadden, Equal Justice Works and other fellowships to being their careers in nonprofits, as well as being offered entry-level attorney positions with various governmental agencies like the U.S. Department of Justice’s Honors Program.

Stanford Law School also funds several postgraduate public interest fellowships for recent Stanford Law School JD graduates. These fellowships help our JD alumni launch their public interest careers through a paid one-year fellowship in a law-related endeavor designed to further the public interest.

The Levin Center administers two of the programs.  We provide each Fellow with a $45,000 salary and the same fringe benefits to which an employee of the host organization would be entitled. SLS’ Loan Repayment Assistance Program will provide additional funds to meet educational loan repayment obligations during the fellowship year. Only SLS JD alumni are eligible to apply for these two programs:

This list includes the names of some of the public interest employers where Stanford Law School alumni have begun their public service careers in recent years.  This Program from our annual Spring Public Interest Awards reception highlights the postgraduate fellowships and governmental honors program slots that our graduates have secured for the current year.

Long-term Career Planning

It is not uncommon for a graduate committed to achieving a career in the non-profit or government sectors to spend some time at a private law firm at the beginning of their career. Economic, personal and other reasons may dictate this path for some. We work with any graduate who requests help creating a career plan, evaluating options and possible timelines for transition, ensuring that pro bono remains a constant part of their work, and thinking through the issues that will need to be addressed for the graduate to achieve their long-term goals.

Alumni Career Advising

The Levin Center remains a resource for alumni after graduation. Whether you’re seeking a public interest position after a judicial clerkship, hoping to move from the private sector into a public sector position, or transitioning to a different public interest job, please contact one of the Levin Center advisors directly to schedule an appointment.

We can help identify prospective employers, connect you with alumni practicing in the same field, review resumes and cover letters, and help you prepare for interviews. We also publish a weekly e-bulletin of public interest job announcements which you can sign up for on the LinkedIn Stanford Law School group page. Once your request to join the SLS page has been approved, please subscribe to the subgroup, Postgraduate Public Interest Job Announcements.

You may also contact the Office of Career Services for access to on-line job announcements, assistance in seeking reciprocity from another law school’s career services office, and general job search assistance for private sector job searches.

Finally, if you are not already serving as a public interest alumni mentor, please consider joining. We maintain a list of alumni across the country who are willing to provide mentoring to public interest students on a one-on-one basis, typically in the form of phone calls but sometimes in-person meetings when students are visiting or interning in a city. Students interested in particular fields, geographic areas, or in speaking to alumni from similar backgrounds make use of this network to ask questions about career planning, fellowship and clerkship applications, and how to make the most of their law school experience. Simply email Holly Parrish if you’d like to participate.

If you have any internship, fellowship, or employment opportunities, please upload them to Symplicity first. We aren’t allowed to post it for you because employers must affirmatively agree to the nondiscrimination statement. You can create an employer account on Symplicity and upload your announcement for free. Once it has been uploaded to Symplicity, we can include it in our weekly postgraduate fellowship/entry-level Government Honors bulletin (which is published throughout the year) or the internship bulletin for students (which is published from fall to spring when our students are most actively looking for such opportunities).

Lastly, if you haven’t already, we encourage to sign up on the newly improved alumni directory, which now allows for joining and posting to groups such as your class year group. It also allows you to create your own group and invite others to join.

Defining Public Interest Law Practice

There are six primary practice settings where lawyers can work in the public service and are discussed generally below. Yet students should be aware that there are many lawyers working in public service but in less traditional roles that capitalize on their legal training, analytical skills, and writing ability. These roles may rely on a host of other non-legal skills and oftentimes do not arise from taking a predictable path.

Some examples might be:

• Serving as the chief executive officer (or other roles that are not limited to candidates with law degrees) for a nonprofit organization or philanthropic foundation
• Working to implement programs at a nonprofit organization that does not provide legal services to clients
• Proposing policy changes as a staff member of a legislative representative’s office or other governmental entity
• Serving as a public official (whether elected or appointed)
• Reporting on legal issues for a media outlet

Examples of Employers: Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford Foundation, New York State Assembly, Greenpeace, NPR

Non-Profit Direct Services

A variety of non-profit organizations provide representation to clients, most of whom are indigent, in different kinds of cases. Many of our first-year law students will be exposed to one or more types of direct service practice through participation in our Pro Bono Program.

Some examples of this kind of practice are:

• Representing indigent clients in eviction or government benefits proceedings
• Helping engage in public outreach regarding changes in immigration law
• Advocating for a student with disabilities within the school system to enforce her legal rights to an Individual Education Plan

Examples of Employers: Bay Area Legal Aid, Bronx Defenders, California Rural Legal Assistance, AIDS Legal Referral Panel

What are some advantages in working for a nonprofit focused on direct legal services?
  • You will get a lot of client contact on a regular (if not daily) basis
  • You will feel like you are making a meaningful difference every day as you work with your clients to solve their problems
  • No two days are alike
What are some disadvantages in working for a nonprofit focused on direct legal services?
  • Low pay compared to other sectors
  • Limited opportunities to do extensive research and writing
  • High volume of cases can create immense pressure
What are the hiring practices for a nonprofit focused on direct legal services?
  • Nonprofits rarely hire staff attorneys directly from law school. Instead, they rely heavily on external funders to support entry-level attorneys in limited term fellowships. Many Stanford Law School alumni have begun their careers at nonprofits focused on direct legal services thanks to the support of a funder like the Skadden Foundation, Equal Justice Works, and Stanford Law School. Students should consider volunteering at nonprofits during their summers and possibly during the school year to build strong relationships with prospective fellowship host organizations.

Non-Profit Impact Litigation

A different kind of public interest practice focuses on using litigation—-the outcome of which will have a broader impact than on just the individual client in an individual case. This can be accomplished through class action lawsuits as well as through individual cases that challenge a government policy or administrative process that, if successful, could result in broad-based change.

Some examples of this kind of practice are:

• Litigation that seeks to stop implementation of an initiative that would prohibit undocumented immigrant children from attending public schools
• Litigation that establishes a national class of women who claim they have been discriminated against by Wal-Mart and seek damages as well as policy changes
• Litigation against the federal government for failing to implement sections of the Clean Water Act

Examples of Employers: Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Brennan Center for Justice, Natural Resources Defense Council, Legal Momentum, Legal Assistance Centre (Namibia)

What are some advantages in working for a nonprofit focused on impact litigation?
  • You will work on systemic change that will protect the statutory and constitutional rights of vulnerable communities
  • You will get to do extensive research and writing on cutting edge legal issues
What are some disadvantages in working for a nonprofit focused on direct legal services?
  • Low pay compared to other sectors
  • Limited opportunities for client contact
  • Slow pace of litigation can mean it takes years to see results
What are the hiring practices for a nonprofit focused on impact litigation?
  • Nonprofits rarely hire staff attorneys directly from law school. Instead, they rely heavily on external funders to support entry-level attorneys in limited term fellowships. Many Stanford Law School alumni have begun their careers at nonprofits focused on impact litigation thanks to the support of a funder like the Skadden Foundation, Equal Justice Works, and Stanford Law School. Students should consider volunteering at nonprofits during their summers and possibly during the school year to build strong relationships with prospective fellowship host organizations.

Civil Governmental Practice

Lawyers are involved at every level of government (federal, state, regional, and local) in a broad range of activities that can include both defending and enforcing government policies, as well as developing new government practices.

Some examples of this kind of practice include:

• State Attorney General suing the tobacco industry to establish liability and obtain damages for health problems of the state’s residents related to tobacco use
• Defending a Redevelopment Authority plan to change zoning designations of a neighborhood or defending a county sheriff’s office being sued for police misconduct
• The Environmental Protection Agency filing suit against manufacturers of toxic chemicals for dumping waste products into public waters
• Drafting and interpreting international agreements on behalf of the government

Examples of Employers: New York City Law Department, California Attorney General, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, U.S. State Department

What are some advantages in working for a government agency focused on civil legal practice?
  • You may get to do extensive research and writing on cutting edge legal issues
  • You may represent the government in enforcing important public rights
  • You have more resources to support your work compared to nonprofits
What are some disadvantages in working for a government agency focused on civil legal practices?
  • Lower pay compared to the private sector
  • More limited opportunities for client contact
  • You may be asked to defend laws you personally oppose.
  • Slow pace of litigation can mean it takes years to see results
What are the hiring practices for a government agency focused on civil legal practice?
  • A growing number of governmental agencies offer governmental honors programs targeting entry-level attorneys. The most well-known program is the U.S. Department of Justice's Honors Program. The majority of those hires are for attorneys willing to move to Washington, DC. There are also some state and local government hiring programs, too. Students should consider volunteering at government agencies during their summers and possibly during the school year to build strong relationships with them.

Criminal Governmental Practice

You are likely most familiar with this type of law practice. Federal, state, and county agencies all have some form of criminal prosecution or criminal defense practice. This type of practice primarily involves individual client representation or prosecution. On the federal level, however, it may include broad-based prosecution of an entire industry. In international settings, it includes criminal tribunals and the criminal policy departments of intergovernmental agencies.

Examples of Employers: Federal Defenders of San Diego, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Manhattan District Attorney’s office, Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, International Criminal Court

What are some advantages in working for a government agency focused on criminal legal practice?
  • You will get the most opportunity for court time by representing the government or an indigent client in trials and/or appeals
  • You may get to do extensive research and writing if you're working at the federal level
  • You have more resources to support your work compared to nonprofits
What are some disadvantages in working for a government agency focused on criminal legal practices?
  • Lower pay compared to the private sector
  • Criminal lawyers at the state/county level often handle high case volumes despite limited resources
  • There is a risk of emotional burnout from the types of cases you handle
What are the hiring practices for a government agency focused on criminal legal practice?
  • Only a minority of criminal law governmental agencies hire entry-level attorneys before graduation and/or Bar passage. The most well-known program is the U.S. Department of Justice's Honors Program. The majority of those hires are for attorneys willing to move to Washington, DC as the U.S. Attorney's Program, while part of DOJ, does not normally hire entry-level Assistant U.S. Attorneys. There are also some state and local government hiring programs, too, but they tend to focus on "post-Bar law clerk" programs where graduates are expected to volunteer (or work for very low pay) until they pass the Bar. Students should consider volunteering at government agencies during their summers and possibly during the school year to build strong relationships with them.

Private Public Interest Law Firms

There is a growing segment of law practice that takes place within a private firm practice but pursues what are traditionally considered public interest issues.

Examples of this kind of practice include:

• Union-side labor law firms
• Law firms that will only represent plaintiffs in discrimination cases
• Law firms that will only represent defendants in criminal cases

There is a wide range of firms that engage in this type of practice.

Examples of Employers: Altshuler Berzon LLP, Bredhoff & Kaiser PLLC, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, Leonard Carder LLP, Neufeld Scheck & Brustin LLP, Phillips and Cohen LLP, Relman Dane & Colfax PLLC, Sanford Heisler LLP, and Strumwasser & Woocher LLP

What are some advantages in working for a private public interest law firm?
  • Higher salaries compared to nonprofits with similarly rewarding work
  • You may get to do extensive research and writing
  • You have more resources to support your work compared to nonprofits
What are some disadvantages in working for a private public interest law firm?
  • Lower pay compared to the corporate sector
  • Reliance on court-awarded attorneys' fees for prevailing plaintiffs may mean declining to represent plaintiffs whose defendants lack deep pockets
What are the hiring practices for a private public interest law firm?
  • Private public interest law firms' hiring practices can vary widely. Some offer limited term fellowships to entry-level attorneys, even making offers to students who have not yet graduated. Others prefer to hire laterals or at least someone with 1-2 years of clerkships. Students should consider working at private public interest law firms during their summers and possibly during the school year to build strong relationships with them. Most firms will only accept 2L summer associates, while some will accept applications from 1Ls. Most are paid positions but some very small firms do not offer pay.

International Public Interest

Virtually every legal topic–from commercial law to intellectual property law, from public health law to national security law–has international aspects. In many instances there are public international law regimes that govern certain aspects of the field. In addition, focused comparative law analysis of foreign legal systems can be an important dimension of the field and practice.

It is difficult to cover all possible career options here. If you are considering practicing in the international arena, it is critical that you connect with advising at the Levin Center (contact Titi Liu) as well as engage in further research and reflection to focus your training and the scope of your job search.

Some examples of international public interest legal practice include:

• International legal work for the US government
• Domestic or international legal work for a foreign government
• Legal counsel work at an intergovernmental organization such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund etc. which regularly addresses both public international law and comparative law questions
• Human rights monitoring, litigation and advocacy work at a non-governmental organization
• Litigation, advocacy and capacity-building work at a non-governmental organization that works in transitional societies advancing rule of law and human rights

Examples of Employers:
US State Department, US Treasury Department, Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Relations, Chilean Ministry of Finance, The Supreme Court of Rwanda, the United Nations, The World Bank, The International Finance Corporation, Human Rights Watch, Center for Justice and Accountability, PILNet, American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative

What are some advantages in working in international public interest positions?

Working in transitional countries can be extremely rewarding, both personally and professionally. Frequently, the policymakers and citizens of that country are in the process of making very fundamental decisions about the structure and function of the legal system and there is an opportunity to have a significant impact on those decisions as a practitioner of rule of law and human rights. In the field, relatively inexperienced lawyers are often able to take on more responsibility and enjoy more autonomy and access to decision makers than would be the case at a more established and stable working environment in the US. The opportunity to travel internationally and to immerse one’s self in different cultures and languages is another advantage of this type of practice.

What are some disadvantages in working in international public interest positions?

Working conditions can be unstable and chaotic, even dangerous. Some inexperienced lawyers are concerned, depending on the organization and role, that they do not receive the best training and mentoring opportunities. Lawyers are often expected to take on a great deal of responsibility for their work and to represent their organization’s mission and interest, sometimes before they feel fully prepared to do so. Frequent international travel and field assignments can make work-life balance difficult to achieve.

What are the hiring practices for international public interest positions?

There is no single or guaranteed pathway to a career in international public interest practice because of the great diversity of this work and because many of the employers in this field have fewer resources than private firms to offer formal training for new attorneys. While there are some entry level positions, it is often necessary to take short-term positions, seek work as a consultant, or apply for fellowships or grants to fund your work. Despite the competitive market, you will be able to create opportunities but only with flexibility and persistence.