Public interest law is not a substantive area of law or a practice area in the same sense as, for example, criminal law, family law, or employment law. Rather, public interest lawyers work in many different practice areas and for a broad range of employers. Public interest lawyers may do litigation or transactional work. A public interest career can involve administrative law, appellate practice, landlord-tenant issues, or prisoners' rights, and, increasingly, employment, immigration, health, and elder law are all subject areas in which there are public interest careers. Many public interest lawyers represent indigent clients and have frequent client contact, but others focus on public policy issues, analyze or draft legislation, or are involved in lobbying.
One common denominator of public interest jobs is that they often provide representation for causes or groups that are not adequately served by the for-profit bar. Another is that a public interest law career usually involves working for a non-profit organization or, in some cases, a government agency. A third is that public interest organizations are generally struggling for funding, and salary ranges and benefits are low. However, despite low salaries, competition for public interest jobs is strong, and lawyers who pursue public interest careers find a deep sense of personal and professional satisfaction in their work.
For information about Criminal Law, see the Criminal Law Curriculum Guide.
Employers will expect that a student interested in public interest law will have participated in at least one clinical course.
Students interested in public interest law should consider including one or more of the following courses as electives.
- Advanced Legal Writing
- Administrative Law
- Business Organizations I
- Client Counseling and Interviewing
Many of these courses deepen or broaden the skills and substantive information that a public interest lawyer needs, and also provide advanced courses for students interested in a specialty within the broad field of public interest law.
- Children, Law & Society
- Equal Employment Law
- Federal Jurisdiction
- Federal Law and Indian Tribes
- Health Law and Administration
- Human Trafficking
- Immigration Law
- Climate Change, Human Rights and the Environment
- Labor and Employment Law
- Law and the Elderly
- Nonprofit and Philanthropic Organizations
- Taxation I
- Trial Advocacy
(Note that whether a particular course is scheduled depends on faculty availability and student demand.)
For more information about specific substantive areas of law that are public interest-related, please also see the curriculum guides for Criminal Law, Civil Litigation, Immigration Law, Labor and Employment Law, Health Law, Elder Law, Environmental Law, Family Law, and Childrens Law.
Clinics, Internships, and Externships
Students interested in a public interest career should participate in at least one clinical program. Listed below are civil clinics and externships. For criminal law clinics, see the full list of clinical opportunities.
The Center for Patient Partnerships is a national resource for strengthening the consumer perspective in health care and building more effective partnerships among patients, providers, and other stakeholders.
The Consumer Law Clinic represents low- and moderate-income consumers in individual and class action lawsuits in federal and state courts. The Clinic operates year-round and is open to students who have completed their first year of law school. The Consumer Law Clinic trains students in all aspects of civil litigation.
Students work in various civil units of the Wisconsin Department of Justice. The program offers law students a unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience in public advocacy and litigation. Externs practice trial, appellate and administrative law with some of the state's most well-respected litigators, working on matters of statewide importance. A weekly seminar accompanies the placement.
The Family Court Clinic is a program designed to help make the legal system more accessible to low-income, unrepresented people with divorce, post-divorce, paternity, and restraining order matters. Students do not serve as advocates, but rather as facilitators/mediators, working with the parties to prepare cases for decision. Students undergo in-depth skills training in interviewing, counseling, and negotiations, and learn the nuts and bolts of family law.
The Family Law Project is a civil law project serving incarcerated clients. Students in the Family Law Project, like those in the Legal Assistance to Institutionalized Persons Project, work under the direct supervision of clinical faculty to provide legal assistance to state and federal prison inmates throughout Wisconsin. The clinical, which is available to second- and third-year law students, requires a two-semester commitment.
The Labor Law Externship provides placements for students in a labor law setting. Students spend two days a week working under the supervision of attorneys of the National Labor Relations Board in Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission in Madison, the Department of Labor's Chicago regional office, or in other similar agencies. They attend hearings, write draft opinions, conduct legal research, write memos, and in general are exposed to the broad range of work done by the agency.
The Neighborhood Law Project provides a broad range of legal services designed to enhance the economic well-being of the residents of one of Madison's neighborhoods. The Neighborhood Law Project is open to students who have completed their first year of law school. The project is a two-semester commitment, and includes a weekly seminar in addition to the clinical work.
Second and third-year students can earn academic credit and gain hands-on experience at a wide variety of nonprofit organizations that do public interest work. Examples include externships at End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, where students assist with legal inquiries and research regarding domestic violence issues; externships at Midwest Environmental Advocates, Wisconsin's only non-profit environmental law firm, working with MEA lawyers on litigation, rule-making and policy development at the state and local level; and externships at Disability Rights Wisconsin, the state's protection and advocacy agency for persons with serious disabilities. These and many more externships at public interest organizations can be done through the Law Externship course. Contact Externship Director Erin McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Student Organizations and Related Activities
Employers look for a demonstrated commitment to public interest law and a commitment to public service shown by a history of volunteer activities. There are many volunteer opportunities in the Madison community and through the Student Bar Association.
The American Civil Liberties Union is a group whose primary goal is to protect our civil liberties, as set out in the constitution and the Bill of Rights. The ACLU was formed in 1920.
American Constitution Society
The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy is a national organization of law students, law professors, practicing lawyers and members of the community. We want to help revitalize and transform legal debate, from law school classrooms to federal courtrooms.
The Children's Justice Project brings together people interested in promoting justice for children and juveniles, including the rights of children and juveniles in the legal, educational, health care, and social services systems. The Project does this through interdisciplinary advocacy and study.
Environmental Law Society (ELS)
The Environmental Law Society welcomes all students interested in the application of law to environmental issues at the state, national, and international levels. The Society studies all sides of the issues because it recognizes that environmental law applies to both those interested in classic environmental preservation, as well as persons whose activities create environmental impacts.
Mock Trial provides real trial experience at a competitive level. Students participate in nationwide competitions that give them opportunities to give opening and closing statements and direct- and cross-examine witnesses. For the student interested in litigation it is an invaluable experience to learn skills you may not get in the classroom.
The Madison Chapter of the NLG is a community chapter with both lawyers and law student members. The National Lawyers Guild is a nationwide organization of lawyers and law students dedicated to working for social justice. Formed in 1937 as the first racially integrated bar association in the country, the Guild tries to bring together all those who recognize the importance of safeguarding and extending the rights of workers, women, farmers, and minority groups upon whom the welfare of the entire nation depends; who actively seek to eliminate racism; who work to maintain and protect our civil rights and liberties; and who view the law as an instrument for the protection of the people, rather than their repression.
Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic
The Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic is staffed by volunteer student advocates who assist clients in obtaining unemployment compensation benefits. Student advocates work closely with supervising attorneys and gain litigation and case management experience while helping those in need of benefits who cannot afford representation.
The University of Wisconsin Law School's Public Interest Law Foundation (UW-PILF) is a student run organization committed to supporting law students who want to work in public interest law.
Here are some of the full-time faculty who teach or have an interest in public interest law (non-criminal):
In addition to our full-time faculty, the Law School's adjunct faculty members — prominent practicing lawyers and judges — bring their specialized knowledge and experience to the classroom. Adjunct Faculty List.