While an attorney in private practice works for the benefit of an individual or company, a public interest attorney works for the benefit of an organization, a cause, an individual who cannot afford legal representation, or government (federal, local, or state) agencies. Public defenders, local prosecuting attorneys, and attorneys at civil legal services organizations are all public interest attorneys.
An attorney in private practice is paid directly or indirectly by the client on an hourly or flat rate, while the public interest attorney is paid a salary by the government or organization based on experience. A public interest attorney’s salary is dependent on expertise and the employer. Typically, a public interest attorney will make less than an attorney in private practice. Whereas many large law firms now offer first years a starting salary of $190,000, and the median salary of first-year associates is $155,000, the median starting salary of a legal services attorney is $48,000, and the median starting salary of public defenders or prosecutors is about $57,000. (These numbers come from the National Association for Law Placement—specifically, the 2019 Associate Salary Survey and the 2018 Public Service Attorney Salary Survey.)
Finding a permanent public interest job may be a challenging process because permanent positions at public interest organizations do not become available frequently or regularly. This makes it less likely that the organization will participate in on-campus interviewing with larger private law firms that can project how large a group of new associates to hire two years in advance. The organization might not have extensive funds to hire a recruiter or visit law schools. The interested candidate will have to be more proactive to find a public interest job.
So, if a law student can expect to make less money and work harder or more independently to find a public interest job, why isn’t everyone Big Law or Bust?
Hands-on experience, right away. A fresh graduate working as an assistant district attorney will receive extensive guidance from supervising attorneys and get plenty of hands-on trial experience very early on. These graduates have the potential to develop their skill sets very quickly. First-year associates at large firms may only see a small slice of a particular case or transaction. They will likely have to wait several years to gain the skills and trust to step into a courtroom. Their primary focus will be on billable hours.
Quality of life. Working as public-sector attorneys, new law graduates might get paid less, but when they have saved enough to go on vacation, they might actually be able to GO. They can also look forward to holidays, sick leave, government-mandated time off, and weekends. An attorney in private practice is subject to the billable hours schematic that can force you to work around the clock, taking you away from friends, family, and possibly your sanity. You will make enough to take that Caribbean vacation three times a year, but you may not actually go anywhere because…billable hours.
Your conscience. Public interest law might give you a couple of things money can’t buy: work you’re passionate about and a chance to make the world a better place.
- Public interest jobs let you work for a cause, institution, or person that won’t or can’t pay you directly.
- You’ll have to be proactive to get a public interest job, as public interest organizations probably won’t do on-campus interviews.
- Entry-level salaries for public interest positions are probably about a third of what you could earn in the private sector.