Public Interest Careers

In thinking about what courses to take to enhance your preparation for a public interest career, there are a number of issues to keep in mind. Because public interest careers encompass many potential subject areas, myriad types of lawyering, and a variety of different institutions, it is wise to think broadly when developing a public interest-oriented curriculum.

As you choose your courses, it is helpful to think about the substantive knowledge, skills, and credentials you would like to develop before leaving law school. Thinking concretely about these three areas will allow you to choose the courses and activities that are most likely to help you achieve your goals.

In terms of substantive knowledge, it is wise to think about both the broad areas of knowledge that are relevant to virtually all public interest lawyers as well as more specialized areas of inquiry relevant to students planning careers in particular fields. Broad courses that are helpful for most public interest students include courses that cover the workings of governmental systems like Federal Courts or State and Local Government. Students planning to enter specific fields such as criminal law, poverty law, civil rights, or human rights should think about what courses are especially foundational in those areas. For example, students who know they want to practice criminal law should take Evidence and Criminal Procedure. Students who want to practice poverty law should take Evidence and Government Benefits. If you intend to spend your 2L summer working for an employer where you will represent clients in court, note that some states require Evidence in order to appear under student practice rules. Students interested in human rights will need to take international law and human rights. It’s a good idea to confer with professors who are experts in your field of interest when selecting these foundational courses. In addition to these basic courses in your field(s) of interest, it’s a good idea to take a seminar or two relevant to your potential area(s) of practice. Such seminars introduce you to the broader legal, social, and economic issues that shape the area of law in which you may spend your career, and they help equip you with critical thinking skills. We encourage you to be both specific and broad in course selection. If you are interested in a specific subject area, take a course in that area to see if it confirms or challenges your interest. But also remember that courses that might not be immediately obvious can still be important. For example, Corporations might be valuable not only for those students who wish to be counsel to a nonprofit agency but also to those who might anticipate engaging in litigation with corporations; tax courses at NYU emphasize the policies behind the Tax Code and can be very useful to public interest students. Or international human rights may be useful for those who want to use international law as an advocacy tool in domestic litigation.

Concerning skills, there are two primary ways to gain skills through the law school curriculum: through taking a Clinic or enrolling in a Simulation Course. These courses, which use experiential educational techniques such as live-client representation, simulated court proceedings, and litigation planning, allow students to develop lawyering skills that will be directly relevant to public interest careers. Students should refer to the curricular advising memo prepared by the clinical program for more information about how to choose among NYU’s many Clinics and Simulation Courses. One relevant consideration in choosing among Clinics and Simulation Courses is the type of practice students might like to engage in after law school. Those interested in litigation, for example, may want to choose one of NYU’s litigation clinics, in which students have the opportunity to represent an individual client. Students who want to focus on policy work may want to choose a clinic that emphasizes legislative advocacy and public education. Students interested in alternative dispute resolution may enroll in a clinic that emphasizes mediation. Because many clinics serve indigent and under-represented communities, they also introduce students to issues relevant to all public interest endeavors.

When thinking about skills, it is helpful to also think beyond Clinics and Simulation Courses. Some upper-level courses and seminars will offer skills directly relevant to public interest students because of the way they are taught. A seminar that requires students to write a brief and present it in class rather than taking an exam, for example, might be of interest to students who plan to pursue litigation. Similarly, a Professional Responsibility course that focuses on the criminal context may be of particular interest to students who want to practice as defenders or prosecutors.

Finally, it is important for students to be aware of any special credentials that are especially prized in the fields they hope to enter. For example, in some settings, such as law reform, a clerkship may provide a market advantage. In other fields, such as international law, it is increasingly seen as a plus for students to develop a record of publication. Talking with professors who have practiced in your field of interest, trusted mentors who are practicing lawyers, and PILC counselors who meet regularly with public interest employers, will help you identify any relevant credentials you might want to pursue.