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Public Interest Lawyers


The tradition of governing people by laws has been established over centuries. Societies have built up systems of law that have been studied and drawn upon by later governments. The earliest known law is the Code of Hammurabi, developed about 1800 B.C. by the ruler of the Sumerians. Another early set of laws was the Law of Moses, known as the Ten Commandments. Every set of laws, no matter when they were introduced, has been accompanied by the need for someone to explain those laws and help others live under them.

The great orators of ancient Greece and Rome set up schools for young boys to learn by apprenticeship the many skills involved in pleading a law case. To be an eloquent speaker was the greatest advantage. The legal profession has matured since those earlier times; a great deal of training and an extensive knowledge of legal matters are required of the modern lawyer and judge.

Much modern European law was organized and refined by legal experts assembled by Napoleon; their body of law was known as the Napoleonic Code. English colonists coming to America brought English common law, from which American laws have grown. In areas of the United States that were heavily settled by Spanish colonists, there are traces of Spanish law. As the population in the country grew, along with business, those who knew the law were in high demand. The two main kinds of law are civil and criminal, but many other specialty areas are also prevalent today. When our country was young, most lawyers were general law practitioners—they knew and worked with all the laws for their clients' sakes. Today, there are many more lawyers who specialize in areas such as tax law, corporate law, intellectual property law, and public interest law.

Public interest law in the United States developed in the late 1800s, according to the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. The German Society of New York founded what is considered to be the first civil legal assistance program for poor people in 1876. The organization was formed to protect the rights of recent German immigrants. Later, it expanded its services to advocate for other groups and was renamed the Legal Aid Society of New York in 1890. It is still serving the disadvantaged today.

In the early 1920s, the American Bar Association created the Special Committee on Legal Aid Work and encouraged other legal associations to do the same. By the 1950s, legal aid programs were available in nearly every major U.S. city.

In 1964, the U.S. government began providing federal funding for civil legal assistance to poor people, which created strong growth for public interest law organizations.

In 1986, students from 14 law schools created the National Association for Public Interest Law (now known as Equal Justice Works) to advance the profession of public interest law.

Today, public interest law is a popular and rewarding career option for lawyers who are interested in helping the disadvantaged attain better lives.

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