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Public Interest Lawyers

The Job

Public interest lawyers (PILs) may have different specialties, but all direct their services to a particular group of clients—those who may not have the means to pay for legal counsel. PILs often provide their services pro bono, for little or no fee. While the majority of their clients are individuals who are poor or on fixed incomes, PILS may also do work for public interest groups with a range of advocacy issues, such as the environment, adoption, or immigration.

Many PILs work for government-funded legal aid clinics and offices. For example, lawyers working for the Migrant Farm Worker Division of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) provide legal assistance to seasonal or migrant agricultural workers, some with alien status. These workers are mostly of Latino heritage. The TRLA provides civil legal service at no cost; its funding comes from a combination of support from the federal government and private foundations. Lawyers employed by the TRLA represent the rights of their clients regarding housing, employment, public benefits, and civil rights issues. They may also propose changes in welfare training and educational materials and services to these migrant workers. Lawyers working in this capacity are paid an annual salary, though much less compared to attorneys employed at a private firm.

Public defenders can also be considered public interest lawyers. Low income, or indigent, people charged with a crime are often assigned a public defender to assist with their legal defense. Public defender agencies, at the state and federal level, are supported by public funding. Full-time public defenders specialize in criminal law—offenses committed against society or the state, such as theft, murder, or arson. They interview clients and witnesses to ascertain facts in a case, correlate their findings with known cases, and prepare a case to defend a client against the charges made. They conduct a defense at the trial, examine witnesses, and summarize the case with a closing argument to a jury.

Other PILs choose to provide legal counsel or work as advocates for nonprofit organizations. For example, a public interest lawyer may serve as the director of legal services and advocacy for an HIV/AIDS organization. Duties for someone in this position might include influencing the policies and positions of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government regarding HIV/AIDS, monitoring HIV/AIDS issues and helping lead community alliances against the disease, and educating the public about political candidates' positions regarding HIV/AIDS. Other lawyers working for this advocacy group might provide legal representation, offer technical advice, and participate in interviews and forums about HIV/AIDS.

Lawyers employed at private legal firms may also practice public interest law. Many support the work of various organizations and charities by providing their legal expertise pro bono. In fact, the American Bar Association urges its members to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services a year.

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