In 1990, Harvard Law School Dean Robert Clark made the fateful decision to fire the only career counselor devoted to helping students land public interest jobs. The move was intended to rein in costs, but it didn’t go over well with students. They protested until Clark relented and restored the funding.

Flash forward 21 years: Harvard’s Office of Public Interest Advising is thriving, with the equivalent of eight full-time counselors and a steady stream of students seeking career advice.

The growth of that office reflects a larger shift in the way public interest law careers are perceived and how young lawyers prepare for those jobs. More freshly minted lawyers are opting for public interest careers — the percentage of new law graduates taking those jobs grew from 2.1% in 1990 to 6.7% in 2010, according to the most recent data from the National Association for Law Placement, or NALP. (That figure jumped by nearly 2% in 2004, when the organization began including public defenders — prosecutors are in a separate government category.) At the same time, the number of graduates from American Bar Association-approved law schools increased by 21%, meaning that the total number of new public interest lawyers is up significantly.

Among the factors leading to that growth are improved job support on law school campuses for public interest-minded students, more clinics and internship opportunities, more programs to help public interest lawyers manage their educational debt, and the founding of several groups focused on funding public interest careers.

The largest of those organizations, Equal Justice Works, is celebrating its 25th anniversary, prompting reflection on the dramatic changes in so-called “do gooder” law during the past quarter-century.

“There’s a much greater professionalism in the path to public interest law careers now,” said Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public service at Harvard. “When I went to law school [during the 1980s], there was no specialized advising. There was nobody to tell you how to create a public interest career.”

Today, Shabecoff said, nearly every law school has at least one career counselor who specializes in public interest jobs. Equal Justice Works Executive Director David Stern said that public interest law careers are shedding their second-class status. “The prestigious jobs, when I went to law school, were the big-firm jobs,” said Stern, who graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 1985. “Everybody coveted them. I’m not saying that has gone away completely, but I would absolutely say that the prestige of public interest work has gone way up.”

‘POTHOLES AND BARRIERS’

The founding and steady expansion of Equal Justice Works and other public interest law organizations is another sign of the changing times. Equal Justice Works started in 1986 as a loose consortium of student groups on law school campuses.

“It really came from a perception on law school campuses that the profession wasn’t living up to its ideals,” said Michael Caudell-Feagan, a founding director of the program, who was a student at George Washington University Law School at the time. “For young lawyers, the path to public service was filled with many potholes and barriers, and we could simply do better.”

Only a half-dozen law schools offered loan repayment assistance programs to graduates holding public interest jobs in 1986, and it was not uncommon for law students to ask classmates to donate a portion of their earnings from summer law firm clerkships to fund public interest internships. More than 100 law schools now have loan-forgiveness programs.

Equal Justice Works had about a dozen member law school members in its early days, but has 199 today. In the 1980s, the organization became an important tool for students to organize and advocate for additional support from law school administrators and the legal community.

Today, Equal Justice Works has a staff of 30 and finances 700 summer public interest internships and 170 post-graduate fellowships each year, making it the largest single funder of post-graduate public interest law jobs in the country. The organization’s budget has grown from well below $100,000 during its first year to $11 million, with the bulk of the money coming from law firms and corporations. Approximately $3 million comes from the federal government, $500,000 from foundations and about $350,000 from law schools, Stern said.

“It’s a continuum,” Stern said. “We want to get [candidates] when they are thinking about law school. Then when they are in law school, we want to ensure they have these affirming experiences like clinics and summer internships. Then you have the post-graduate piece. It’s all part of a formula that goes to the dream of mobilizing an army of lawyers to do public interest work.”

Equal Justice Works isn’t the only organization helping clear the path to public interest law careers. Just two years after its founding, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom launched its Skadden Fellowship Foundation, which each year funds 25 two-year public interest law fellowships. Skadden has sent more than 600 lawyers through the program, and interest from prospective fellows has been growing, said director Susan Butler Plum.

“We receive about 210 applications each year,” she said. “During the last four or five years, that number has grown about 5% annually. The culture is changing. Their résumés now show two or three pages of public interest experience.”

Law schools and foundations have started funding small numbers of public interest post-graduate fellowships. The proliferation of law school clinics — the Clinical Legal Education Association lists more than 1,000 clinicians now teaching at law schools — has also been crucial to helping students prepare for public interest careers, said Georgetown Law Center professor Peter Edelman.

“Clinical legal education has expanded tremendously,” he said. “That’s terrific preparation for any law practice, but it’s essentially public interest-oriented. The development of clinical programs has been a big step.”

Public interest employers now want applicants who have demonstrated a commitment to that type of work through extensive skills training and multiple public interest internships, Shabecoff said. That commitment can start even before law school with experience in Teach For America, AmeriCorps or other public service programs, she said.

The combination of low pay and high student debt has long been a hurdle to public interest law careers, however. According to NALP, the average starting salary at law firms nationally is nearly $103,000, compared with $42,000 for public interest jobs. The rise of loan forgiveness programs at law schools has helped on that front. Additionally, Congress in 2007 passed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act. That legislation allows college graduates to make monthly payments on their federal loans according to a sliding scale based on income. Perhaps most important for public interest lawyers, the law guarantees that any remaining federal student debt will be forgiven for those who remain in public interest jobs for 10 years.

A LIFESAVER

The new rules went into effect in 2009 and were a lifesaver for Katherine Ojeda Stewart, a 2010 graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law who earns $44,000 a year as an Equal Justice Works fellow in Los Angeles. She is carrying approximately $200,000 in student loan debt from law school and a master’s program. Her monthly payments but for the federal legislation would be about $1,400 — more than half her monthly take-home pay. But she pays nothing under the income-based repayment provision of the federal act.

“Every time you see those loans, it literally will take your breath away,” said Stewart, who plans to stay in public interest work for 10 years, until her debt is forgiven.

The single-minded focus on nabbing a high-paying law firm job has dissipated somewhat on law school campuses, public interest advocates said. That’s due in part to the advent of the loan-forgiveness programs, but also because of a cultural shift.

“I came into law school as a die-hard for public interest, and I was amazed at how isolated I felt,” Stern said. “Everybody else was contemplating these big law firm jobs. It’s very hard to create a sense of community and belonging that enables somebody to hold onto that commitment. That’s a pretty radical change that’s happened over the past 25 years. Now, most schools have people designated to be the cheerleader and main resource for public interest-minded students.”

Still, Stern sees much more work to be done during the next 25 years, given the vast, unmet legal needs. Equal Justice Works received funding from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to put 30 attorneys in the field for a year to handle foreclosure defense cases. They helped 1,086 families remain in their homes, but Stern was sobered to learn while on a visit to Illinois that 50,000 homes face foreclosure in that state alone.

“As much as I think we make a hell of a difference, compared to the justice gap, we are a drop in the bucket,” Stern said. “My vision is that we’re just getting started. We’ve got to come up with new and better ideas about how we’re going to meet these challenges.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.

PROFILES IN PUBLIC INTEREST
An Equal Justice Works fellowship got him started in public interest; now he oversees other fellows.
The federal loan-forgiveness act has enabled her to afford a career in public-interest.