Alex Scherr, UGA College of Law.
Alex Scherr, UGA College of Law. (ianMcfarlane)

While a summer job at a large firm is lucrative, a bumper crop of law students is taking low or no-paying public interest jobs instead, in part because it’s a way to gain hands-on legal experience.

This year, the University of Georgia School of Law sharply increased the number of public interest fellowships it offered—from 22 to 36. That’s up from only eight or 10 summer stipends a couple of years ago, said Alexander Scherr, associate dean for clinical programs and experiential learning.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society hosted 26 interns this summer, who came from all five Georgia law schools, plus Harvard, Yale, the University of Oregon and other schools nationally, said the group’s deputy director, Cathy Vandenberg. That’s up from 15 to 20 students it has hosted in the past, Vandenberg said.

That’s also more summer jobs than one of Atlanta’s largest firms, Alston & Bird, offered, according to NALP, even though the legal aid group has only 70 lawyers. Alston & Bird hired 22 summer associates this year at $3,000 per week—and Atlanta Legal Aid doesn’t pay. Instead students they are funded by their law schools or outside grants for public service.

Even so, the Atlanta Legal Aid internships are competitive. Vandenberg said the group received about 125 applications this year for summer positions.

She and Scherr said public interest jobs are a way for law students to get hands-on experience in law, which has become important in the tight job market for new law school graduates.

“Legal employers, whether nonprofits or law firms, want to get folks with experience. They are demanding that now,” Vandenberg said.

Atlanta Legal Aid encourages interns to have a lot of client contact by working on individual cases with its attorneys, Vandenberg said. The interns interview clients, draft pleadings and work on litigation, she said. Some even handle hearings, she added, “with lots of direct supervision from a licensed attorney.”

Hearings could be for a domestic violence victim seeking a temporary protective order, a tenant facing eviction or an unemployment benefits claim, which is heard by an administrative law judge. These types of cases are something an intern can do start to finish in their 10-week stint, Vandenberg said.

The Georgia Supreme Court in 2015 expanded the third-year practice act to allow second years to practice under the supervision of a licensed attorney, increasing the number of Atlanta Legal Aid interns who can directly represent clients, she said.

More UGA Funding

Entry-level job openings at private firms have diminished since the 2008 recession, Scherr noted. “It’s coming back a little bit, but not at the same level, so what’s made up the difference is public service jobs.”

Scherr, who’s taught at UGA Law for 20 years, added that he’s seen an uptick in the past two or three years in students interested in pursuing social justice.

For UGA Law’s 2017 class, Scherr said, 82.5 percent took at least one legal clinic or externship—and the “vast majority” of those jobs are in public service.

UGA provided $68,000 in public interest fellowship funding this summer, a $15,000 increase from last year, Scherr said, thanks to a new initiative to raise contributions from alumni.

The 36 stipends range from $5,000 to $500, and the law school was able to fund everyone who applied, he said.

Part of the increase in interest is because this year the law school changed its policy so that students can get credit through its externship program, Scherr said. Before, students had to choose between getting fellowship funding or getting academic credit.

Emory University School of Law offered 24 stipends this summer, but each was for $5,000. That was not quite enough for every student who applied, said Rita Sheffey, who became Emory Law’s first-ever assistant dean for public service in 2015. Emory does not offer academic credit for the fellowships.

The total pot of $120,000 is mostly raised by the student-led Emory Public Interest Committee, as well as some grants from individuals, firms and an endowment, Sheffey said.

“We are definitely seeing an increase in interest,” she said. “We have students who really want to help people—and that does give them that benefit of getting the practice experience early.”

Two $5,000 grants at UGA Law came from a partnership begun last year with The John Paul Stevens Foundation, which works with 20 law schools nationally, including Emory, to offer the competitive public interest stipends.

One of this year’s Stevens fellows, Dana Leader, just finished up 11 weeks at the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law in Washington, a resource and policy center on law affecting children. Leader worked with the group’s parent reunification team, which addresses situations where the legal system separates children from parents, whether because they are undocumented or because of abuse and neglect.

Leader, 30, is a former teacher who said she chose UGA for law school specifically because of its public interest offerings, including the joint JD-MSW program she’s pursuing and legal clinics for mediation and domestic violence.

Another Stevens fellow at UGA Law, Gilbert Oladeinbo, spent the last eight weeks at another policy group, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, researching and writing on affordable housing laws, post-prison employment barriers and other issues.

Oladeinbo, 25, is a rising 2L who already has a law degree from Nigeria. He said his long-term career goal is to be a judge and he thinks understanding how policies and legislation get made is good for that—or for a job at a law firm. “These are transferrable skills,” he said.

Future Jobs

The exposure to public interest jobs can lead some into careers. “I see a lot of students with their eyes opening,” Scherr said. “There is still a sense among law students that they should go for the high-paying jobs, but students are also starting to look around more and see alternatives.”

“A student at a government agency may see lawyers working hard and doing complex work that they believe in, with somewhat more flexibility to balance work and life commitments and think, ‘Why isn’t this a good career path for me?’” he added.

While students are graduating law school with heavy student loan burdens, Scherr said more federal and state loan-forgiveness programs have become available in the past 10 years, although he noted that the funding is variable.

Even though public-interest jobs pay less, it can still be difficult for new law graduates to land one. U.S. attorneys offices and the ACLU, for instance, don’t hire right out of law school.

A fellowship can be a way to get a foot in the door for a limited pool of jobs. Vandenberg said Atlanta Legal Aid hires a limited number of entry-level staff attorneys as funding permits. She said a lot of the group’s new hires are former interns or externs—and all of them generally have a lot of clinical experience, internships and volunteer experience.

Atlanta Legal Aid’s longtime executive director, Steve Gottlieb, is a notable example. He first worked for the group as a summer intern in 1968 after seeing a letter from the program’s then-director on a jobs bulletin board at the University of Pennsylvania.

“You too can be the embattled director of a legal aid program,” Gottlieb said wryly.