In 1905, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis scolded the legal community for neglecting “their obligation to use their powers for the protection of the people.” Justice Brandeis’ call for action was later answered by lawyers who practice in the public interest. In private practice, lawyers most often represent corporate clients. In the public interest sector, lawyers instead focus on representing underserved clients on a range of important legal issues. To understand the nature of careers in public interest law, we sat down with UNC Law’s April Giancola, the director of public interest legal careers at one of the most distinguished public law schools in the country.
In a few sentences, could you explain to anyone unfamiliar with the legal profession what public interest law encompasses?
Public interest law from a 10,000-foot view is a very large world. It can include working for a government agency (federal/state), 501c3 nonprofit, direct legal services organization (i.e. legal aid) or a public interest law firm (representing plaintiffs). It can also encompass representing clients in Court, to transactional work or grass roots advocacy and organizing.
As a graduate of New England Law School, how did your legal education lead you to a passion for legal careers in the public interest sector? Did you practice in the sector prior to your role at UNC School of Law?
I took off four years before going back to law school and knew I wanted to gain a position in the public sector. I choose New England because they had a robust externship program, and a lot of opportunities for hands-on experience, even in the late 90s. After graduating, I practiced law for 16 years in three different states, before joining the law school. I gained experience in indigent defense, disability rights advocacy, civil legal services, and working for a local bar association. All these positions best prepared me to now mentor and counsel law students.
At UNC School of Law, you are the Director of Public Interest Advising. What does your role entail?
My role is to work with students (and alums) in assisting them to reach their career goals. This is done through review and feedback of employment related documents (resumes, cover letters), one on one meetings to learn more about their individual skills, abilities, and aspirations, development of programming to provide access to resources and information about different employers and career paths and developing meaningful relationships with employers who will be able to assist and hire ur students during their law school careers and beyond.
In your experience, what type of students are drawn to careers in the public interest sector?
It will mostly be students who are drawn the idea of wanting to use their law degrees to directly impact the lives of others. They want to have purpose and meaning in their careers and be personally and professional rewarded. They also want to be around coworkers and colleagues who believe in the same things, and are mission driven.
In the current legal job market, what is the demand for public interest lawyers?
The demand is high. The market for public interest positions is competitive -as there will also be a need for attorneys who wish to do good with their degrees and want to make a difference. Because of this, I always encourage public interest minded students to look out of NC if they can – because then their job prospects will be much more diverse.
At Carolina Law, students have the option of focusing on public interest law as part of their curricular program. What does this focus entail?
I always tell students who wish to focus on public interest law that one of the most important things they can do is gain experience. So if it’s via a clinic, externship, pro bono, or self-initiated volunteering, getting as much hands-on experience is what employers want to see. Couple that with subject specific classes in your areas of interest, or where you want to develop expertise, will always be worth the investment.
Public interest lawyers, in general, often earn less than attorneys in the private sector. What programs–either at UNC specifically or more generally–are available for students who pursue careers in the public interest sector but also have concerns about student debt?
Student debt is a very real-world concern for any student who wishes to explore careers in the public sector. UNC has a very generous school funded loan forgiveness program, and there is still public service loan forgiveness via the US Department of Education. Personally, after 11 years of paying back my student loans, I finally had my remaining school debt forgiven via PSLF in Fall 2019. It was a long 11 years, and I would do it again in a heartbeat to be able to have had the impactful experiences of my career.
Any final words for prospective law students who are interested in a career in public interest law?
It is such a humbling experience to look into a client’s eyes, and even if their fight was lost – they come to you with grace and gratitude for giving them a voice. As a public interest attorney, you do spend a lot of time saying no, tempering expectations and delivering not the greatest news. At the same time, it is so rewarding to know you are advocating and fighting for someone who has so far been dismissed by the world, and you get to hold them up and be their advocate. There are so many people and families who need strong attorneys to get their version of justice – and I am proud to have been that attorney, and to support the development of the next generation of public service advocates.