Public Interest Lawyers


Education and Training Requirements

High School

A high school diploma, a college degree, and three years of law school are minimum requirements for a law degree. A high school diploma is a first step on the ladder of education that a lawyer must climb. If you are considering a career in law, courses such as government, history, social studies, and economics provide a solid background for entering college-level courses. Speech courses are also helpful to build strong communication skills necessary for the profession. Foreign language classes, particularly Spanish, are also useful. In addition, you can take advantage of any computer-related classes or experience you can get, because public interest lawyers often use technology to research and interpret the law, from surfing the Internet to searching legal databases.

Postsecondary Training

To enter any law school approved by the American Bar Association, you must satisfactorily complete at least three, and usually four, years of college work. Most law schools do not specify any particular courses for prelaw education. Usually a liberal arts track is most advisable, with courses in English, history, economics, social sciences, logic, and public speaking. A college student planning on specialization in a particular area of law, however, might also take courses significantly related to that area, such as economics or political science. Some students interested in careers in public law earn bachelor's degrees in nonprofit management or social work.

Those interested should contact several law schools to learn more about any requirements and to see if they will accept credits from the college the student is planning to attend.

Currently, 203 law schools in the United States are approved by the American Bar Association; others, many of them night schools, are approved by state authorities only. Most of the approved law schools, however, do have night sessions to accommodate part-time students. Part-time courses of study usually take four years.

Law school training consists of required courses such as legal writing and research, contracts, criminal law, constitutional law, torts, and property. The second and third years may be devoted to specialized courses of interest to the student, such as public interest law. The study of cases and decisions is of basic importance to the law student, who will be required to read and study thousands of these cases. A degree of juris doctor (J.D.) or bachelor of laws (LL.B.) is usually granted upon graduation. Some law students considering specialization, research, or teaching may go on for advanced study.

Most law schools require that applicants take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), where prospective law students are tested on their critical thinking, writing, and reasoning abilities.


Some lawyers choose to earn a master of laws (LL.M) degree, an advanced law certification that helps them advance professionally. LL.M programs, which typically last one year, are offered in many areas—such as child and family law, dispute resolution, energy/environment/natural resources, general law, human rights, litigation/trial advocacy, and public interest law. A first law degree is required for admission to LL.M programs. Visit https://www.lsac.org/llm-other-law-program-applicants for more information or https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/accreditation for a list of LL.M specialties and the law schools that offer them.

Other Education or Training

The American Bar Association, American Immigration Lawyers Association, Equal Justice Works, National Association for Law Placement, National Association of Counsel for Children, National Employment Lawyers Association, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and national, state, and local bar and professional associations offer a variety of continuing education (CE) classes, conference sessions, workshops, and webinars. Contact these organizations for more information. Additionally, most law firms provide in-house CE opportunities to their employees.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

The National Board of Trial Advocacy provides board certification in civil trial law, civil practice advocacy, criminal trial law, family trial law, social security disability law and truck accident law. The National Association of Counsel for Children provides the child welfare law certification to attorneys who serve in the role of child’s attorney (including guardian ad litem, law guardian, attorney ad litem), parent’s attorney, and agency/department/government attorney. The specialization area as approved by the American Bar Association is defined as "the practice of law representing children, parents or the government in all child protection proceedings including emergency, temporary custody, adjudication, disposition, foster care, permanency planning, termination, guardianship, and adoption. Child welfare law does not include representation in private child custody and adoption disputes where the state is not a party." Specialized voluntary certification for elder law attorneys is provided by the National Elder Law Foundation. Contact these organizations for more information on certification requirements.

Every state requires that lawyers be admitted to the bar of that state before they can practice. They require that applicants graduate from an approved law school and that they pass a written examination in the state in which they intend to practice. In a few states, graduates of law schools within the state are excused from these written examinations. After lawyers have been admitted to the bar in one state, they can practice in another state without taking a written examination if the states have reciprocity agreements; however, they will be required to meet certain state standards of good character and legal experience and pay any applicable fees.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Experience as a public interest law intern or clerk is highly recommended.

Successful public interest lawyers need to be effective communicators, work well with people, and be able to find creative solutions to problems. PILs must also be compassionate, with a strong desire to help others, especially the disadvantaged. Oftentimes PILs are not rewarded financially, but rather with the knowledge of helping those unable to help themselves.