Breaking Chains to Build New Links: For the Public Interest Lawyer

A few months ago, I started a feature to look at how networking and self promotion varies for different areas of the law.  You can see the feature on government lawyering here and the feature on networking for large law firms here.  This month, I’m covering networking and self promotion for the public interest lawyer. 

I am deeply indebted to Lucy Quacinella, Principal and Founder of Multiform Advocacy Solutions in San Francisco, and Julia Harumi Mass, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California for their contributions.  Through Multiform Advocacy Solutions, the small law firm she founded after many years in-house with Legal Services and related public interest law programs, Lucy fights for the rights of the poor in California and East Africa.  As a staff attorney primarily responsible for immigration issues at the ACLU,  Julia is the lead attorney for the ACLU’s challenge to Sonoma County’s immigration detainer policies and is working on the ACLU’s case against the Federal Government challenging the constitutionality of the No-Fly List

Both women offered me their perspectives on what it means to be a public interest lawyer and what types of networking and self-promotion skills improve your chances of success.  They also offered insight on how to jump from another career choice into public interest if, for example, you needed to take a few years doing something else to help manage your debt.

Recognize Who You Are Working For

One of the best aspects of practicing public interest law, according to Lucy, is that it requires a broad range of skills and synergy. Public interest lawyers are driven to be creative because they “face very different challenges and resource limitations.”  Getting the necessary skills requires spending time with public interest advocates: “Work with the professors in your school that care most about public interest work or, if you are at a firm, affiliate yourself with the individuals who are doing a lot of pro bono work.  Volunteer with public interest groups to get  experience.”  Lucy also notes that public interest lawyers tend to be great mentors, “because we recognize that we can’t offer the same compensation as other areas of the law.”  That’s a great opportunity for you to take advantage of if public interest law is something you are interested in.  Seek out a mentor and build that relationship.  A mentor may also be able to help you plot a course for your career development based on your specific substantive interests and goals.

Julia agrees, she had a passion for social justice before going to law school but she nurtured that passion through her involvement with pro bono and affirmative action work at UCLA.  “Because I cared about and worked a lot on social justice issues, I built relationships with the professors who supported us.  Then, during the summer of my first year, I worked for the United Farm Workers Union.  It really opened my eyes to the possibilities in public interest.”  Julia also clerked for a year for the Honorable Warren Ferguson on the Ninth Circuit.  Julia says she chose Judge Ferguson, in part, because she sought out judges with progressive ideals and, again, had professors who supported that ideal.  Through each of those experiences, Julia expanded her public interest network.  Ultimately, however, when it was time to look for a new position after finishing her clerkship, Julia found it through a former classmate at UCLA who had also been active in the ACLU Law chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.  As a result, Julia went to a small labor law firm that represents private and public-sector unions. 

How Do I Get From Here to There?

Getting into public interest work is not easy as anyone who is there will tell you and anyone who has tried will confirm.  As one public interest lawyer once told me, “I received at least fifty rejection letters before I got my first interview.  It was another five interviews before I was able to get my first public interest job.”  But there are a lot of things you can do to improve your chances of getting through the public interest door and then actually getting that job.

Build your Network: You want to keep meeting people in different public interest agencies and then meet their friends.  The more you do that, the more likely it is that you will be able to send your application and then ask someone to make a phone call supporting you.  Just like anywhere else, having someone who can personally attest to your abilities and your personality will go a long way.

Build your Experience: Both Lucy and Julia agreed, because public interest agencies operate with limited resources, you need to demonstrate your ability to come in and hit the ground running.  According to Julia, “Being at the smaller firm, especially in employment law, was a huge advantage for me.  There were a lot of opportunities to contact and prepare witnesses, take depositions, and present evidence, whether in front of a judge or an arbitrator.  I also got to work on issues and with clients that were relevant to the job I later applied for with the ACLU.”  So take a hard a look at yourself and your skills and work on building them!

Self Promotion Tip: Think About Non-Legal Skills and Connections:  Lucy recommends applying to public interest agencies with a very well-rounded story.  Think about what you can bring to the organization outside of your legal skills.  Do you have a passion for their work because of your family circumstances or something that happened to you?  Can you bring fundraising ideas or connections to help the organization meet its mission through financial support?  Can you help the organization partner with other lawyers, firms, or organizations to accomplish its mission?  If not, can you develop those connections and do you have a plan for doing so?

Go Off the Beaten Path: Lucy knew she wanted to go straight into public interest work so when she looked for the best opportunities, she looked at  out of the way places where she could develop as a lawyer quickly.  “There are many organizations that operate in rural communities, for example, doing excellent legal work with broad impacts but have a very hard time with recruitment because of their location.  I had the opportunity to do trials and appellate work on major cases very early in my career because I was willing and able to move where those opportunities were.   As a bonus, I was able to save  money because the cost of living was so much lower and discovered that I loved living in a rural area.”  The short version of the story: “The more mobility and flexibility you can have in your job search, the more likely it is that you will be able to go directly into public interest work.”

Look at Plaintiff’s Side Law Firms: Julia recommends you also look at working for a plaintiff’s side law firm.  “There are a lot of small-midsize plaintiffs firms who do great social justice work.  You can find firms that specialize in public sector work, employment rights, even some First Amendment rights firms.  You do not hear about these that much in law school so you have to be willing to work a little harder to find them.  Talk to your professors, people in the public interest world who you might meet, look for lists of these firms online or through your Career Services Center.  These firms can be a great way to pay down some of your debt and get great public interest experience at the same time.” 

Join the Relevant Sections of the Bar:  A great way to network for public interest work is to join the sections of the Bar Association that deal with your area of interest.  For example, Julia made a lot of connections through the Labor and Employment Law Section of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. 

I’ve Graduated and I’m Looking to Get Into Public Interest Work

Finally, if you have already graduated and you want to get into public interest work, Julia and Lucy offer an additional tip.  Work on pro bono cases or volunteer (if you can find the time) for agencies and organizations that work on the issue that is important to you.  If you want to work on immigration issues, try to do pro bono asylum cases.  If you are interested in constitutional pro bono work, try to get substantive experience on those types of cases both through your regular and your pro bono practices.  In this sense, actions often speak louder than words.  By committing your time to these issues, you are demonstrating your passion for them.  Lucy cautions, however, not to lose hope if that is not possible for you.  For example, if your volunteer or other time is constrained by your personal circumstances, do not be afraid to use those circumstances to explain your expertise in a different way.  If you grew up with an autistic sibling, for example, and, as a result, you learned a lot about legal issues affecting disabled people by dealing with the school system or medical groups, then that may be  relevant experience for the right public interest organization. 

Note: If you are anything like me, you have never approached networking or self promotion in a systematic way.  In fact, you may be terrified of it.  Yet, our ability to network and self promote is essential for building a client base, building our own name, and building our careers.  Each month I’m going to tackle one strategy for networking or self promotion in an effort to help all of us break the chains we’ve put around ourselves and begin building new links.  If you have a topic you’d like covered, e-mail me at    

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