Exploring Public Interest/Public Sector Careers

Exploring Public Interest/Public Sector Careers

Public interest legal careers exist in almost every practice area, at all levels of government, and in both the public and private sectors. Explore some of the major practice settings for public interest law below.

Federal Government

Opportunities for legal work in the federal government exist at almost every federal agency and in locations across the country and the world, not just Washington, DC. Federal government attorneys may litigate, work in transactional roles, or provide policy advice and counsel. In general, post-graduate entry-level attorney hiring into federal agencies occurs through agency-specific programs known as “Honors Programs.”

More commonly referred to as the “Arizona Guide” this resource is a compilation of legal internships in government.  The resource primarily focuses on opportunities in the federal government, but some state internships are also included.  This is a resource that requires a subscription, so students must log in to the law school portal to access the username and password information.
To access the AZ Guide, log into the GW Law Portal, Under Department Info, click “Career Center”>“General Information”>“Log-in credentials and passwords.” The login and password information are located on this page.
  • Use this guide to review summer, fall, and spring internship opportunities at Federal government agencies and some state agencies.
  • Detailed information by class year, contact information for hiring agencies, and application deadlines are set forth in this guide.
The Department of Justice hires almost all of its law student interns through the Voluntary Legal Internship Program. Every year, a small number of 2L students are selected for paid positions in the Summer Law Intern Program (SLIP) through an application process in early September. The substance of the work that interns do is the same across these two programs. Post-graduate hiring is done through the DOJ Honors Program.
In each branch of the armed forces, attorneys serve as commissioned officers known as Judge Advocates. JAGs provide legal assistance across a wide range of practice areas, both civil and criminal.
In addition to the positions listed in the Govt Honors and Internship Handbook, federal internships and full-time positions are available on usajobs.gov.
The PMF program is a flagship entry-level leadership and hiring program for students with advanced degrees. Once selected as finalists in the PMF program, Fellows participate in hiring fairs to find appointments with federal agencies throughout the government. The application is typically open for a brief period in October or November.
Information and resources about federal government hiring.
The Office of Personnel Management oversees the Pathways Program, designed to help students and recent graduates find employment in the federal government. As part of the Pathways program, several types of potential opportunities exist:
The Pathways Internship Program provides paid internships for currently-enrolled students. Students who complete the program may be eligible for conversion to permanent employment.
The Recent Graduates Program provides career development opportunities intended to promote potential careers in the civil service to individuals who, within the previous two years, graduated with a qualifying degree (including a J.D.). To be eligible, applicants must apply within two years of completion of their degree; veterans have up to six years to apply. Successful applicants are placed in a dynamic, developmental program with the potential to lead to a civil service career in the federal government.
Attorneys on Capitol Hill may work in various legislative or policy roles in the offices of of individual members of Congress, or they may work as staff attorneys on House and Senate Committees. Although many members and committees regularly hire for semester and summer positions, post-graduate hiring is decentralized and does not occur on a regular timeline. Most jobs are filled through word-of-mouth, that is, networking!
The Leadership Directories.  This is a searchable database of leaders of major United States government, business, professional, and nonprofit organizations. You must be on campus to use this resource.

State and Local Government

State, city, and local government agencies and offices are also home to attorneys working on a variety of topics. These attorneys handle a wide range of civil and criminal matters and work in litigation, policy, and advising roles.

Note that the Guide also includes state and local government legal opportunities.  This is a resource that requires a subscription, so students must log in to the law school portal to access the username and password information.
To access the AZ Guide, log into the GW Law Portal, Under Department Info, click “Career Center”>“General Information”>“Log-in credentials and passwords.” The login and password information are located on this page.
  • Use this guide to review summer, fall, and spring internship opportunities at Federal government agencies and some state agencies.
  • Detailed information by class year, contact information for hiring agencies, and application deadlines are set forth in this guide.
Check the websites of your state’s Office of Attorney General, state executive agencies, and analogous city offices for additional legal opportunities.

Non-profit/NGOs

Non-profit/NGO legal work encompasses a huge range of issue areas and practice settings. Examples of legal non-profits include local legal service providers like legal aid organizations, impact litigation organizations that litigate large cases and class actions, and advocacy groups that study and promote policy change.

PSJD allows you to search by practice area and location to identify organizations doing the type of work you may be interested in.
Job listings in the PSJD database include internships (fall, spring, and summer), postgraduate fellowships, and a wide variety of permanent positions.  PSJD also includes over 13,000 organizational profiles for nonprofit, government, and other public interest employers spanning the globe.
  • Use the “Resource Center” to learn more about career paths in criminal law, government, and public interest.
  • Register with your law.gwu.edu email address to access job postings for government and public interest organizations.
  • Use the “Advanced Search” to search Jobs & Employers by practice area and geographic preferences.
International public interest work encompasses wide variety of issues and practice settings, including international human rights, development, foreign policy, and involvement with non-governmental organizations, inter-governmental organizations, and international courts and tribunals.
Resources for students interested in international opportunities are listed on the research resources page available here.  Scroll to the bottom of the page and review the resources identified under “Practice Setting: International.”  For a list of resources in a PDF document, click here.

Private-Public Interest Law Firms

Public interest law also exists in the private sector. Private-public interest firms, sometimes known as plaintiffs’ firms, advocate and bring cases in accordance with a specific policy goal or social vision, often on a contingency fee basis. Typical practice areas for these firms include employment discrimination, wage and hour, environmental, mass torts, products liability, consumer protection, fair housing, and other civil rights cases.

Labor Law

Labor law attorneys typically work on behalf of unions and their members, either as counsel for a union or as part of firm representing unions. The work may encompass negotiating collective bargaining agreements, enforcing those agreements, and litigation and policy work related to issues of concern to a union’s membership, including, for example, immigration, healthcare, and environmental issues.

The Peggy Browning Fund connects law students to opportunities in labor law and provides funding for summer internships.
The LCC is a national organization of more than 2100 union-side lawyers in more than 500 firms and union legal departments around the country. Their website includes internship, fellowship, and job postings.

Additional Resources

GW Law is a member school of this public interest/pro bono voluntary bar association. Visit their website for a calendar of WCL events, including panels, networking events, and skills trainings. Email publicinterest@law.gwu.edu for access to the WCL public interest jobs digest.