Public Interest Law

Career Path Introduction

Public interest law is the practice of law to advance the welfare of society, particularly with regard to social and environmental justice, human and civil rights, child welfare, civil liberties, access to justice and countering discrimination.

Public interest attorneys can be found in a broad number of practice areas. Some focus on immigration, human rights, access to justice, housing, animal rights or sexual orientation rights. Others focus on environmental advocacy, domestic violence, children's rights, bankruptcy and consumer debt, prisoners' rights and wrongful conviction, or homelessness.

A public interest lawyer's clients can range from advocacy organizations and nonprofits to self-represented civil litigants, criminal defendants, at-risk children, aggrieved tenants, victims of domestic violence, prisoners, medical patients, homeless persons and the public at large.

Public interest lawyers work in legal aid societies, prosecutors' and public defenders' offices, state attorney generals' offices, and local or national public advocacy organizations such as the National Disability Rights Network and the NAACP. Others work for the pro bono programs of large law firms.

They may work for international nongovernmental organizations such as Greenpeace International and Human Rights Watch or for intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and its agencies. Others work for the U.S. Department of Justice or for any number of state and local government agencies entrusted with furthering the public good.

On a typical day, public interest lawyers may assist human trafficking victims in applying for immigration visas or back wages. They may lobby to strengthen anti-pesticide laws to protect the children of farm workers. They may represent low-income defendants in criminal court. They may represent human rights victims before international courts or tribunals, or file class actions on behalf of indigenous people seeking to regain their land.

Dina Nikitaides '05

Dina Nikitaides '05

Dina Nikitaides '05 is the interactive content manager for Illinois Legal Aid Online, where she leverages technology to make legal aid resources more accessible to the public.


Public interest lawyers benefit from well-honed legal writing, oral advocacy and negotiating skills; strong powers of empathy and listening skills; and a high level of motivation to help others and advance the public welfare.

During law school, students can gain valuable experience in public interest law as volunteers at advocacy organizations and as externs at state and local government offices and agencies, including state's attorneys' and public defenders' offices.

Related Chicago-Kent offerings:

Students who complete a set number of volunteer service hours while in law school may be eligible for the Chicago-Kent Certificate of Service (50 hours) or the Dean's Distinguished Public Service Award (250 hours).

Chicago-Kent offers a J.D. Certificate in Public Interest Law for students who have a special interest in human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, social justice, increasing access to justice, or battling discrimination.

>> Learn about the certificate program curriculum and requirements.

>> View J.D. courses relating to public interest law.

>> Visit the J.D. Certificate Program in Public Interest Law faculty page to learn about Chicago-Kent faculty who teach courses focusing primarily on areas relating to the public interest.

Academic Centers and Institutes

The Center for Access to Justice & Technology works to make justice more accessible to the public by promoting the use of the Internet in the teaching, practice, and public access to the law.

Student Organizations

The Kent Justice Foundation is dedicated to increasing law student awareness of public interest law issues and opportunities. Through fundraising events throughout the year, KJF raises thousands of dollars to fund summer fellowships for Chicago-Kent students who work for public interest agencies or government entities after their first or second year.

The Public Interest Resource Center serves students who are interested in public interest legal work and volunteerism in general by helping them find volunteer opportunities based on their interests, time commitment and location.

The Street Law Society provides law students opportunities to give back to their community by promoting the education of Chicagoland students by developing lesson plans, conducting and participating in panel discussions, and mentoring high school students.

The Student Humanitarian Network evolved from the Chicago-Kent chapter of the Student Hurricane Network, a national organiztion of law students dedicted to providing assistance to communities affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The Chicago-Kent organization has continued to support and organize law students who are interested in providing assistance to legal agencies involved in hurricane-related projects and additional areas as the city continues to rebuild.