About Public Interest Law
Public interest law is not a substantive area of law or a practice area in the same sense as, for example, criminal law, family law, or employment law. Rather, public interest lawyers work in many different practice areas and for a broad range of employers. Public interest lawyers may do litigation or transactional work. A public interest career can involve administrative law, appellate practice, landlord-tenant issues, or prisoners' rights, and, increasingly, employment, immigration, health, and elder law are all subject areas in which there are public interest careers. Many public interest lawyers represent indigent clients and have frequent client contact, but others focus on public policy issues, analyze or draft legislation, or are involved in lobbying.
One common denominator of public interest jobs is that they often provide representation for causes or groups that are not adequately served by the for-profit bar. Another is that a public interest law career usually involves working for a non-profit organization or, in some cases, a government agency. A third is that public interest organizations are generally struggling for funding, and salary ranges and benefits are low. However, despite low salaries, competition for public interest jobs is strong, and lawyers who pursue public interest careers find a deep sense of personal and professional satisfaction in their work.
For information about Criminal Law, see the Criminal Law Curriculum Guide.
Note: Whether a particular course is scheduled depends on faculty availability and student demand. View the Course Descriptions for more information about each course and when it's offered.
Employers will expect that a student interested in public interest law will have participated in at least one clinical course.
Students interested in public interest law should consider including one or more of the following courses as electives.
Many of these courses deepen or broaden the skills and substantive information that a public interest lawyer needs, and also provide advanced courses for students interested in a specialty within the broad field of public interest law.
- Equal Employment Law
- Federal Jurisdiction
- Federal Law and Indian Tribes
- Health Law and Administration
- Law & Contemporary Problems:
- Human Trafficking
- Nonprofit and Philanthropic Organizations
- Immigration Law
- Selected Problems in International Law: Climate Change, Human Rights and the Environment
- Labor and Employment Law
- Taxation I
- Trial Advocacy
Clinics, Internships, & Externships
Students interested in a public interest career should participate in at least one clinical program. Listed below are civil clinics and externships. For criminal law clinics, see the full list of clinical opportunities.
Center for Patient Partnerships
The Center for Patient Partnerships is a national resource for strengthening the consumer perspective in health care and building more effective partnerships among patients, providers, and other stakeholders.
Consumer Law Clinic
The Consumer Law Clinic represents low- and moderate-income consumers in individual and class action lawsuits in federal and state courts. The Clinic operates year-round and is open to students who have completed their first year of law school. The Consumer Law Clinic trains students in all aspects of civil litigation.
Department of Justice Clinical Externship Program
Students work in various civil units of the Wisconsin Department of Justice. The program offers law students a unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience in public advocacy and litigation. Externs practice trial, appellate and administrative law with some of the state's most well-respected litigators, working on matters of statewide importance. A weekly seminar accompanies the placement.
Family Court Clinic
The Family Court Clinic is a program designed to help make the legal system more accessible to low-income, unrepresented people with divorce, post-divorce, paternity, and restraining order matters. Students do not serve as advocates, but rather as facilitators/mediators, working with the parties to prepare cases for decision. Students undergo in-depth skills training in interviewing, counseling, and negotiations, and learn the nuts and bolts of family law.
Family Law Project
The Family Law Project is a civil law project serving incarcerated clients. Students in the Family Law Project, like those in the Legal Assistance to Institutionalized Persons Project, work under the direct supervision of clinical faculty to provide legal assistance to state and federal prison inmates throughout Wisconsin. The clinical, which is available to second- and third-year law students, requires a two-semester commitment.
Labor Law Externship
The Labor Law Externship provides placements for students in a labor law setting. Students spend two days a week working under the supervision of attorneys of the National Labor Relations Board in Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission in Madison, the Department of Labor's Chicago regional office, or in other similar agencies. They attend hearings, write draft opinions, conduct legal research, write memos, and in general are exposed to the broad range of work done by the agency.
Neighborhood Law Clinic
The Neighborhood Law Project provides a broad range of legal services designed to enhance the economic well-being of the residents of one of Madison's neighborhoods. The Neighborhood Law Project is open to students who have completed their first year of law school. The project is a two-semester commitment, and includes a weekly seminar in addition to the clinical work.
Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic
The Unemployment Compensation Appeals Clinic is staffed by volunteer student advocates who assist clients in obtaining unemployment compensation benefits. Student advocates work closely with supervising attorneys and gain litigation and case management experience while helping those in need of benefits who cannot afford representation.
Second and third-year students can earn academic credit and gain hands-on experience at a wide variety of nonprofit organizations that do public interest work. Examples include externships at End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, where students assist with legal inquiries and research regarding domestic violence issues; externships at Midwest Environmental Advocates, Wisconsin's only non-profit environmental law firm, working with MEA lawyers on litigation, rule-making and policy development at the state and local level; and externships at Disability Rights Wisconsin, the state's protection and advocacy agency for persons with serious disabilities. These and many more externships at public interest organizations can be done through the Law Externship course.
Student Organizations and Related Activities
Employers look for a demonstrated commitment to public interest law and a commitment to public service shown by a history of volunteer activities. There are many volunteer opportunities in the Madison community and through the Student Bar Association.
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
- American Constitution Society
- Children's Justice Project
- Environmental Law Society (ELS)
- Mock Trial
- National Lawyers Guild
- Wisconsin Public Interest Law Foundation (UW-PILF)
For a full list of student organizations at UW Law, view the Student Organizations, Journals, & Activities.
Here are some of the full-time faculty who teach or have an interest in public interest law (non-criminal):
- Tonya Brito, Family Law
- R. Alta Charo, Bioethics; Food & Drug Law; Health Law; Reproductive Rights Law
- Sarah Davis, Health Law; Consumer Law; Patient Advocacy
- Meg Gaines, Health Law; Patient Advocacy
- Linda Greene, Civil Rights; Constitutional Law; Legislation
- Alexandra Huneeus, Human Rights Law
- Heinz Klug, Human Rights Law; Comparative Law
- Marsha Mansfield, Family Law; Consumer Law
- Richard Monette, Indian Law
- David Schwartz, Civil Rights; Constitutional Law
- Leslie Shear, Family Law; Juvenile Law
- Stephanie Tai, Environmental Law; Natural Resources Law
In addition to our full-time faculty, the Law School's adjunct faculty members — prominent practicing lawyers and judges — bring their specialized knowledge and experience to the classroom. Filter by "Adjunct" in the Law School Directory for a full list.