Public interest practice embodies more than just lower pay

By Julie Chen Allen

Meaningful work is often what draws most public interest practitioners to not-for-profit employers.

However, with this year’s struggling economy, the bursting burdens of low salaries, poor benefits and mounting workloads have reached dire proportions and have worn down both practitioners and employers.

“The economy has had a huge impact on public interest law,” said Sally Carlson, director of communications at Equal Justice Works (EJW), a non-profit organization that provides Fellowships for public interest attorneys nationwide. “Legal aid budgets have been cut, just as the need for legal aid is increasing. Many legal aid organizations have had to cut staff, and the workloads for those who are left have become untenable.”

Worse, the last two years brought falling interest rates that tanked earnings normally accrued in Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTAs), according to Steve Barr, director of media relations at Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a major federal funder for legal aid organizations. 

In a rosy economy with high interest rates, earnings from these accounts would have provided a source of funding for public legal assistance.

The good news is that the government has not turned a blind eye. On July 22, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $430 million in Fiscal Year 2011 funding for the LSC. Of that amount, $401.7 million will provide grants for the delivery of civil legal assistance to low-income Americans.

Maunica Sthanki, a public interest immigration lawyer, works to bring deportees back to the U.S.  When the earthquake hit Haiti in January, she didn’t know whether her clients were dead or alive.

“One was buried under a building for four days and his home was demolished,” said Sthanki. “What was really challenging was that [my] clients were dealing with a catastrophe, and I was asking them to find paperwork, get to a fax machine, and talk to us so we can prepare them for their cases.”

Sthanki, who supervises the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project at Boston College in Massachusetts, is clearly humbled and inspired by her work.

“Nearly 400,000 people are deported every year and their families are split apart,” she said. “My job is to try to bring families back together.”

Practicing public interest law advances social justice or other causes for the public good.  This might mean representing evicted tenants in small claims court, obtaining protective orders for domestic violence victims in family court, or negotiating for better working conditions for employees in administrative grievances. The causes can be diverse.

Although public interest employment is primarily with non-profit organizations, many also count government agencies, public defender offices and international non-governmental watchdogs.

At any rate, one cannot be a tenderfoot to embark on this path less traveled.

“When you call a corporate law firm, you get the secretary. [Corporate] lawyers get Blackberries,” Sthanki points out. “When you call me, you get…me. At my last employer, we didn’t have cell phone reimbursements but we are expected to use our [personal] cell phones to complete our jobs. The problem is not just with loan repayment.”

When the already low salaries struggle against national rates of inflation, and there isn’t sufficient structural, financial or administrative support, attorneys easily burn out, said Sthanki.

So why would anyone even consider working for the public interest?

“My personal goal was to make a difference every single day and fight injustice - every single day,” Sthanki said. “I don’t think I can achieve that goal at a firm.”

Yasmin Yavar, who currently serves as Pro Bono coordinator at the Kids in Need of Defense program in Texas, quit a firm job to work for the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) after paying off law school debts.

She has no regrets.

“I feel strongly that whether I am serving a million dollar client or an indigent one, they should get the best of my skills,” Yavar said. 

For Sthanki’s Haitian client, her legal representation offers the only opportunity to legally return to the U.S. to reunite with his family and special-needs children. 

“It’s a difficult choice to make and always a challenge to balance the desires of work that fulfills you and the work that pays your bills,” Sthanki said. “But I would have still made the [same] choice."