Public interest attorneys dedicate their careers to furthering a particular cause or to helping a specific segment of the population, usually one whose members have historically been disadvantaged or underrepresented. Public interest legal work consists of three major activities, which often overlap: providing direct services to clients, conducting impact litigation, and lobbying. Some examples of public interest legal work include helping an immigrant client petition the government for citizenship, providing representation for a victim of domestic violence, contesting a ruling by the Social Security Administration on behalf of an elderly client, bringing a class action lawsuit in order to set desirable legal precedent, working to raise awareness of civil rights violations, or lobbying against the death penalty. Public interest attorneys tend to work for organizations that are either policy-oriented or client-oriented, although some public interest organizations do not fit neatly into either category.

Policy-oriented organizations are dedicated to furthering specific causes or goals. They focus their work on lobbying and/or impact litigation. That is, they advocate for legislative action that will help them fulfill their mission and they undertake representation with the goal of creating new legal policies that will affect a large number of people. They may also partake in grassroots efforts and community outreach and education as part of their work. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund are examples of well-known policy-oriented organizations. Attorneys at policy-oriented organizations generally engage in lobbying, impact litigation, and other activities that raise the public's awareness of certain causes.

Client-oriented organizations, on the other hand, often provide direct legal services for free or at a reduced cost to individuals who in many cases would not otherwise have the means to pay. Some of these organizations handle a wide range of issues (family, health, housing, and Social Security being among the most common), while others focus on only one or two areas of law. Some also serve particular populations, such as veterans or disabled people. Attorneys at client-oriented organizations such as Legal Services of Northern California and the Children's Law Center of California generally work closely with their clients, concentrating on their individual cases. They often spend their time counseling clients, drafting pleadings, and appearing in court.

Despite the strong demand for public interest legal work, the job market for public interest attorneys is among the most competitive. This is because public interest organizations want to hire only committed, high-quality attorneys and usually do not have the resources to maintain large staffs. Since public interest organizations tend to rely on grants and other outside sources of funding to support their services, often they must wait for grant awards or donations to come through before they can hire a new staff member. It also leaves the organization with less resources to offer an attorney than are typically available at private firms.

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