From Yale Law: “A public interest law firm is a private, for-profit association of lawyers, like any other private law firm. Public interest law firms are distinguished from other private firms in that their primary mission is to assist underrepresented people or causes, rather than to make money.” So, full disclosure, most of what I do is public interest law, but I still need to make enough to pay my bills and take care of my family, or I wouldn’t be in business very long. So, one must balance helping people, at low/reduced fees, and making sure that the firm is sustainable.
I was not planning on being a lawyer. My family is full of lawyers and I said early on when I was reading my visually impaired mom her law books before the age of ten; that was not what I wanted to do. However after serving in Peace Corps, I changed my mind and decided to go to law school so that I could represent people who are underrepresented. I originally was going to handle a general practice for the immigrant community. When I started practicing law I had a much different last name and when I went back to my maiden name, after a divorce, not as many people from other countries wanted to hire me (as I a woman), so instead I changed my practice to one that handles mostly Social Security Disability and Bankruptcy. Still, I was helping people with very little money and trying to get them back on their feet. I also still handled things like traffic court and simple Wills and represented people regardless of their ethnicity or any other category there were in. I also represent people who I don’t agree with politically, as long as they didn’t have an issue with who else I represent.
By treating everyone equally, I also began to do a lot of work with the LGBT+ community. I was handling their cases just like every other one, which lead to some people coming in from all over the Commonwealth of Kentucky for me to do things like draft a simple Will for them, so that they knew I wouldn’t have an issue with representing them. That led to me handling the first same-sex bankruptcy filing in the State of Kentucky, for clients who had been married in another State. Once that was finished, it led to filing for same-sex marriage recognition and then requests for marriage licenses to be issued in the State of Kentucky, which led us to the U.S. Supreme Court. That was a great experience and was not a typical cases, as I still represent the general public for the same types of cases, but occasionally still do take on groups like Louisville Metro Police Department and the City of Louisville for a rogue cop.
I still have to balance the fact the business has to be sustainable with taking cases that I don’t get paid on. (Now, those are cases I choose not to be paid on, or to get paid when we win, like Social Security cases, not just when a client doesn’t pay me as that is completely different). To do public interest law you have to have a passion for it, as that is the only way to sustain your work, and yourself, long-term.