For generations considered the public service degree, the Juris Doctor (JD)—the degree earned after successfully completing three years of law school—is now one of many well-respected degrees that can help you fulfill your social impact career goals.
Public interest law refers to legal practice and education that benefits issues such as civil rights and civil liberties, people living in poverty, environmental protection, immigrants' rights, women's rights, and consumer rights. Public interest lawyers can work in a wide variety of roles, including as advocates and lobbyists on issues they care about; policy makers and legislators; and legal counselors representing clients directly.
Law students develop a specific set of skills that can apply to diverse settings, from the courtroom to Capitol Hill, from the boardroom to a prison holding cell. Public interest lawyers serve the homeless, work for environmental causes, represent indigent clients, and write policy for lawmakers. They run nonprofits, they teach, and they work to make the world a better place.
Law school will teach you how to analyze problems from a variety of perspectives, how laws are written, and how courts interpret laws. You will learn how to be an effective advocate for your cause and how to use the law to improve the lives of others.
While no degree in "public interest law" exists, you can get a legal education that prepares you to practice in nonprofit and government settings where the bulk of public interest work occurs. See the "What to look for in a law school" section for details about what schools may offer you in support of your social impact career goals. But beware—the culture of each law school differs drastically so it's crucial to learn as much as you can about the support available to public interest-minded students at each of your target schools.
Finally, a word about financing a legal education: many people enter law school with the intention of using their law degree in a nonprofit setting, only to buckle under the weight of student loan debt. If you are concerned about affording your degree, take a look at the section on "Challenges of a public interest law degree".