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Aha! Why We Should Fully Fund Public Interest Internships

06/24/2016 10:33 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

Like most public interest lawyers, we remember our own "aha!" moments. They happened when we were using our fledgling legal skills to make a difference on an issue we cared deeply about and realized, "this is what I want to do with my legal career!"

Today, more than ever, students are going to law school with a passionate commitment to serve others by practicing public interest law. Unfortunately, far too many of them are being derailed by the crushing burden of their student loans. A key part of the solution is fully funding public interest legal internships.

Internships are an opportunity to put theory into practice, to serve clients, to learn from experienced lawyers, and to develop connections that will lead to future job opportunities. Unfortunately, student loans cause some public service-minded law students to pass up a public interest internship for one at a private firm - where they can earn enough to cover some of their debts. While work at private law firms is often rewarding and valuable, law students should not be driven to private firms solely because of outlandish and burdensome debts. Nonprofit legal internships therefore are vital to enable students to explore multiple career options. Without public interest internships, young law students may miss an opportunity to learn about the joys and challenges of long-term public interest careers from experienced attorneys. They also miss out on the connections and resources needed to compete for scarce job positions at nonprofits. In making a practical choice to lower their loans, students may miss out on an "aha!" moment that could turn them toward public interest work.

Many law schools do their part to make summer non-profit experiences possible, by offering stipends of several thousand dollars to students who spend their summers working with non-profit organizations. Georgetown University Law Center guarantees summer funding for any student who works unpaid in a public interest organization. But, for many students, these stipends are not enough to make a summer non-profit internship possible.

The National Health Law Program (NHeLP) has tackled this problem by creating its own internship program. NHeLP is a public interest organization, founded in 1969, protecting and advancing the rights of low-income individuals to access quality health care. The Emily Spitzer Internship Program, founded in honor of NHeLP's previous executive director, offers up to $10,000 each to three law students placed in NHeLP's offices in D.C., California and North Carolina. The vision behind the internship is to develop the next generation of lawyers who will work to advance health rights for low-income people, by giving law students a chance to experience public interest work before they make their career choices. Georgetown is committed to a partner fellowship with NHeLP. To encourage the connection between Georgetown and the Spitzer Internship, Georgetown will contribute the summer stipend Georgetown makes available to students who intern at non-profits toward the total award, up to $10,000, a Spitzer intern receives.

Equal Justice Works provides a $1,212 Segal Education Award to 755 students every year who accept public interest internships and externships that provide less than $4,300 in funding as part of its AmeriCorps JD program. Thanks to generous funding from the Legal Services Corporation, in 2016 the organization will introduce a new Rural Summer Legal Corps that will provide 30 law students with $4,000. Those students can add on additional funds from their law school or somewhere else, or opt for an additional $1,212 stipend in the form of a Segal Education Award.

As the justice gap in this country continues to grow, there is a tremendous and growing need for lawyers willing to forgo large salaries and work on behalf of low-income people and the public good. All of us in the legal community have a responsibility to make that possible. Fully funding public interest internships is an important step in the right direction. These internships will be crucial in giving more law students the opportunity to fully experience public interest legal work. For many, it will lead to their own "aha" moments - small revelations that will propel them on to their own long-term public interest careers.

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