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USC Gould School of Law

We pioneered the field of public interest legal education with the first modern legal aid program — the Legal Clinic at USC, founded in 1929 — in which students gained hands-on training in the delivery of legal services to the poor. It became a model for other law schools across the country. By the time the clinic evolved into the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles in 1937, our students and faculty had assisted more than 19,000 clients from dozens of countries. Later, in the 1960s, USC Gould housed what would become California’s oldest and largest legal services support center — the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which is still going strong.

This rich tradition of leadership in and commitment to public interest law continues today. Each year our students contribute some 2,500 hours of pro bono service. No matter what area of the law you ultimately pursue, by focusing on public interest law at USC Gould, you will build a solid foundation for legal practice while making a meaningful difference for those in need.

Receive Scholarships and Recognition for Public Service Work

Selected JD Public Interest Scholars receive a merit-based scholarship and guaranteed, funded summer employment after their first year of law school.

The longstanding, student-run Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) — one of the largest student groups at USC Gould — funds students pursuing public interest work over the summer through PILF grants. The nonprofit PILF also builds community by organizing pro bono clinic opportunities during the school year for student volunteers, and hosts lectures and events at the law school about public interest law issues. PILF also honors a student, attorney and pro bono attorney of the year each spring.

In addition, USC Gould honors student work in public interest law with the following annual awards:

  • The Miller-Johnson Equal Justice Prize recognizes a student who demonstrates commitment to public interest and social justice throughout the law school, university and community. The award combines the names of two inspiring individuals: Loren Miller, the son of a former slave, who was a distinguished civil rights attorney in California, and Earl Johnson, the award’s first recipient who was then a member of our faculty and who directed the federal Office of Economic Opportunity’s Legal Service Program. Johnson created an endowment at the law school to recognize the student who shows the greatest commitment to the cause of civil and social justice.
  • The Shattuck Award recognizes outstanding students for their contributions to the law school and to the community through their social justice work.

Earn a Certificate

By completing 20 or more units of specified coursework, along with writing and practical experience requirements, you may complement your JD degree with a Public Interest Law certificate. You may earn multiple certificates concurrently, as some courses count toward more than one certificate.

The Public Interest Law certificate also includes a significant mentorship component, ensuring each student benefits from an advisory relationship with someone who can connect the student with public service opportunities, course advising and counsel about career, summer employment and post-graduate fellowship choices.

Obtain Practical Experience

Our Housing Law and Policy ClinicImmigration ClinicInternational Human Rights ClinicMediation Clinic and Post-Conviction Justice Project give JD students the opportunity to handle pro bono, real-life cases and advocacy projects working directly with low-income clients on critically important legal issues. You might represent asylum seekers or clients in parole hearings, help document conditions in immigration detention facilities, assist with cases being litigated in international courts and tribunals, and work alongside community groups and local leaders to address housing-crisis challenges.

In addition, USC Gould JD students may enroll in one of our externships or hands-on practicum courses, such as the Access to Justice Practicum, the Legislative Policy Practicum, the Medical-Legal Community Partnership Seminar and Practicum, and the Veterans Legal Practicum, which offer further hands-on training in public interest law.

Volunteer in Public Interest

Just a few of the many volunteer opportunities in public interest law at USC Gould include Legal Aid Alternative Breaks (LAAB), which sponsors trips to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast to provide crucial legal services to those rebuilding their lives; the Justice Bus Project, which takes teams of attorney and law student volunteers to set up free legal clinics for low-income Californians in rural and isolated communities; Latino Law Students Association’s Teen Court, a diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders in lieu of formal court proceedings; and Street Law, a nationally recognized educational outreach effort that teaches legal literacy to local high school students.

Our Office of Public Service coordinates and supports external service learning at the law school, including public interest, pro bono and community service activities, and serves as a resource to students and the community.

Learn From Leaders in the Field

In conjunction with USC Gould student organizations, the area of public interest law offers a series of speakers and events throughout the year on public interest law, nonprofit and government-sector jobs and postgraduate fellowships, and building community. Our annual Public Interest Career Fair brings representatives from more than 30 nonprofit organizations and government agencies to campus to expose students to a wide variety of opportunities to practice in public interest law.

Gain Lifelong Support

Our commitment to our students continues throughout their professional lives. Many public interest lawyers start their careers with fellowships. At USC Gould, we offer the one-year Irmas Fellowship to a graduating student each year, and USC Gould students along with USC public policy and business graduates can compete for the Clinton-Orfalea-Brittingham Fellowship, which supports recipients’ work at the Clinton Foundation for a full year. We also help students compete for national fellowships, including the Skadden, Equal Justice Works, Pacific Legal Foundation, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Echoing Green fellowships.

In addition, our Post-Graduate Program provides recent USC Gould graduates with the opportunity to be paid through grant funding as volunteer lawyers in a nonprofit or public service organization for up to 12 months. The grant has supported nearly 200 attorneys at a variety of host organizations, including UNESCO, the National Center for Youth Law, public defender’s offices, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the New York City Law Department.

Our Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) helps those in low-paid jobs manage their loans, while the Career Services Center assists both recent and older graduates with employment transitions. PILF welcomes alumni back for the annual auction and as advisory board members.