Northeastern’s law school rated top in the US for public interest law

students walk by northeastern’s top rated law school
Northeastern’s law school, where social justice lawyering and experiential learning are a focus, was named the top US law school for public interest law. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Northeastern University School of Law, whose graduates include a state attorney general who sued a debt collection company, a pending White House nominee to be the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, and a former U.S. senator, was named top in the nation for public interest law.

PreLaw magazine, whose readers are mostly prospective law students, ranked Northeastern No. 1 in the recently published “Back to School” edition. Emily Massell, a second-year student and associate editor of the Northeastern University Law Review, was featured on the magazine’s cover.

Public interest law means having an impact on society, ‘which is important for us as a law school,’ says James Hackney, dean of the law school. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Northeastern University is a prime example of a school that places an emphasis on funneling lawyers into that field,” the magazine wrote in the article titled “Best Schools for Public Service.”

Northeastern has claimed top honors in the past for its public interest work, but as recently as 2020 it was in third place. In rising to the top spot this year, Northeastern edged out the City University of New York and several schools in the University of California system.

Schools were graded on three categories―employment, curricula related to the field, and debt and loan repayment options.

The national ranking is also a recognition of Northeastern Law’s dual mission of social justice lawyering and experiential learning, professors say.

Public interest is a broad topic, encompassing everything from immigration law to public health to representing domestic violence victims, says James Hackney, dean of Northeastern’s law school since 2018. “It means impact on society, which is important for us as a law school,” he says.

Historically there has been a narrow view of public interest law that is usually framed in terms of direct client representation, Hackney adds, “but there are so many other ways to impact the public good.”

For example, Northeastern’s Center for Public Interest Advocacy and Collaboration (CPIAC) works in concert with the Center for Law, Innovation and Creativity and the Center for Health Policy and Law, Hackney says. “All three of them intersect, so although one is designated public interest, the other two have a public interest impact as well.”

Stephanie Hartung serves as a resident fellow at the CPIAC, where she is involved with Northeastern’s Cradle-to-Prison (C2P) Pipeline project, an interdisciplinary research initiative that studies the systems funneling children and youth toward incarceration in Massachusetts.

She also directs the school’s Legal Skills in Social Context program, unique among law schools in that it offers first-year students the opportunity to work at a non-profit legal organization to address systemic inequities in the law, including housing, voting rights, education, and criminal justice.

Law professor Stephanie Hartung (left), started her career as a public defender, and now works on a youth incarceration project. Morgan Wilson (right) is a Northeastern Law graduate who works as a legal fellow in the Domestic Violence Institute.

“Through this collaborative work, students not only develop critical lawyering skills such as collaboration, creative thinking, and problem-solving, but they are also exposed to ongoing systemic inequities and work side-by-side with organizations seeking to address them in meaningful ways,” says Hartung, who started her career as a public defender.

Seeing Northeastern’s public interest legal work being recognized as the best in the country “shines a national light on what we at Northeastern Law already know—our students gain the experience, insight, and inspiration through their law school curriculum, co-op, and clinical experiences to become conscientious lawyers,” she adds.

Law students in the graduating class of 2021 performed 137,000 hours of public interest co-ops, and 36 percent of them went into public interest jobs, according to Hackney.

Morgan Wilson graduated from the law program in 2017 and now works for the university’s Domestic Violence Institute as a legal fellow. There, she often works with clients who have several legal matters going at the same time.

“Someone facing abuse might choose to stay in a difficult relationship because they’re concerned about housing instability and food instability. They have kids. They might be a homemaker. They’re concerned that they don’t have the financial capital to move out. They might be concerned about their immigration status,” Wilson says.

She adds that one of the hallmarks of Northeastern Law is that it goes beyond using case law to make a point, but sees clients in the totality of their lives.

“The university recognizes the importance of holistic lawyering that includes wraparound care,” she says. “That manifests in both the way that they teach their doctrinal classes and their elective offerings as well as their clinical program.”

Wilson always knew she wanted to go into a career field where she could serve others. Prior to Northeastern, she was a political appointee at the Justice Department in the Obama administration. It was there she saw how sentencing disparities, lack of constitutional and civil protections, coupled with access to justice issues had a disparate impact on certain people.

“So for me, I always knew that legal services is where I wanted to end up,” she says. “When I looked at law schools, I looked at schools where I knew that that interest in serving others would be not only recognized but prioritized.”

Perhaps that explains why law faculty feel so fortunate to teach students who are passionate about justice, many of whom come to law school with experience as community activists and reformers under their belts, says Hartung.

“It is a joy and an inspiration to teach students who we know have the capacity to change law and policy for the better in meaningful ways,” she says.

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