Another distinction among lawyers is between those who work in private firms and/or for companies, and those who work for government or in non-profit work. The first type is generally referred to as “private practice” while the second is called “public interest” (or, occasionally, “public service”). Attorneys in private practice working in a law firm are generally paid (directly or indirectly) by their clients on either an hourly or flat rate basis. (“Associates” are paid on salary, while “partners” have an equity interest in the firm – both sets depend on paying clients to fund their income and/or equity interest.) Attorneys working for companies (“in-house counsel”) and those working in government or non-profits are usually on salary – their clients are generally not paying for the legal representation at all. Rather the firm pays the attorneys a set rate based on their experience and expertise. Salaries are generally lower in public interest, although the discrepancies are smaller in smaller cities and towns than in big cities.
Attorneys in private practice represent individuals or companies. Those in public service (government) represent or advise federal, state or local government agencies and officials. Public interest attorneys work on behalf of organizations and/or causes, or on behalf of individuals who cannot afford private attorneys (usually in “legal aid” or “legal services” organizations). Some public interest attorneys are employed by the government to represent indigent criminal defendants—“public defenders.”
You may hear some generalizations about private practice and public interest attorneys—for example, that one group works longer hours than the other, or that new attorneys are more likely to receive excellent on-the-job training in one or another. You should approach such generalizations with a good degree of skepticism—there is tremendous variation among the different types of practice settings within and across these categories.