‘Admissible’ S3 E2: Public Interest Careers and Community at UVA Law

Leah Gould
September 29, 2023

Assistant Dean for Public Service Leah Gould joins Dean Blazer to discuss how the Public Service Center helps set students up for successful careers, and how the public service community at UVA Law supports students throughout law school.


NATALIE BLAZER: Leah, I this from knowing you. But I really want to make sure our listeners what exactly you were doing in the Navy because it is so cool.

LEAH GOULD: OK, so on active duty, I flew Jets off of carriers, like carrier-based--

NATALIE BLAZER: Like Top Gun, just so everyone knows. And did you have a cool call-- what is it called?

LEAH GOULD: Oh, my call sign? Yes. My call sign was Gizmo.


LEAH GOULD: Yeah, Gizmo Gould.

NATALIE BLAZER: Wow. I might have to call you that from now on.

LEAH GOULD: I will still respond.


LEAH GOULD: I still respond to Gizmo.



This is Admissible. I'm Natalie Blazer, Dean of Admissions at UVA Law. I'm so excited to have our guest on today because she's going to talk about something I hear from applicants all the time, which is, I want to go to law school because I'm going to be a public service lawyer. My guest today is an expert on this topic. And I'm so excited to have her here on the show. Assistant Dean for Public Service, Leah Gould, leads the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center at UVA Law.

After graduating from the University of Colorado Law School, Gould clerked for a federal judge in Texas. She then joined the US Department of Justice Antitrust Division's New York City field office through the attorney general's honors program where she investigated and prosecuted price-fixing and bid-rigging schemes in the financial services industry. Dean Gould went on to serve as an assistant US attorney at the US Attorney's office for the District of New Jersey where she prosecuted a variety of federal criminal cases, including firearms, narcotics trafficking, child exploitation, and white-collar cases.

The Federal Law Enforcement Foundation named Dean Gould 2020 prosecutor of the Year for her work leading an international Dark Web narcotics and cryptocurrency money laundering case. Before practicing law, Dean Gould served as an officer in the US Navy. Dean Gould also co-founded the Brigid Alliance, a nonprofit based in New York.

Wow, welcome to the show, Dean Gould. And from here on out, since we are friends and colleagues, I will call you Leah if that's OK.

LEAH GOULD: Of course. Thank you for having me, Natalie.

NATALIE BLAZER: Yes. Before we get started, I have a new icebreaker for season three, which is, what are you currently reading for fun?

LEAH GOULD: Ooh, for fun? I don't if this is really fun because it does kind of go in line with the work of public service lawyers is, I'm reading Matthew Desmond's Poverty by America, which is about the economic injustice that I think we all see in our lives anecdotally. But it's supported by empirical studies and statistics that show the problems in this country and leading into our conversation, why we need more public service lawyers.

NATALIE BLAZER: Yeah, for a lawyer, that book does sound fun. I would consider that fun reading. I actually am starting this little mini lending library in my office where people can come borrow books. I we have a world class law library where you can get literally anything, but if you ever want something for fun to read like that, just come by.

OK, so to begin with, I want to define some terms that we've already been using a lot for the listeners. So in the legal world, we tend to use the terms public interest, public service somewhat interchangeably. So Leah, can you define what we mean when we say public interest or public service in relation to the law, for those who may not know?

LEAH GOULD: Sure. So I'll define it based on our conversation here. I don't think there's a universally accepted set of definitions. But for our purposes, we identify public service as essentially the career path where 100% of what you're doing is in the public service. And public interest is potentially an added component of your work, such as you're working at a law firm, and you take on pro bono cases that are in the public interest. So while you're not necessarily a public service lawyer, you are working in furtherance of the public interest.

NATALIE BLAZER: Got it. Got it. And so to delineate it even slightly further, today I want to talk about what the public interest community at UVA looks like and then also talk about the careers, as you pointed out, like to be a public service attorney. So let's start with the public interest community itself at UVA Law. Can you kind of walk us through, what does that mean to have a public service community at a law school?

LEAH GOULD: Sure. I like to think of it as essentially this wrap-around care and support for any student who's interested in public interest or public service. And so that wraparound support is manifested in academic support, be it through our Program in Law and Public Service, our skills building support through clinics, externships, and other practical courses that students might take, the career development support that they get, specifically through the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center and my office.

And then, also just the student organization community, and we kind of have this ecosystem of student organizations and a community that the students have created and that we try to support where public service and public interest students feel like they are in community with others who want to use their law licenses eventually in furtherance of humanity.

NATALIE BLAZER: Absolutely. So for a student entering UVA Law who's thinking about a public service career, how would you advise that student to go about taking advantage of the community here during their three years?

LEAH GOULD: Well, I think there are a lot of ways. So the first one we generally recommend when we meet students is to join student organizations. Find your peers and classmates who have similar interests to you, and engage with them about what their experiences have been in the public service community.

The other thing we recommend is get involved in pro bono, which is another source of skills-building support that the law school provides. And it's a way for students, when they first arrive at law school, to jump right into the legal practice and gain perspective for why it is that they are undergoing this rigorous academic adventure and using it for actual clients. And so we have a bunch of employers and supervisors who sign up to take on UVA Law students as pro bono volunteers. And that's a great way for students to really see the practice of law but also start connecting with their passions and interests in public service.

Another way would be to meet with us in the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center. We will get folks started on their internship search for their first summer after 1L year. And we provide a ton of support in terms of a fully customized and personalized search based on a student's interests and experience, their geographic preferences, you name it. We help them with their documents, resumes, cover letters, you name it there. And then, once students start applying and hearing back about interviews, we provide interview preparation and mock interview support.

NATALIE BLAZER: Got it. I want to talk about what kind of jobs we mean when we say a public service job. So can you just sort of walk through maybe even just the most common public service career paths?

LEAH GOULD: Sure. So we define public service quite broadly. So we think of government, nonprofit, and criminal law sectors. So government breaks down further into local government, state government, federal government and, in some cases, international government, like the United Nations. The second category, nonprofits, that can be advocacy organizations that conduct impact litigation, legal aid organizations that represent clients and direct services, and human rights non-governmental organizations.

And then, finally, the criminal law sector breaks down into prosecution and public defense. So prosecution can be in state court or federal court. Public defense can be in state court or federal court. And then there are also public-defense-adjacent careers, such as post-conviction work or criminal justice reform work.

NATALIE BLAZER: And so someone out there who's thinking, I want to be a US attorney or I want to be a judge or I want to be a state attorney general, those are all encompassed in public service.

LEAH GOULD: That's right.

NATALIE BLAZER: Got it. And what about academia? Is that a totally separate category?

LEAH GOULD: So we don't really advise on paths to becoming law professors, because the law professors have created their own group for students who are interested in taking that path. So the law professors are great about getting folks on a mailing list and helping students find their way to academia.

NATALIE BLAZER: Got it. And you had talked about the support that your office offers in terms of preparing for the job search. So I want to talk about the timeline a little bit. So when is the first point of contact maybe with your office? And then walk us through that first academic year for the first summer job.

LEAH GOULD: Sure. So I'm really excited to meet the students. I've been invited to introduce myself at orientation. So hopefully, I get to meet a bunch of students then. And then, at the end of August is what we call the Joint Public Service Kickoff. And it's joint with that public service community I mentioned earlier, the Program in Law and Public Service, and then a student organization, the Public Interest Law Association, PILA.

And so together, our three offices will host this joint kickoff and kind of introduce all the 1Ls to the entire public service community at the law school. And that's our first of many events. There will also be an event where you get to meet all the career counselors in the Public Service Center. We have a series of panels called the Real Deal Panel Series where we introduce students to alumni who are working in these various paths, like Real Deal Government, and it's a bunch of government lawyers, Real Deal Public Defense, and it's a couple of public defenders on the panel.

And so that will introduce students to people who are doing that work every day and to learn more about what their day to day looks like. And those panels will take place in September. At the same time, in September, students will gain access to counseling with us. So we ask students to complete a series of steps, including completing a survey which indicates their preference for what they hope to do their 1L summer. And that will send the public service students our way.

And so, beginning in September and October is our chance to meet with each student one on one to learn more about their individual interests and to get them started. So what we'll tend to do is, in September, October, November, we'll work on the search and the documents. And then, starting in December is when we start hearing back about interviews.

Now, not every student wants to spend their first semester of law school, which is very busy, working on their job search. So there are plenty of public service jobs after first semester's exams. So if students don't really want to get started, they can wait until after exams to meet with us, and we can get started in December or January.

And in February, we host our public service on grounds interviews, so we have a bunch of employers who are looking to hire 1Ls. And so that is also a source of jobs for a lot of 1Ls who want to go into public service. But usually, by March or April, our students have lined up where they're heading this summer. And so we'll talk to them more about how to succeed and make a good impression and get a good reference, get a writing sample out of it. But that tends to track with the year.

And we have programming throughout the year that we'll advertise to students and hope that they will attend our events and learn more about what they can be doing. And we're in regular contact with the community to tell them, here's what you should be doing now.

NATALIE BLAZER: What do you do for the student-- and I we have some-- who arrive, and they're actually not sure if they want to do public service or private sector? How do you work with a student like that?

LEAH GOULD: Sure. Well, the first thing we do is we recommend that those students go to our programs. So we host a lot of events throughout the fall that introduce students to various fields in public service. And by hearing directly from the source-- these are alumni who do that work every day-- maybe something resonates with the students about what that work is and whether they can see themselves doing that.

So the first bit of advice is, attend our events because those are your first introduction to what public service is and what it looks like when you're a public service lawyer. When you talk to us, we can just start talking about why you went to law school, what gets you excited, what your passions are because there's a good chance that we what's out there, and we can start pointing you in the direction. And just from that one-on-one conversation, we can get a feel for what you're really excited about and start pointing you in the right direction so that you can find where you belong.

But the other thing is, we want folks to try and knnow for certain what path is right for them. And so we have a lot of students who will spend their 1L summer in public service, their 2L summer in private practice, and then they'll come back to us in the fall of their 3L year and say, OK, I tried private practice. I know it's not for me. And we will go the public service route for graduation or after a clerkship.

And we've had a lot of success with that too. A lot of the students who try that out feel better knowing that there are no more what-ifs. But there are also situations where folks, they actually enjoyed private practice, and maybe they want to spent a couple of years paying back on their loans or something like that. We are counselors for life. So students who go on and graduate and become lawyers at big law firms, when they are ready to make the transition from their firms to public service, they get back in touch with us.

And we do a lot of alumni advising. There are things they can do, such as pro bono with their law firms and spending their 1L summer in public service that they can point back to say to public service employers, here are the ways I have demonstrated that commitment to public service throughout my career, as a student and as a lawyer.

NATALIE BLAZER: And for public service summer jobs, talk about the funding element. How does that whole summer funding process work?

LEAH GOULD: Sure. So the law school pays public service summer grants, which are guaranteed funding from the law school in exchange for some pro bono hours. When a student is heading to a public service or judicial internship there one summer, and they apply by our deadline, which is typically in February, they are guaranteed $4,000 to help support them through their summer. And we recognize that most of these public service internships are unpaid or very low paid, especially compared to private practice opportunities.

And so we want to make public service as accessible to as many people as possible so that, if you applied to law school because you wanted to be a public service lawyer, we want to make that a reality for you. And this is just the first of many ways that we can provide financial support to students who want to take this path.

NATALIE BLAZER: Got it. And does the 1L summer job often lend itself to the 2L summer job and the post-graduation job? Or are they kind of repeating the process 2L year and 3L year with your office?

LEAH GOULD: So it depends. So a lot of students want to try out different things. And we definitely recommend that folks try out different opportunities. So for example, if you know you want to be a public service lawyer and you spend your 1L summer in government, we might talk about spending your 2L summer in a nonprofit so that you can keep both doors open for when you're looking at post-graduation employment.

That way, it's not just one thing. If you wanted to try a couple of things, we also have externships as well during the semester. But if you know for certain, I want to be a government lawyer or I want to be a public defender, then we'll say, yes, let's go all-in on this because that's what some of these employers want to see as well. They want to see this commitment, especially in public defense.

We find that our students who come to law school who want to be public defenders, they generally spend both summers in public defense, and then they get picked up as public defenders at graduation.

NATALIE BLAZER: I don't know about you, but I'm a big true crime fan. And I was watching a documentary yesterday. And every time I'm watching one, I'm thinking, I hope we are getting more and more students who want to go into public defense because I feel like it's so necessary. It's a tough path, obviously, but I can understand exactly why they want to see the commitment. I really do feel like it's an industry that needs more and more and more people and great people. So I'm glad to hear that you're working with those people who want to be in the public defense.

So you had mentioned the financial piece. And I do want to talk about that for a second. I know that we have some dedicated fellowships post-graduation public service fellowships. Can you talk about what a fellowship is and sort of how that works?

LEAH GOULD: Sure. So we provide a lot of financial support to our public service students. And we can define fellowships in a couple of ways. We have summer fellowships, which I will call grants for the purposes of this conversation. And then, post-graduate fellowships are a way for entry-level attorneys so newly graduated students to get into nonprofit organizations. And those fellowships might be funded by the organization itself, or it might be funded by an external source.

So as you can probably imagine, in public service, a lot of these organizations are kind of strapped in terms of their financial resources. And so when they are making hiring decisions, sometimes they have to choose between training somebody or paying them. And so these fellowships basically say, OK, another entity is on the hook for paying them, paying that new attorney for the first year, while the organization that's hosting them is training them up to be a fantastic public service lawyer from the get-go.

NATALIE BLAZER: Got it. Can you talk a little bit about loan forgiveness and what the Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program looks like. I know that's a really in the wheelhouse of our Financial Aid Office. But just for folks who are going to take out loans and go into the public sector, I want to make sure they about that.

LEAH GOULD: Yeah. We're really excited because we recently expanded the Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program. And so the New floor for that is $80,000, meaning, if you graduate, and say go into a public service job that pays $75,000 a year as your starting salary, 100% of your qualifying loans will be covered by UVA Law. And with the floor being 80,000 and the cap being 100,000, as that person gets raises throughout their career, they continue to benefit from the Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program.

So say they, in a couple of years, they are now making $90,000 a year in their salary as public service lawyers. Well, now they're still in the Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program, but the law school is covering 50% of their eligible law school loans. And eventually, when they continue to get raises, they will probably come out of the program. But at that point, they're making enough that they can cover their loans.

Now, we see that happen more in the high-cost-of-living areas where our graduates kind of start off making $75,000, $85,000, $90,000 to start. And so they're in the program for maybe a couple of years. But we also have folks who go into rural, low-cost-of-living areas where there's an access-to-justice problem in this country. And they stay in the program for 10 years, and then the rest of their loans are forgiven by the Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. And so they end up paying essentially nothing on their qualifying law school loans.

NATALIE BLAZER: Yeah. And as someone who took an 80% pay cut to leave big law to go into admissions, like you said, if you are going into law school knowing you want to do a certain thing, don't be discouraged. Everybody I talk to who goes into the public sector, you make it work. And they're living great lives. I think people have this idea of the big law salaries as somewhat normal. And I'm here to tell you, you can live well on a lot less money than that.

LEAH GOULD: Absolutely. Before I moved to Charlottesville, I was living in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is one of the highest cost-of-living cities in the country. And I was a government lawyer. And I was able to buy a nice condo. I was going out with my friends. Like you said, this is a misconception. And if you want to talk about poverty, we talk about the clients that public service lawyers serve.

So public service lawyers are not living in poverty--

NATALIE BLAZER: --destitute.

LEAH GOULD: You're living a good life. Maybe you're budgeting a little more than your friends at the law firms, but you're still living a really comfortable life.

NATALIE BLAZER: You're living a good life. And your work-life balance is almost certainly better.

LEAH GOULD: Oh, yes, we do not have the billable hour in public service.

NATALIE BLAZER: Right. I'm pointing that out because there's a time for private sector, maybe and there was for me, and there are for other people, and you have to think about really what matters to you most for whatever phase of life you're in. Given that our listeners usually are current law school applicants or they're thinking about in the future, and this episode is going to be released right at the beginning of a brand new cycle when a lot of folks are working on their applications, what advice would you give to an applicant who's gearing up for the process of applying and subsequently choosing among law schools?

LEAH GOULD: I think it's important to do your research in terms of what type of support you're getting from your law school. So does your law school have a robust public service community? Is their skills-building support? What type of career development office does that law school have? What type of financial support and financial resources does the law school have to support you in your goals?

And my team and the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center is so excited when we meet public service students or even public-service-curious students because we get a lot of vicarious joy when we see our students succeed and reach their goals. There have been so many times where we get emails with a ton of exclamation points because somebody says they got the offer.

And we're like jumping up and down and screaming. And it's just, it's really exciting when students let us that they got the job that they're most excited about. And maybe it's something that they wrote in their essay to you, Natalie, when they were first applying to law school. And they said, I want to do this type of law. And then, fast-forward three years, and they're going to be doing it. And that is just the best feeling.

And I think like the thing I love most about my job is, as somebody who's been in public service my entire life, I love the idea that we're creating another generation of public servants and, in particular, public service lawyers when we really need it.

NATALIE BLAZER: We really need it, for sure. Is there anything about public service or public interest we didn't talk about that you want to share?

LEAH GOULD: Yes. OK, I want to talk about entrepreneurship because a lot of people think that an entrepreneurial spirit is limited to the private sector and creating something that will make you a lot of money. But there's a lot of space in public service for an entrepreneurial spirit. If there is a need that's not being met, we need that entrepreneurial spirit to bridge that gap.

And that's where my nonprofit came from and where a lot of people, in their careers, they go on and create something that did not exist before because there was a need that needed to be filled. And using your law license to do right by your fellow citizens and your community and your neighborhood and your environment is just the best feeling. And that creating something out of nothing is also really cool in public service.


NATALIE BLAZER: Well, thank you so much for being on the show today, Leah. This was awesome.

LEAH GOULD: Thank you so much for having me.

NATALIE BLAZER: This has been Admissible with me, Dean Natalie Blazer, at the University of Virginia School of Law. My guest today was Assistant Dean for Public Service, Leah Gould. For more information about UVA Law, please visit law.virginia.edu. The next episode of Admissible will be out soon. In the meantime, you can follow the show on Instagram at @AdmissablePodcast. Thanks so much for listening. And please remember to rate the show wherever you listen to podcasts.