Finding a job in public interest law for the summer or semester often requires more time and ingenuity than the search for private law firm jobs. Unlike many private law firms, most public interest and government employers lack the resources or time to come on campus for formal recruiting. They usually cannot anticipate their budgets or their hiring needs for the following summer or year; rather, these organizations recruit either in the spring or as positions and funding become available. As a result, it's incredibly important for public interest minded students to be proactive in their networking, job search and professional skills development.
Step 1: Learning About What Makes a Law Student a Good Candidate for Public Interest Positions
The first step down the path to public interest employment is understanding with public interest employers of all types look for. These qualities include:
1. Demonstrated Commitment to Public Service
With always impending public interest funding cuts, employers are very careful about considering candidates for positions. Employers want to hire people who will not become disenchanted with public interest work and who have a realistic understanding of the sector. For this reason, employers look for previous experience, volunteer or paid, in the public service sector; so highlight any and all volunteer and community work you've done, even if it was in a non-legal setting or capacity.
2. General Skills
Strong legal research and writing legal skills, ability to assume responsibility quickly, and an agreeable personality are important factors for most public interest employers. The challenge for you is to convey these qualities through the standard paper credentials and interviews.
3. Academic Achievements & Activities
Within the public interest realm, legal services and legal aid offices tend to place less emphasis on grades and focus on interpersonal skills and work experience. Public interest employers likely to pay closer attention to grades include: "impact" litigation groups, postgraduate fellowships programs, government "honor" programs and "law reform" units of government and public interest agencies.
4. Courses Taken
Courses that will prove helpful to the public interest practitioner include: Constitutional law, evidence, administrative law, criminal procedure, environmental law and policy, labor law, non-profit law, immigration law and policy, and consumer protection law.
5. Work Experience
Work experience, legal and otherwise, is given significant consideration by many public interest employers. This is where you can demonstrate ability, commitment and interest. By becoming involved in student groups that address public interest issues and by volunteering your time in a public interest office during the academic term, you can place yourself in a stronger position for landing a summer public interest job. Work done during the term and summer, whether paid or volunteer, is a good way for newcomers to public interest to build credentials.
7. Writing Samples and References
Public interest employers generally pay greater attention to writing samples than do private firms and also often rely heavily on references and recommendations in making hiring decisions. Building a list of references who can speak on behalf of your commitment to public interest work, as well as your legal skills, is important and another reason the volunteer experiences you have while you are in school are valuable to your long term career plan.
Step Two: Identify Employers of Interest
The second step in finding a job in public interest law is to identify employers compatible with your interests and background and research them. Some excellent resources for identifying employers are the following:
- PSJD, a searchable nationwide database of public service opportunities
- Serving the Public: A Job Search Guide, provides a good overview of the field, the job search process, and job opportunities organized by substantive areas, available in the library and in the career services office
- Equal Justice Works, an organization that promotes public interest law among law students and creates numerous public interest job opportunities
- The Public Interest Handbooks for 1Ls, 2Ls and 3Ls in Symplicity
- The Government Honors and Internship Guide in Symplicity
- The Chicago Bar Foundation Pro Bono Guide
- Public interest job postings in Symplicity
- The Public Interest Law Initiative placement page (PILI provides paid internships to law students)
- Chicago-Kent's Federal Work Study webpage
Organizations can also be identified by reviewing the list of participating employers at various career fairs such as the Equal Justice Works Career Fair held annually in Washington D.C. in October (see www.equaljusticeworks.org), or the Midwest Public Interest Law Career Conference (MPILCC) held annually in Chicago in February.
Finally, see the public interest and government links section of this web site where you'll find links to nonprofit and public interest organizations divided by practice area; local, state, and federal government web sites; as well as numerous public interest job search sites.
Step Three: Networking and Informational Interviewing
Once you have identified types of (or specific) organizations at which you might want to work, your next task is to learn as much as you can about the practice areas and day-to-day life of those lawyers. In this regard, your most important tool is the informational interview. The objective of an informational interview is not to get a job. Rather, your goal is meet people who can offer advice for your job search, answer questions about career choices from a personal perspective, and provide you with the names of individuals who may be able to help you get further along in the process of finding a job. For details about informational interviewing and how to set up an informational interview, please see the Informational Interview Handout in Symplicity.
Step Four: Public Interest Resumes, Cover Letters, and Writing Samples
After finding job posts of interest or upon the advice of your advisor or network contacts, the next step in obtaining a summer or semester public interest position is to update your resume and prepare effective cover letters, writing samples, and other application materials.
As with any job application, your resume and cover letter need to look their very best as they generally serve as your first contact with potential employers and markets you to the organization. From a formatting perspective, the resume and cover letter needs to be free of all mistakes and need to stand out from the hundreds the employer is likely to receive. You are encouraged to have your resume reviewed by a career services counselor; you should also review the Resume and Cover Letter Workshops in Panopto, as well as the resume guide. From a content perspective, public interest resumes and cover letters must be narrowly tailored to the agency by describing your particular interest in the agency, interest in the population that agency serves and/or interest in the subject matter practiced. Public interestcover letters that don't indicate particular interest in the employer being applied to tend to be readily and wholly disregarded by those employers.
Most public interest employers will also want an example of your written work after they have narrowed their choices to a few candidates, while some will request one with your resume. Unless specified otherwise, your writing sample should be between five and ten pages in length, even if this means excerpting a portion of a longer work. 1L's who do not have prior experience with legal writing can use either a paper or legal brief written as part as part of their first year legal writing course or moot court competition. If as a 1L you are unhappy with this writing, use something you are proud of, preferably a topic you can speak about with authority and passion. 2L's will typically be expected to provide a legal writing sample.
Step Five: Public Interest Interviews
Assuming all goes well with your application, you will be asked to come in for an interview. To prepare for interviews, contact your advisor to set up a mock interview session and review the interview guide on Symplicity. As with cover letters and resumes, students need to learn to tailor their interview answers to the needs and preferences of the employer.
Step Six: Gain Experience
After obtaining the position, it's important to not only work hard on developing a variety of relevant legal skills (namely research, writing, client skills, and soft skills such as time management and attention to detail), but also to work well with others (as your reputation goes far in the public interest arena). In addition, be open to continuing this research-application-new job process a number of times in law school. Working with a variety of public interest employers enables you to gain first-hand knowledge of a field of law, demonstrates your commitment to the public interest community, and helps you develop a network of professional contacts. Part-time opportunities, volunteer projects, clinical courses, and summer jobs are all valuable ways to gain public interest experience while in law school. You should have little trouble finding an internship, particularly if you are willing to volunteer. Openings abound for internships in understaffed public interest offices, and many summer internships offer exciting, substantive work.
Another dimension of gaining public interest experience is that it gives you insight about yourself and the legal endeavors that most interest you. You will start to identify the style of work you prefer: Do you enjoy working on a team or in a more independent fashion? Do you prefer litigation or other kinds of legal work? Do you like a fast-paced trial practice or a more contemplative appellate practice? Do you want to be a generalist or a specialist on a particular issue? As you develop and apply your skills, you will gradually form conclusions as to which skills you most enjoy using and which populations or organizations you want to serve.