Doing the 'Right' Thing: How to Get into Public Interest Law

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You could argue that public interest law is inextricably tied to the rights laid out in the famous Bill. Matter of fact, that's what we're arguing. Think about it: Public interest lawyers represent people who otherwise wouldn't be represented (no counsel!) and whose fundamental rights presumably have been violated in some way. When a lawyer decides to enter the public sector, that lawyer is choosing to uphold the Bill of Rights every day.¦ She's also choosing to forego a lifetime of Ferragamo shoes, of course. Going public is difficult, and not only because the pay traditionally is low. There's no clear path to employment the way there is in the world of private practice. Jobs pop up sporadically. The interviews can be nontraditional. There are fellowships to track down, application deadlines to meet. In an attempt to lead you through what can be a scattershot system, we've collected some basic information. Consider it your first round of ammunition in the good fight.

How to interview for a public interest job


It ain't no big-firm meet-and-greet.

There is no Interview Week. No sign-up sheets, no autumn days choked with 30-minute inquisitions from efficient recruiters, no Poland Spring on the hospitality table. There's not even a hospitality table.

When it comes to the hiring system for jobs in public interest law, there isn't really a system. Most organizations in the public sector fill jobs whenever they happen to open up. Even in well-known organizations like the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the prospect of more than a couple of staff attorney openings in a given year is always shaky. There may be five one year, none the next. And just as the recruiting process differs from the one used by private firms, so should your job-search technique. White-shoe firms scan your resume for the words "law review." Public interest groups look deep in your eyes for signs of passion.

The most comprehensive database of public interest job listings is online at PSLawnet.org, a network of about 130 member law schools and more than 12,000 law-related PI organizations around the world. You can pinpoint your job search by area of interest, geography, or organization name. Once you come up with a list of targets, here's how to hit one:

Grades, good. experience, better
Forget everything you thought mattered in getting a job: grades, your school's U.S. News & World Report ranking, references, everything. "People in public interest want to see what you've done that reflects your commitment to the issue on which they work," says David Stern, the CEO of Equal Justice Works. If you're interested in child advocacy, try to land a summer job with a Guardian Ad Litem program. (There are sources of funding for public interest summer gigs; see our Resource Guide, next page). Take advantage of clinical opportunities during school, or externships that offer hands-on experience. Taking a practical clinical course as a 1L isn't feasible — that homework stuff gets in the way — but during your second and third years, try to pull it off. You'll not only get experience, you'll start to develop a Rolodex of contacts in the public interest world, which is better than any online database when it comes to getting a job.

If you're in private practice and pondering a transition, go pro bono crazy. Put in as many hours as you possibly can. After all, you can blather on about your commitment and passion all you want, but spending 60 hours on an asylum case tends to speak for itself.

9 Job openings? 9 cover letters
Public interest jobs aren't all the same, so you can't write one letter, make a mimeograph (remember mimeographs?), and shoot it to every potential employer on your list. Same thing goes for resumes. Each should be tailored to a specific organization, convincingly explaining what drew you to it. What life experiences, exactly, spawned your interest in the group's mission? And precisely why should they be interested in you? "The more you can tie your experience to particular jobs, the better your chances," says Stern.

Play politics
Public interest lawyers aren't in it for the money. They take their causes seriously. There's always a chance that some of your past experience — as rewarding as it may have been — won't mesh with your potential employer's weltanschauung. "Very occasionally, areas of public interest law are very ideological, and they may view other placements as a sign you're not one of them," says Theresa Bryant, executive director of the career development office at Yale Law School.

Don't expect public defenders to get excited about your prosecutor job. You don't have to omit important experience, but you don't want to raise any red flags, either. In most cases they'll just want to see that you're concerned and that you have a commitment to service, Bryant says.

On your resume and in your interview, emphasize the raw skills you learned — drafting memos, say, or going to trial — rather than the fact that you learned these valuable skills while employed by the United Federation Against Old People and Puppies.

Burst a blood vessel
When you interview with the hiring partner at a large multipractice firm, you shine your shoes, practice your smile, and answer questions in a smooth, businesslike manner. But in a PI interview, don't be afraid to let your feelings show a little. Be yourself, not the person the interview guidebooks tell you to be. Tell a personal story about what sparked your interest in this kind of work. Bang the table if you feel like it. "Passion is not the same thing as enthusiasm," says Stern. "It's not walking in and being all bubbly and chipper; it's showing a fire in the belly. It's showing that this is not just a job, but a calling." — Sasha Issenberg

The public interest reading list
Not that you need more inspiration, but — here's some anyway.

Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and The Supreme Court, 1936-1961
By Mark V. Tushnet
Oxford University Press, 1994

Before becoming the first African-American Supreme Court justice in 1967, Marshall fought for racial equality as an NAACP lawyer, arguing Brown v. Board of Education. Tushnet gives a thorough account of how Marshall and others working on the case brought about nothing less than a constitutional revolution.

William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America
By David J. Langum
New York University Press, 1999

Langum looks at the life of civil rights crusader Kunstler, who never shied from controversy. In his nearly five decades practicing law, Kunstler represented Lenny Bruce, Stokely Carmichael, leaders of the American Indian Movement, Jack Ruby, Malcolm X, and Islamic terrorists, among others.

The Ralph Nader Reader
By Ralph Nader
Seven Stories Press, 2000

From his auto-safety crusade in the early '60s to his more recent campaign against genetically modified foods, Nader has been fighting for consumers' and workers' rights for decades. This collection of writings from his career as a public interest lawyer and activist covers it all — tort reform, grassroots organizing, and the problems with modern presidential elections.

Gideon's Trumpet
By Anthony Lewis
Random House, 1964

In 1962, a Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon, an indigent defendant, wrote to the Supreme Court demanding counsel. This account of his crusade, by former New York Times columnist Lewis, includes an intriguing explanation of how the Supreme Court taps lawyers to argue cases before it.

The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care
By Nina Bernstein
Pantheon Books, 2001

An exhaustive and often moving examination of the precedent-setting 1973 case in which a young ACLU attorney filed a lawsuit against New York City's foster care system. The attorney spent more than two decades on the class-action suit, which alleged the city's 150-year-old foster care system was in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments for giving private religious agencies control of publicly financed foster-care beds.

Law Stories
By Gary Bellow and Martha Minow

University of Michigan Press, 1996

This collection of first-person accounts by attorneys working on public service cases, including some from Harvard Law School's Legal Services Center, reveals what it's really like to wage legal battles over everything from child custody to victims' rights. A good, real-world primer. Don't let it scare you.

Resource guide
Everything you need to know that we haven't just told you can be found in these four places.

Serving the Public: A Job Search Guide
Published annually by Harvard Law School's Office of Public Interest Advising

A bible for anyone pursuing a career in public interest law. Fellowship sources, job search advice and information, employer listings and contact information, detailed descriptions of organizations and sources of funding, and more and more and more. (The guide is $20 for law students, clerks, and public interest lawyers, and $35 for lawyers in private practice. Available at law.harvard.edu/students.)

Fellowship Application Tips
Published annually by the Yale Law School Career Development Office

This 24-page pamphlet makes what can be a complicated process seem much simpler. Ample how-to information that will help you submit everything on time and to the right place. (The publication is free at law.yale.edu.)

Equal Justice Works Job Fair

Every October, EJW organizes one of the largest public interest job fairs in the country — and one of the only ones — in Washington, D.C. It's the closest you'll get to anything resembling centralized public interest recruiting. If your school doesn't help with the costs to attend (many do), splurge. You'll have access to 200 employers, large and small. (equaljustice works.org/careerfair)

ABA Standing Committee On Pro Bono And Public Service

The committee's Directory of Law School Public Interest and Pro Bono Programs is a premium resource for anyone considering a career in public interest law. It covers the major public interest programs at accredited law schools across the country. (Available at abanet.org/legalservices/probono/home.html or 312-988-5789.)

Apply yourself
For a fellowship, that is. They're competitive, hard to come by, demanding — and worthy of your immediate attention.

Anyone looking to proceed directly from law school to a plum public interest job without passing so much as the mashed potatoes is advised to apply to every fellowship in existence. Postgraduate fellowships fall into several categories. Two of the most popular:

1. Organizational fellowships are available through public interest groups, where the job is defined by the organization. The ACLU, for example, recently created a two-year fellowship in the name of former executive director Ira Glasser for law grads and others to work on issues of racial justice.
2. Project-based programs, a sort of create-your-own model, provide funding for people who have established their own project, found a host organization, and just need, you know, money. Three of the main sources of project-based funding are:

The Skadden Fellowship

Given by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
Number awarded each year 25
Who gets them Graduating law students and outgoing judicial clerks
Duration Two years
Stipend $37,500; the program also covers benefits and a portion of student loan payments during the fellowship for those not covered by low-income protection plans.
Annual application deadline Early October
Web site skadden.com/CommunityFellowship.html

Equal Justice Works Fellowship

Given by Equal Justice Works
Number awarded each year about 50
Who gets them 3Ls, recent grads, and experienced lawyers with a demonstrated commitment to public service
Duration Two years
Stipend Up to $37,500; in some instances, if host organization's salary for equivalent position exceeds $37,500, it will pay the difference. Fellows are eligible to apply for EJW's loan repayment assistance program.
Annual application deadlines Mid-September and late October
Web site equaljusticeworks.org/fellowsmainpage.php

Soros Justice Advocacy Fellowships

Given by Criminal Justice Initiative of the Open Society Institute
Number awarded each year 8 to 10
Who gets them Postgraduates, professionals from law, advocacy, public health, and media
Requirements Projects that will have a measurable impact on issues in keeping with the Initiative's work
Duration Two years
Stipend $37,500, including $6,000 PER YEAR for loan repayment plus $5,000 annually for professional development and health insurance, as well as $1,200 for relocation
Annual application deadline Fall
Web site soros.org/crime
—Alexsandra Vallejo

Loan stars
The truth about repayment assistance

Loan repayment assistance programs — known as LRAPs by cool people — have become more widely available over the past decade. Different schools structure programs in different ways, but they all have the same purpose: to help public interest lawyers repay law school loans.

Right now, about 50 accredited law schools offer LRAPs. In addition to lending funds to help eligible graduates meet monthly payments, many also repay a portion of the overall debt for lawyers who remain in a public interest job long enough (which can be as little as one year or seven, sometimes more). The more generous programs have a loan forgiveness element: After you've made payments and worked in the public sector for a few years, some schools will repay the remainder of the loan for you (in some cases this starts in the first year).

Whether you're still in school or not, your law school's financial aid office is a place you'll want to get to know. Some schools have an entire office devoted to public interest law — if yours does, set up a meeting with the director as soon as possible. Bring flowers. If you work in the private sector and are going public, get on the horn with your alma mater to see if you still qualify for loan repayment assistance — you may be eligible to apply even seven whole years after graduation.

The most comprehensive resource for researching schools that offer such programs, and how those programs work, can be found on the Equal Justice Works Web site at equal justice works.org/finance. The Washington, D.C.-based group — founded in 1986 by a bunch of law students who wanted to break down the barriers to public interest work — organizes, trains, and supports students and graduates through job fairs, fellowship programs, and their own loan repayment assistance program for fellows.

The American Bar Association's Commission on Loan Repayment and Forgiveness was created to deal with all things debt-related. In addition to issuing reports about the effect of law school debt on career choices (see "Lifting the Burden: Law Student Debt as a Barrier to Public Service" at abanet.org/legalservices/lrap/home.html), the commission put together a database of links to federal and state LRAPs throughout the country.


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