- Can I get a public interest job right out of law school?
The simple answer is… yes you can! That said, as with any other legal career, these positions are competitive so it is critical that you start the process early by securing positions in the summer, developing relationships, and showing your commitment while in law school. Public interest positions can be very competitive, particularly in bigger cities. The number of open positions that can be filled by graduating law students is very dependent on the kind of law you wish to practice. Public defense agencies and prosecuting attorneys offices are often hiring, although they may not be prepared to extend offers many months in advance like firms. Other organizations’ hiring needs are largely dependent on funding.
Jobs in many national public interest firms and organizations are difficult to attain right out of school. These organizations most often hire attorneys with years of experience. If you are interested in these types of positions, you should consider what skills you will be gaining at your first job and how that will strengthen your application in the future.
- I came straight to law school from undergrad. I really don’t have anything public-interest oriented on my resume. Will that hurt my application?
One of the great things about Seattle University School of Law is that we encourage everyone to contribute to the community at every stage of their careers and provide many opportunities for you to do so. Even if you came to law school with no professional experience (public interest or otherwise), you can build your skills and gain practical legal experience serving the public while still a student. The Access to Justice Institute can connect you to public interest volunteer opportunities with community agencies or with its in-house projects, and taking a clinic can give you practical legal experience and the opportunity to represent clients from underserved communities. Additionally, WSBA Access to Justice maintains a listing of current pro bono / volunteer opportunities in specific practice areas. These experiences are a first step toward building your network of contacts in the legal arena in which you want to practice.
Because competition for public interest jobs can be extremely fierce, it is imperative that you begin exhibiting your commitment to public interest work as soon as possible. Ideally you will begin your public interest work as a 1L, but starting at any point prior to graduation is advisable. If you are graduating and have no public interest experience, you are facing an uphill battle. It is then especially important that you are able to articulate your transferable skills and how they benefit the organization.
- How do I write a public interest cover letter?
The key to writing an effective public interest resume is to show your passion and commitment to public interest. Your passion really needs to pop off the page. Remember, attorneys in this field are more interested in advocating for specific causes and clients than making a lot of money. In a word, they are passionate and want to hire like-minded people. For more information on writing a cover letter for a public interest job, attend our Pursuing Public Interest Jobs and Fellowships Seminar and take a look at our tips on writing a public interest cover letter.
- I have an interview with a public interest agency that I really believe in. How do I prepare?
Preparing for an interview with a public interest organization is much the same as preparing for any other legal interview. It is absolutely imperative that you begin by doing your homework about the organization, its mission, operational architecture and any community programs that it might be spearheading. To effectively prepare, you’ll need to answer three key questions: why our organization, what skills do you have that will help us, and how will you fit into this organization. The more that you know about the organization, the more you know whether it is a place that you can accomplish your professional goals. Similarly, the more knowledge you can demonstrate to the interviewer, the stronger they will feel about your commitment to their mission. Preparation is the key! Contact CPD to schedule mock interviews with one of the directors. We’ll help you effectively prepare.
By far the most common thing that we hear employers in the public interest sector want in candidates is a demonstrated commitment to the goals of the organization. Obviously your resume will be the first point of reference on this point for a potential employer. You must be able to speak articulately about your experiences, as well as your understanding of emerging issues in the legal arena in which you wish to work.
Depending on the work they do, public service organizations may have different methods of determining the successful candidate. For example, if you are intending to go into criminal prosecution, the interview may be more of a grilling - this may be an intentional effort on the part of the interviewer to see how you handle yourself under pressure. If you have questions about the organization with which you are interviewing, please make an appointment with CPD. You may also want to consider attending our “Pursuing Public Interest Jobs and Fellowships” seminar.
- I know the public interest legal community is a small and vital one, but I don’t know anyone! How can I meet people doing the kind of work I want to do?
Despite the fact that there are fewer receptions and banquets in the public service world than in private-sector firms, networking is alive and well (and necessary) to public service attorneys. For tips on effectively networking, see our public interest networking page. As mentioned above, the key is to get involved. Request informational interviews with people in organizations with which you want to work. Informational interviews are a great way to learn from practitioners about practice areas of interest. Join PILF and take an executive board position, attend seminars that deal with issues you’re passionate about, volunteer in the local community. Be proactive!
- I got the job! Now how do I make the most of this opportunity?
Congratulations! The best resource in preparing for your public interest opportunity is talking with people who have had the same or similar position. They can give you an idea of what to expect in your day to day activities, current projects that you might want to get involved in, any office political issues you should be aware of, dress code, ways to accept and incorporate feedback into future work assignments, and taking advantage of professional connections you will be making.
One of the reasons that you were hired was likely that you are a go-getter and are passionate about the work done in the office in which you are working. So get involved! Be proactive about assignment delegations and making sure that your goals for the summer are being achieved. If you have questions about your performance or ways that you can further contribute, ask your supervisor and/or an attorney that you admire and with whom you have built a relationship. Be flexible about your work assignments and aware of the different kids of experiences you’re getting. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; you’re there to learn and build skills – your employer knows this and should be supportive of this.
For more information on this topic, the Harvard Law School Office of Public Interest Advising has written a specialty guide on making the most of your summer job.