What You Should Do in Law School to Set Yourself Up for a Public Interest Career

I have talked about how you should prepare for law school and the factors you should consider when deciding where to go to law school. In this post, I am going to discuss how you should spend your time in law school if you want to set yourself up for a public interest career. In short, you should spend your time in law school getting experience, proving your passion, and making connections.

Getting Experience

The most important thing you can do as an aspiring public interest lawyer is getting real legal experience. It used to be possible to graduate from law school without ever having done any real legal work. That is less true now―the American Bar Association now requires six experiential credits to graduate from ABA-accredited schools―but you should still should work to get as much experience as possible. The reason is simple: public interest organizations cannot afford to hire attorneys that are not “practice ready.” They may only hire one or two attorneys a year depending on the size of the organization, and most work on lean budgets that don’t leave room for dead weight. When hiring, they are looking for attorneys who have the experience to start contributing immediately. That puts new lawyers at a disadvantage, but you can mitigate this disadvantage this by getting as much experience as possible in law school.

What you are looking for here is not just lines on your resume, but actual experiences you can talk about in a cover letter or a job interview. When choosing summer internships, you should be looking for organizations that won’t just lock you in a room and ask you to write research memos all summer. Instead, you should be looking for an internship that will give you a wide range of experiences, such as client meetings and court appearances, that better approximates the work that lawyers actually do.

You can also get experience during the school year. Law school clinics permit second- and third-year law students to practice under limited law licenses and usually provide students with much more substantive experiences than summer internships. You should enroll in a clinic as soon as possible and for as long as possible. Take more than one clinic if you can. I took four different clinics in law school and I learned different skills in each of them. Even in your first year, there are sometimes volunteer opportunities that will allow you to get your feet wet.

Proving Your Passion

When someone looks at your resume, they should think: “That person is going to be a public interest lawyer.” It should be clear that you are dedicated to your craft and the project of making the world a better place.

When I was a first year law student, I went to career services so that they could workshop my resume before I applied for summer jobs. After they gave me some tips, the woman helping me gave me one other piece of advice. “When you’re applying to law firms next summer,” she suggested, “You should take off all of these public interest activities and put all of your other activities back on.” I was befuddled. Did she think I had two resumes, one with all of my public interest activities and one that had all of my other activities on it? In reality, I had no activities that weren’t public interest related. There was no second resume.

If you want to have a public interest career, you need to prove to the gatekeepers of the profession ― fellowship committees and hiring committees ― that you really want it. And showing is always easier than telling.

Many students interested in public interest law decide to spend their second summer at a law firm. They may be curious about what it is like to work at a law firm, or they may want to make some money to pay down some of their student loans. Whatever the reason, these students assume that a summer at a law firm won’t affect their public interest job prospects that much, and maybe that it will make them look well-rounded.

But this is not how it works at all. Getting a public interest job is hard, much harder in many cases than getting a law firm job. A public interest organization will have many applicants to choose from. These organizations are looking for applicants who have the experience they need to hit the ground running, but they are also looking for applicants who can prove that they are dedicated to public interest law. A summer at a law firm signals the opposite. You can argue that you are passionate about public interest law until you are blue in the face, but your resume will speak for itself.

The reason public interest organizations care that you are dedicated to the work is the same reason they want to hire attorneys with experience: they cannot afford to hire someone whose heart is not in it. Being a public interest lawyer is hard, and no one is doing it for the money. You have to care about it if you are going to succeed. Because anyone can feign interest in an interview, organizations look at your resume as a proxy for your passion.

Is it impossible to spend a summer at a law firm and then get a public interest job? No, but it will make it harder. I have been on hiring committees where applicants were rejected solely because they summered at a law firm. It was an easy way to reject people.

There are other ways to prove your passion to potential employers. Your experience before law school and your activities and courses during the school year will help. But the strongest signal to public interest organization will be what you do that second summer.

Making Connections

Connections matter in public interest law just like they do everywhere else. One reason to spend your summers in law school at two different public interest organizations is that you will make more connections that way. If you are lucky, you may end up working at one of those organizations. Even if you don’t, you’ll have people there who can serve as recommenders, or who can put in a good word for you with their friends. You can also make connections during the school year. Many schools invite public interest lawyers to campus to give talks. You should attend and stay after to meet them individually. Get to know professors who have connections in the public interest world too. (If you don’t know who those professors are, ask your clinical professors and they will know). As painful as it may be to do this kind of “networking,” you have to do it.

When I was in law school, I hated networking, and I didn’t do enough of it. But the networking I did do paid off. Every job I have ever gotten was because I knew someone who put in a good word for me. In several cases, the person interviewing me for the position said something along the lines of “well, if [recommender] says I should hire you, that’s all I need to hear.” I can identify all kinds of problems with this, but if that is how it is going to work, you should make sure it works for you.

Doing these things won’t guarantee you a public interest job, but it will make it a lot easier.

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