Public Interest Fellowships

One thing that always surprises people who aren’t lawyers is how far in advance you have to apply for legal jobs, particularly at the beginning of your career. I applied for my current job in March, which was considered “late” in the hiring cycle. I started the job in January, 10 months later, which is not out of the ordinary for academic jobs. Clerkship are also like this. Students are applying right now for clerkships that will start in September 2022. And sometimes judges hire several years in advance.

Public interest fellowships are no different. In fact, if you are hoping to begin a fellowship in September 2022, you should start thinking about it now, 16 months before your start date. If you wait until the middle of the summer, you are already behind.

The reason has to do with the way that many public interest fellowships are structured. Many of the biggest fellowship programs are separate foundations that fund recent law graduates to work at other public interest organizations. Some examples of this kind of fellowship are the Skadden Fellowship and the Equal Justice Works Fellowship. These fellowships require you to have an organization lined up before you apply and in many cases, they expect a full-fledged project proposal that explains what you will do during your fellowship.

Because these fellowships have application deadlines in September and October, you have to start working on your project proposal in July or August, especially because the project proposal will be a collaborative effort between you and your host organization. That means you need to nail down a host organization in June or July. The host organization might have its own internal deadlines for determining whom they will sponsor, and you may need to apply to several different organizations in the hopes that one of them decides to sponsor you. That means that you really should start identifying potential sponsors and reaching out to them to find out about their process in May, or right now if you want to start a fellowship in fall 2022.

Not all fellowships work on this timeline. Some organizations have their own fellowships (many of which are not project-based) and they usually post these in the fall. Some schools also have fellowships for students who were not able to secure outside fellowship funding, and most of these fellowships get awarded in the spring, after the other fellowship processes conclude. But most of these fellowships require you to have applied for other fellowships first. Bottom line: if you wait until December or January to start thinking about fellowships, it will be too late and you’ll be stuck applying for staff attorney jobs, which is much harder than getting a fellowship because you’ll be competing with other attorneys with more experience.

A good place to start is to ask about fellowship opportunities at the organization where you are interning after your second year of law school (hopefully you have taken my advice and are working in public interest rather than at a firm). But you can’t count on your summer internship organization to sponsor you. They may have multiple summer interns, and potentially past interns as well, who all want to be sponsored for the same fellowships. But your summer internship can still be an invaluable resource for identifying potential sponsors. You should arrange to meet with your internship coordinator early in the summer and ask for advice about what organizations to apply to. You can also ask about their process for sponsoring fellows. They may not have worked with you long enough to have decided whether they want to sponsor you, but it will put you on their radar as they start their selection process.

Not all organizations are this deliberate. Some organizations will realize in August that they need to find someone to sponsor and they will scramble to find someone. Some organizations have no process at all and only sponsor a fellow when someone reaches out. If none of your early prospects pan out, you can always contact more organizations later. But starting the process now will give you more options and will allow you greater control over the process.

Of course, this means that you have to have some idea about what kind of work you want to do after graduation. If you find yourself unsure, or divided between two different areas of law, now is the time to buckle down and decide. You’ll want to have a clear sense of what you want to work on when you speak with organizations. On the other hand, you shouldn’t contact an organization with a very specific project proposal already in mind. You’ll want to develop that project proposal together, and they may choose someone else if your proposal doesn’t meet their current needs.

In a future post, I will talk about the fellowship application process in more detail, and in particular, how to write a good project proposal. I will also have several guest posts from representatives from some of the biggest fellowship programs, who will provide you with their perspective on the process.

So make a list of potential sponsors and start making calls. There is no time like the present.

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