The Fellowship Project Proposal

The centerpiece of an application for a project-based fellowship is the project proposal. Not all fellowships are project-based, but it’s important to understand what makes a good proposal for those that are.

Every fellowship has different requirements for what needs to go into a project proposal, but at a minimum every proposal must identify: (1) the client population to be served; (2) the area of law; and (3) the types of legal services provided.

Here are a few Skadden projects that were funded last year to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

  • “Will enforce the rights of LGBTQ foster youth in dependency proceedings in Los Angeles to secure gender-affirming care for transgender and gender non-conforming youth and appropriate foster placements for all LGBTQ youth.”
  • “Will represent low-income St. Louis homeowners burdened with unfair property tax burdens. Direct assistance will include challenging  assessments, foreclosure defense, and claiming excess funds from forced sales.”
  • “Will provide direct, coordinated, and bilingual debt collection defense and bankruptcy assistance for low-income DC residents hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

For each of these projects, you immediately know who the fellow will represent, what legal issues they will address, and what they will be doing. You can find other examples here and here.

The Three-Legged Stool: The Right Person, The Right Project, and The Right Organization

Once you figure out this basis information, you’ll need to develop your project proposal around the idea of a three-legged stool, which requires that you convincingly answer the following three questions:

 (1) Why is this work important? You will need to convince the fellowship committee that you will be fulfilling a real need before they will feel compelled to fund you. For better or worse, committees are often drawn to new or novel problems, or problems that have been in the news. If you want to work on a long-standing problem (homelessness, for example), you’ll need to find a way to make it fresh. When they read about the problem you will address, the first thing they should think is “Something must be done.” That something is funding you.

(2) Why should I be the one doing this work? Fellowship committees might get multiple applications proposing similar projects, so you need to convince them that you are uniquely qualified to do the work. That might mean highlighting your skills, background, experience, or a combination of all three. It also means convincing the committee that you are capable of accomplishing what you set out to do. They may use your GPA or your school as a heuristic to make that determination, but you should make the case in your application as well.

(3) Why is my organization the right place to do the work? The fellowship committee has to be convinced that your organization is an appropriate sponsor for your project. In particular, fellowship committees are looking for organizations that will provide fellows with sufficient supervision and support. One way to try to figure this out is by looking at which organizations have received fellows in the past. That will tell you whether your organization has already been found worthy of a fellow. It is also important to make sure that your project proposal is a good fit for the organization. Don’t propose doing a police reform project at an elder law non-profit, for example.

Developing the Project Proposal with Your Organization

When you are deciding on your project, you must coordinate with your potential sponsor organization. Some organizations state upfront that they are looking to sponsor a fellow to work on a particular project. Other organizations choose who they are going to sponsor and then work with them to develop a project proposal that works for both the fellow and the organization. Still others don’t have a single project in mind, but have a few ideas.

When you are reaching out to organizations, you should ask them what they are thinking so you can tailor your application accordingly. You don’t want to express your enthusiasm for one particular project idea only to find out that the organization is not interested in it. If you are like most people, you would be happy doing several different projects. If this describes you, make sure that you let the organization know that you are open to whatever ideas they have.

Why Project-Based Fellowships

You may be thinking, “But why do I need to come up with a project at all? I know what organization I want to work for, but I don’t know yet what work I want to do. And I want to get lots of different experiences my first few years out of law school, not devote all my time to a single project.”

I felt the same way, but here is my best defense of the idea of a project-based fellowship. First of all, the process of drafting a project proposal prepares you for the work you are going to do. You’ll need to understand the problem, learn the law, and make connections in the field. If you meet your project goals, you will develop expertise and you may even become the go-to person in your area for that kind of legal work. It gives your work a kind of structure that you don’t get if you just become a staff attorney. And as long as your organization allows it, your project will not preclude you from exploring the other work that the organization is doing.

So use this opportunity to think about what kind of public interest work you want to do. I promise it will be worth it.

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