By Jacob Hamburger
Jacob graduated from the University of Chicago Law School earlier this month and was able to successfully procure a public interest staff attorney position that will begin after he takes the bar exam. This post details his experience and reflections on his past year on the public interest job market.
I graduated law school earlier this month, and am fortunate enough to have a staff attorney job lined up at a large legal aid office, and in my area of interest. As I sit down to write this post, I’m in between sessions of studying for the bar—which can be annoying, but is ultimately manageable, and leaves me time to enjoy the sunshine. The covid-19 pandemic is receding in my area, and it’s looking like something resembling a normal professional and social life is around the corner.
This is not where it looked like I’d be during much of my public interest job search. About a year ago, when I was starting to get serious about my post-graduation plans—while also completing a full-time remote internship—I began to realize that there are relatively few full-time staff attorney jobs at non-profit legal aid or public defender organizations open to graduating law students. While I initially thought I would fare well in the post-graduate fellowship process, this process soon became deeply frustrating. And as my search continued into my final year of law school, the added burden of drafting cover letters and project proposals and scheduling interviews alongside my coursework and clinics became overwhelming, to the point where I started wondering whether I was really in the right place.
Part of the purpose of this post is to reassure those of you starting down this search now, or thinking about it in the future, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There are public interest law jobs out there (certainly more than in the areas I worked in prior to law school: humanities academia or journalism). But it’s worth walking through what the process of seeking this type of work might look like. “Public interest” is an ill-defined category that sometimes just means “not big law,” and there’s no single approach to applying for jobs. So while my own experience may illustrate some common issues, and covers a fairly wide range of the public interest world—including immigration law, non-profit legal aid, public defense and prosecution—it is just one person’s experience in an increasingly uncertain post-covid landscape.
Post-grad Fellowships: A Double-Edged Sword
If there’s one thing I wish I had understood better when I started thinking about post-grad plans towards the end of my 2L year, it would definitely be the fellowship process. My initial view of fellowships was that they were a safe back-up plan: an easy way to land a good first job working in your main area of interest. In part, I believed this because I was at a law school that I believed would make me a competitive candidate—and more importantly that offers its own fellowship program for its graduates. (If you don’t already know, make sure to find out if your law school has a similar program—they don’t always like to advertise it!) It also just seemed intuitive: what organization wouldn’t want a fully-funded staff attorney, and what fellowship funder would refuse someone with good credentials, the right experience, and a project doing important work?
In reality, it doesn’t work this way. Public interest fellowships have been around long enough that many eligible organizations have created a competitive search process to select candidates for funding from the major programs (Skadden, EJW, Soros, etc.). Even a small non-profit where I spent my 1L summer had me interview for a sponsorship slot, and then only agreed to sponsor me for one of the major fellowships. Some public institutions (e.g. public defenders) are eligible to sponsor fellows too, but I also discovered that many of them are unfamiliar with the process, or get too tied up in bureaucracy for it to work. As a result, finding a fellowship sponsor is a job search in its own right, and in my own case, after starting with the process with at least five organizations, I ended up settling on two different sponsors, creating two project proposals that I shopped around to the various funding sources.
The fellowship application process itself also requires a bit more salesmanship than one might think. Anyone who has been through this process will look back and laugh at a system that expects graduating law students to design “innovative” projects in order to land entry-level jobs at legal non-profits. Of course, these organizations already have decided what projects they want to prioritize, and if you’re trying to work there you most likely are more than happy to work on their projects rather than come up with your own. So the application process mainly involves translating your general interest in the practice area or in the organization into non-profit-speak, and focusing on a hot-button issue within that work that donors will think is important. There is some good news here. First, once you have a sponsor, someone from that organization will likely be available to help you with this part of the process, and most non-profits have some experience with successful applications. Second, there are some subject-specific fellowships that, mercifully, do not require a project proposal, and will simply match you with a host organization if your application is successful—the Immigrant Justice Corps fellowship is one example here.
After spending the better part of a year applying for fellowships, I have very mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, fellowships are an opportunity to design your own job around a precise set of legal interests. You may not get such an opportunity otherwise. In my own case, I submitted several fellowship applications to work on “crimmigration” issues—i.e. the immigration consequences of criminal convictions—at either non-profits that specialize in immigration or public defender offices with large numbers of non-citizen clients. While I’m very excited to begin my non-fellowship staff attorney job in the fall, I hesitated at first before taking the job because I would likely gain less experience working on this particular immigration issue than in the fellowship position I had been seeking (and by that point, in the spring of my 3L year, I assumed I would be taking).
Ultimately, though, I am not sure that the fellowship process is on the whole a good thing for those of us who are entering the legal profession. In many public interest fields, especially those dominated by the non-profit sector, they have encouraged organizations to opt for temporary grant-funded labor rather than investing in their own resources to train and support new attorneys. This makes the job search process more competitive, and adds an extra layer of effort and stress to an already burdensome experience. On top of that, once you are in your fellowship position, the job search goes on, since you are either auditioning to be hired full-time by the same organization, or looking for the next step at the end of your one- or two-year term.
In short, fellowships offer some clear advantages, but regardless, may be an inevitable for most people looking to work in public interest fields. But while many of us can’t avoid the fellowship route, that doesn’t mean we can’t also look for alternatives.
The Elusive Full-Time Entry-Level Public Interest Job
There are full-time staff attorney jobs to be found in the public interest world, but it does take some digging around to find them. Many organizations, especially non-profits but also quite a few public defenders, generally do not hire graduating law students. I can’t recall how many times I found listings for what looked like great entry-level immigration jobs only to learn that “1-3 years experience” means “1-3 years post-law school experience”—no matter how much experience you actually have from your summers, clinics, etc. I want to share here a few tips I picked up for how to find the organizations that are hiring entry-level attorneys.
- Look for organizations known for their commitment to training new attorneys.
There are some organizations out there that believe in training new attorneys and have a reliable process for hiring them (e.g. a yearly “class”). In some of these cases, these organizations have a reputation as such, and you can ask professors and other mentors to help you find them. The San Diego Federal Defenders are one example: many federal defender offices do not hire entry-level attorneys, but San Diego has a (somewhat competitive) hiring process and rigorous training program. Another example is the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office: an office led by reformist DA Larry Krasner, who is on a push to hire and train new ADAs with a different vision of what prosecution looks like. My own job at Legal Aid Chicago also falls into this category, since I was hired as part of the organization’s fall class of new attorneys—though I only learned that they had this hiring process by finding their posting on my law school’s job board. Keeping up to date with job postings on law school sites, general job sites like Idealist, listservs, and the like might not always turn up good results, but it’s worth a shot.
- Be flexible about your specific practice area.
There are issues that come into and pass out of favor in the non-profit world, and it’s sometimes hard to predict what there will be need and support for at any given time. I assumed immigration would be in hot demand when I started law school mid-way through the Trump years, but by the time I started looking for jobs during the pandemic—in the face of a possible eviction wave—people started telling me to consider housing work. Particularly in the world of large legal aid organizations with many different civil practice areas, you might do well to consider applying for several types of positions. It may be possible later on to switch from one to another. If you’re thinking about this early on in your law school career, it’s a good idea to get some experience with multiple fields in your summers, clinics, and coursework, since it will make it easier for cover letters and interviews later if you can show some commitment to practice areas outside your primary interest.
- Consider private practice.
Private practice is obviously not a viable option for some types of public interest law. The private options may require foregoing the summer experience that is essential to building your public interest resume, or quite frankly the private work may be antithetical to the values that drove you to public interest law in the first place. But in some cases there may be private practice options that are compatible with your public interest goals. In immigration this can be an easier route, since there are plenty of private firms that share a similar mindset as non-profit practitioners and allow you to take cases other than the employment cases that make the most money. In the course of my search, I had several conversations with attorneys at private immigration firms, and even interviewed at one, though I did not end up deciding to go this route. Of course, you should talk to mentors to help you make sure that these firms are good places to work, since there is likely less information out there than for the firms that might come to your law school’s on-campus interviews.
Finding the right public interest law job is not easy, especially in the world of uncertain funding and mostly-remote communication we’re living in now. But if you start the process with realistic expectations, make use of your law school’s resources and your mentors’ advice (thanks Nicole!), and keep an open mind to various alternatives, you can end up finding a job without putting yourself through too much stress. Most importantly, though, don’t worry too much about finding the perfect job. It’s tempting to think of landing this job as a test of your skills in law school, or even a confirmation of whether you made the right decision in going to law school in the first place. More likely, it’s simply a test of your patience through a process that demands more of you and demands more of your time than what your Big Law-bound peers might experience. In any case, good luck!