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.
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It’s clerkship application season, so it seemed like a good time to do a post about the role judicial clerkships play in public interest careers.
For those who don’t know, judicial law clerks work for a judge for a year or two after graduating from law school. They write memos for the judge, draft opinions and orders, and provide logistical support for the judge’s courtroom. Most judges―state, federal, magistrate, and administrative―have law clerks, though not all of them have clerks they hire for a year at a time. Some hire career law clerks who hold their positions indefinitely. In this post, I am mainly talking about short-term clerkships because this is what people are talking about when they talk about clerkships in law school.
Judicial clerkships are coveted positions that signal prestige, accomplishment, and potential. Lawyers who clerk will earn hefty bonuses if they go on to work at a big law firm. Clerkships are also important for those wanting to become law professors (over half of law professors hired in 2020 had done at least one clerkship). If you want to be an appellate lawyer or have an active Supreme Court practice, having a clerkship on your resume is crucial.
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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.
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.
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In Code of Capital, Katerina Pistor writes about how one of the fundamental objectives of law is to create and protect wealth, and that lawyers are the skilled craftspeople who engineer this process. “Lawyers,” she writes, “are commonly described as legal service providers. This description, however, greatly understates the contribution that lawyers make in the coding of capital, and through it, to the creation and distribution of wealth in society.”
Not all law firm work meets this description, but a lot of it does. It makes sense when you think about it. Why would anyone pay a 25-year-old right out of law school $180K a year if they weren’t making someone richer? Most people I know didn’t go to law school to make rich people and corporations more money. And yet, that is largely what they ended up doing.
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A few years after I had graduated law school, my husband (also a public interest lawyer) and I were sitting at an upscale restaurant in New York City with another couple who were both lawyers working at big law firms. As we drank our second glasses of wine, one of them asked me about my work. I began telling them about a case I was litigating against the consul general of a foreign state who had subjected one of his domestic employees to indentured servitude. There were many twists and turns in the story involving diplomatic immunity and the State Department and an opposing counsel prone to violent outbursts when he was losing.
The couple listened intently. At the end of the story, the wife said, “your work sounds so interesting and important. I am so jealous.” “Many people transition from law firms to public interest jobs,” I said and I started to talk about the people I knew who had made the switch. But she shook her head and said, “we could never afford it. It’s so expensive to live in the city.”
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