Public Interest Job Search Strategies


The basic steps of the job search process are fully discussed in the Introduction to Career Development site. However, there are a few points of the public interest job search process that merit special mention here.

1. Self-Assessment
2. Credentials
3. Résumés and Cover Letters
4. Interviews
5. Meeting the Challenges of a Fluctuating Market

1. Self-Assessment

In charting your career path, you should start by determining your values, needs, and aspirations. Recognize your own strengths and abilities. Analyzing past experiences and current interests will help you understand what fulfills you, so that you can ultimately find gratifying work. With so many public interest options, but limited job search time, you can target potential employers in a realistic manner, based on the results of your self-assessment.

In addition to helping you find professional satisfaction; self-assessment has a very practical application. When interviewing for public interest positions, it is imperative that you demonstrate your commitment to and passion for public interest work. The process of self-assessment should help you articulate your desire to work in the public sector more effectively. You must also demonstrate what you can offer the organization or agency. In a tight market, the more time you spend figuring out what makes you stand out from the crowd, the better your chances for success will be. Therefore, your mental work in thinking about your skills, values, and goals and how they relate to public interest careers will prepare you to sell yourself at an interview. Your prior public interest employment and activities will allow you to showcase relevant skills, knowledge, and commitment.

 

2. Credentials

Public interest employers are likely to seek a wide range of credentials and qualities for summer and permanent employment. For public interest job seekers, experience, commitment, and personal qualities are the basic components of the “package” that is presented to a prospective legal employer. Employers want to know that you are committed to public interest work and that you are concerned about the issues they handle and the clients they serve. Although the phrase “building your credentials” makes the process sound mechanical and perhaps superficial, it isn’t. The challenge of building one’s professional credentials can be an exciting, educational experience.

 

3. Résumés and Cover Letters

As in all types of job searches, your résumé for a public interest job is a snapshot of your education, experience, and special skills. For public interest jobs, you must convey a strong interest and commitment to the job. Be sure to include other previous public interest experience. While direct experience in a public interest practice area is not a prerequisite, most employers look for a demonstrated commitment to public interest generally and, if possible, to their issue or the clients they serve. In addition, you must show that your education, employment, and volunteer work have allowed you to develop skills and experience that relate to the duties of the position. Direct service organizations, for example, are looking for people who have experience interviewing and working with clients. For more information on resumes, review the CDO’s resume advice page.

Your cover letter is an essential opportunity to demonstrate who you are and to convince an employer that you are passionate about their issue/client/advocacy and qualified for the position. Public interest employers generally read cover letters and often think of it as an additional writing sample. Take the time to make the connection between your past experiences and current career goals without just repeating the information on your résumé. A public interest cover letter is typically a full-page in length.

Your cover letter should include who you are (I’m a first-year student at Yale Law School), what you want (seeking a summer internship) and whether you have funding. If you spoke to a past intern or met someone from that office at a presentation, do include that information in your cover letter. Public interest employers are less concerned with grades and more concerned with what relevant experience you have had and your genuine public interest goals. For more information on cover letters, review the CDO’s advice webpage on cover letters.

 

4. Interviews

The interview is your chance to impress the public interest employer. Interviews for summer placements are usually less formal than those for permanent positions. Some consist of a short telephone conversation on the phone and some public interest employers even hire 1Ls volunteers on the basis of the résumé and cover letter alone, but most employers will want to speak with candidates to assess their fit for the office and its work

The key to a good interview is to prepare: research the organization and its current work, talk to students who have worked there, and practice answering interview questions. Knowledgeable questions about the current work of the organization are bound to engage the interviewers. These questions should also help you decide whether the organization fits with your interests and goals. CDO conducts a program on interview techniques and a mock interview program to help you refine your interviewing skills. In addition, CDO counselors are available to answer specific questions. Consult the CDO interview page and participate in CDO’s mock interview programs offered throughout the year.

Public interest employers typically are not able to reimburse you for travel expenses to the interview. If you cannot afford to travel to an interview, do not be discouraged but instead ask for a telephone interview. If you are a 2L, 3L or LLM, CDO’s TRI PI (Travel Reimbursement for Interviews in the Public Interest) program provides for some reimbursement of interview expenses for those seeking public interest work. For more information, visit the TRI PI program website.  

 

5. Meeting the Challenges of a Fluctuating Market

Like every sector of the job market, the public interest sector fluctuates. However, if a particular arena of the public interest market is in decline, another may be doing well. Public defender offices often hire a “class” of recent graduates and some legal services office in major cities have had a recent influx of funding to support hiring new attorneys for eviction defense. The key to surviving a tough market is flexibility. Consider the following strategies.

Short-Term Post-Graduate Opportunities. Find clerkships, fellowships, or other short-term post-graduate opportunities. These jobs can make you more desirable to public interest employers and give you valuable skills for later use.

Government Opportunities. Work for an expanding federal, state, or local government. The government depends less on fundraising than nonprofits do and often has a consistent hiring process from year to year. The government sector, however, can fluctuate, particularly during times of economic downturn, and some local or state governments will hire while others will downsize.

Look into Less Populated Areas. Consider legal aid, public defender, or local prosecutor jobs in less populated locations.

Find a Job that Requires Similar Skills to your Ideal Job. For example, if you’d like to be a housing attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York but it is in a hiring freeze, you may want to look into housing advocacy/tenant group jobs, other direct services organizations working with individual clients and build litigation skills, or find policy or public advocacy position in the housing area. All these options will make you a more desirable candidate when the freeze is lifted.

Join an Official “Volunteer” Program. Work at the Peace Corps, at one of Equal Justice Works summer programs, or a similar volunteer program.

Join the ABA and State and Local Bar Associations. You can serve on committees in these bar associations that touch on your particular public service field. In addition to networking, you’ll have the opportunity to do good work and stay on top of emerging trends.

Do Pro Bono Work. If you can’t find paying work in the nonprofit or government sector, consider volunteering with your favorite nonprofit while you continue to search. This provides great experience, hopefully a good reference, and valuable networking opportunities.

Consider Working at a Public Interest Law firm or a Private Law Firm to do pro bono work.  Such a position can provide you with interesting work and increase your legal skills for a later job hunt.

Start Your Own Nonprofit or Private Public Interest Firm. This requires a significant time investment but is possible.

Suggested Timetables for Public Interest Job Search Activities


Month Activities
September - October
  • Assess your career interests, skills, and values.

  • Attend lectures, programs, and public interest events at YLS, such as “1L Orientation to CDO” and “1L Intro to Public Interest Careers.”

  • Consider joining a journal or student organization(such as the Civil Rights Project) that reflects your public service interest(s).

  • Late September/Early October, attend resume and interview workshops and make an appointment with a career counselor; visit the CDO website to familiarize yourself with its many public interest resources, including guides and advice pages.

  • Consider attending the Equal Justice Works Career Fair and Conference in DC for panels and table talk only.

November - December
  • Attend the Public Interest Student Career Fair (Late October/Early November).

  • Develop your list of desired employers. Read online student summer evaluations (available in CMS) and talk to students who previously worked at places that interest you.

  • Begin preparing your job search materials, including cover letters, résumé, references, and possibly writing samples.

  • After December 1st, send your first “wave” of resumes and cover letters. (Start immediately for certain employers like the DOJ, USAO, ACLU).

  • Two weeks after your first “wave,” follow up with phone calls to employers.

  • Consider enrolling in a clinic for spring semester; investigate various clinic options.
  • Plan course selection to reflect and build on your employment interest(s).

  • Participate in a mock interview (November-January) to get some practice.

  • During winter break, investigate job opportunities, network, and reach out to employers; purchase interviewing clothes.

January - May
  • Continue to assess your career interests, skills, and values; attend CDO’s spring programs and meet with alumni Mentors in Residence.

  • Meet with a career counselor about the job search if you are still looking.

  • Consider funding options for summer employment and, if needed, apply for YLS’ SPIF/Kirby Simon Summer Fellowships or outside summer funding like the Squire Patton Boggs Fellowship.

  • Consider attending the Yale Co-sponsored Public Interest Legal Career Fair at NYU (usually held in early February).

  • Attend the Rebellious Lawyering Conference (usually held in February).

  • Consider assuming a leadership role with student organizations.

  • Continue to attend public interest programs even after getting a summer job—there’s always next summer!

  • Report your summer job to CDO so you can help other YLS students.

 

Month Activities

August - October

  • Consider interviewing with public interest employers at the Public Interest Interview Program(PIIP), which is held in early September; you should also look at the participating employers list for the Virtual Interview Program (VIP), usually held in early August, as a few public interest employers with early deadlines usually attend .

  • Complete the online summer employment evaluation in CMS.

  • Consider applying for DOJ Summer Law Intern Program and other programs/jobs that hire in the early Fall.

  • Keep in touch with your 1L summer employer and consider using that person as a reference.

  • Explore and research your desired 2L summer employer by using CDO resources, PSJD, fellow students, and your contacts.

  • Send cover letters and resumes to targeted employers and conduct follow-up.

  • Continue to attend career programs, even after you have a job . . . no job is forever!

  • Consider attending the Equal Justice Works Career Fair and Conference in DC.

  • Volunteer to be a resource at the Public Interest Student Career Fair or simply attend (Late October).

  • Evaluate your existing commitments, and if you have not already done so, consider joining a journal or student organization.

  • Consider your clinical options for the upcoming year.

November - December

  • Continue contacting target employers, personalizing your cover letters and résumés, and networking.

  • Consider meeting with a career counselor about your job search before winter break.

  • During winter break, investigate job opportunities, network, and reach out to potential employers.

January - May

  • Consider attending the Yale Public Interest Legal Career Fair at NYU (typically registration begins in early December and ends in mid-January).

  • Attend the Rebellious Lawyering Conference (typically in February).

  • Consider attending the YLS Cover Retreat (Late February/Early March).

  • Learn about fellowships: attend introductory fellowship programs and various colloquia (such as Liman, Heyman, and Bernstein); speak to current and former fellowship recipients; familiarize yourself with the CDO online fellowship site, particularly the fellowship timeline.

  • If considering a fellowship, begin investigating fellowship deadlines by viewing PSJD’s Fellowship Application Deadline Calendar and consider how your fellowship aspirations may impact your choice of summer employer.

  • Consider funding options for summer employment and, if needed, apply for SPIF / Kirby Simon Summer Fellowships and outside summer funding like the Peggy Browning Fund.

  • Report your summer job to CDO so you can help other YLS students.

  • Check Bar Examination requirements online (National Conference of Bar Examiners: www.ncbex.org) and in Registrar’s Office to prepare for next year.

Summer
  • If fellowship-bound, review the Public Interest Fellowships page and timeline; talk to sponsoring organizations in early June and July; keep abreast of summer deadlines for project-based fellowships.

  • Schedule informational interviews with attorneys who are knowledgeable about your target job after graduation. Review the networking resource for more information.

  • Complete the online summer employment evaluation to help other students in CMS

 

Month Activities
August - October
  • Consider interviewing with public interest employers at the Public Interest Interview Program(PIIP), which is held in early September; you should also look at the participating employers list for the Virtual Interview Program (VIP), usually held in early August, as a few public interest employers with early deadlines usually attend .

  • If you haven’t already done so, complete the online summer employment evaluation in CMS.

  • Consider applying for DOJ Honors Program (deadline is typically in early September).

  • If desired, make a fellowship plan for the year and make sure to meet your application deadlines (check deadlines for EJW; Skadden; Soros; etc.).

  • Carry out your fellowship plan by continuing to apply for public interest fellowships, including YLS-sponsored fellowships external organizational fellowships, and pursuing your non-fellowship job search.

  • Consider attending the Equal Justice Works Career Fair and Conference in DC (Typically in October).

  • Continue to attend public interest career programs, focusing especially on meeting presenters and speaking with Mentors in Residence.

  • Make sure you know when to register for the Bar by checking the national site at www.ncbex.org.
November - December
  • Volunteer to be a resource in the Public Interest Student Career Fair (Late October).

  • Maintain and stretch your network; locate knowledgeable alumni; let them know you are seeking permanent employment. Follow up on all leads that your contacts provide for informational interviews or potential jobs.

  • Continue to send out targeted resumes and cover letters and conduct follow-up.

  • Consider meeting with a career counselor about your job search before winter break.

  • During winter break, investigate job opportunities, network, and reach out to potential employers.
January - May
  • Consider attending the Yale Co-Sponsored Public Interest Legal Career Fair at NYU, which is usually in early February.

  • Attend the Rebellious Lawyering Conference (Typically in February).

  • If you are still seeking employment, definitely attend the Cover Retreat (Late February/Early March).

  • Attend a program on COAP to understand loan repayment.

  • If unemployed, contact CDO and make an appointment with a career counselor about your job search.

  • Report your employment to CDO to be of service to fellow students.