Finding a 1L Public Interest Job: A How-To Guide


Congratulations, 1L. You’ve decided to take the Summer Public Interest Funding and volunteer your services this summer. Not only do you get to help with the SPIF Auction, which is one of the highlights of the spring semester, you’re going to help others without going broke.

SPIF was one of the reasons I came to HLS. I believed Harvard when it said it supported public sector work, and my experience last summer did not disappoint me.

Below, you’ll find a list of my suggestions on how to pick potential places to volunteer and general advice on the process, but first I’d like to tell you a story about a couple of friends of mine:

All three of us graduated with honors from “a prestigious private university in California.” My two friends went on to law school at “a prestigious public university in California” across the bay from our alma mater.

They both volunteered their time for the summer, gratis, and not because they wouldn’t have taken firm jobs. They tried to find firm jobs, and eventually decided that they had no choice but to work for free.

You have a choice. If you try hard enough, send out dozens of resumes, follow up on them, and go to recruitment fairs, you will, in all probability, find a job at a law firm. You may have spent a healthy portion of prime 1L study time applying for a summer position, but you will end up with a job.

If you’re reading this column, however, you are probably already considering doing public interest work this summer. One of your fears may be that if you don’t take a firm job this summer you won’t be qualified for one next year. Having completed callbacks and received offers, I can tell you that this is unlikely

Yes, I had employers ask me about my summer job at a nonprofit law firm and why I was applying to law firms this summer. Firms that discourage public interest work, however, are not the firms that would be the best fit for me.

Let’s say that you’ve decided to skip a firm for this summer, and are now looking for a public interest job. What are some factors you should consider and steps you should take?

1. Sign up for Summer Public Interest Funding. Even if you don’t end up taking a job that qualifies for SPIF, you can still register for the funds and let them know later in the year that you won’t need them.

2. Pick an area. Because you’re an HLS student working for free, many of the places to which you apply will seriously consider you for a summer position. Do yourself a favor and narrow your search either by subject area and/or geographic area. Are you outraged by the criminal penalties and disproportionate arrest rates for drug possession? Look for organizations that do criminal defense. Is your girlfriend a student in Chicago? There are many places doing interesting work in the metro area.

3. Limit your applications. This may be a corollary to my second point, but, unlike your peers who are applying to law firms, you will not have to send out scores of applications. In fact, you may not have to apply to many more than ten.

4. Be flexible about timetables. I sent out my applications shortly before the end of the semester and had organizations getting back to me over the winter break. By the time I returned for finals, I had already accepted a summer internship. Throughout the winter, though, I was receiving replies to my resumes. Some organizations take longer to screen applicants, so if there’s an employer that is of special interest to you and you are facing a deadline from another organization, give them a polite call and ask if they can expedite their review of your application.

5. Get the big, green guide from the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising. OPIA’s book was invaluable to me in providing examples of resumes and cover letters, as well as listing potential summer employers. The green book is more recent than some of the specific area guides, so even if you’re only interested in one area, make sure you pick up the green guide in addition to any of the smaller packets.

6. Talk with an OPIA advisor. Lisa Williams helped me clarify some of my goals for summer positions, i.e. the type of work was more important to me than where I worked. Alexa Shabecoff was able to put me in touch with contacts in several organizations of interest.

7. Look for additional funding opportunities. There are a variety of additional fellowships available for various types of work, like the Chayes for international public work, or for different locales. I received a fellowship for my work in Philadelphia from the local Harvard Alumni Association. My award allowed me to meet my funding cap for the summer.

8. Try not to worry about the money. If you make a lot of money, you will only be giving most of it back to HLS in the fall. Embrace this opportunity to explore something more exotic.

For you 2Ls, all this advice still applies. Especially point 8. We go to the most prestigious law school in the world, rankings notwithstanding. If you decide at any point that working for a firm is something you want to do, you will find a position. On the other hand, it is much harder to find a paying public sector job.

Law firms may seem like the default, but law students are highly mobile and a wide range of experience may be the best preparation you can have for your future career, whatever it may be. We will not all end up in the same place.

SPIF lets you make the decision. Where do you want to work? What kind of work do you want to do? You can.

Email Erin at earcherd@law if you’d like to talk about her work in education law last summer, or with any other SPIF questions. She may not be able to answer them, but she loves to talk.

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