Applying for Public Interest Fellowships Without Fear: Tips from a Former Equal Justice Works Fellow

As a public interest career counselor I meet with a number of law students who are interested in practicing law at nonprofit organizations after graduation.  Many of these organizations are unable to hire even one law school graduate, much less an entry-level class of graduates, due to funding constraints.  Post-graduate fellowships allow law graduates to get their foot in the door at nonprofit entities where they would, otherwise, be unable to do so.

Many of these fellowships, including the popular Equal Justice Works and Skadden programs, are project-based in nature.  The fellowships require applicants, in collaboration with a legal services organization, to develop a legal services project that cannot be handled by a current staff attorney and addresses the unmet needs of a portion of the population.  Unfortunately, many committed public interest candidates struggle to find a host organization to partner with in order to timely develop a project topic.  As a result, candidates prematurely eliminate themselves from contention for these opportunities due to a lack of knowledge and/or intimidation about the application process.

In an attempt to demystify the application process, I recently met with Laura Daly, Esq., a former Equal Justice Fellow and graduate of the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University (2008).  Laura is the Legal Director of the Education Advocacy Project (“Project”) and staff attorney with the Manhattan-based advocacy organization Lawyers for Children (“LFC”). The Project team handles all education-related matters for LFC, including educational rights advocacy in both the Family Court system and aadministrative due process hearings against the Department of Education.

In the 5 tips set forth below, Laura anecdotally provides practical and, I hope, reassuring advice for those interested in jumpstarting their legal careers at a nonprofit entity:

  1. Successful applicants clearly communicate a commitment to public service.

Laura explains that the strongest applicants demonstrate “some type of substantial public interest [history] or involvement” through volunteerism, internships or prior career related to the public interest arena.  Laura hails from a family and academic environments which emphasized community service.  As an undergrad at Loyola University Maryland, Laura tutored and mentored charter school students in Baltimore.  As an undergrad, Laura knew she wanted to work with children, but she also had a growing interest in the law.  It was in law school, that Laura realized she could fulfill her passion to advocate for children and work as a legal professional.  At Hofstra Law, Laura served as Managing Editor of the Family Court Review, interned with a family court judge, worked as a legal advocate in Family Court through Hofstra Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic, and interned with current employer LFC.

As important as it is to acquire public interest experience, it is equally as important for applicants to clearly convey that commitment to public service whether applying for internships or for post-graduate fellowship.  Laura boils it down to applicants being able to sell themselves and show a passion for public interest work on paper and during an interview.  Applicants who know that public interest work is their calling “should go after it” during the interview process.

  1. Successful applicants proactively establish relationships/partnerships with public interest employers EARLY in law school.

Contemplate, identify and research potential opportunities as early as possible.  Laura emphasizes that during “the second summer, at the latest, [a student] should be interning where [s/he] envisions working [after graduation]; even the 1L summer helps.”

Laura interned with LFC during her 2L summer.  Early into the internship, Laura knew that she wanted to work at LFC after law school but, as a non-profit entity, LFC did not have the financial resources to hire and train recent law school graduates.  Laura took the proactive approach, talked to LFC’s Deputy Executive Director about her desire to work at LFC on a permanent basis and wanted to know “how we could make this happen. “ LFC advised her to apply for post-graduate fellowships including Equal Justice Works and Skadden.

Laura found it beneficial to have worked at the organization in crafting her application and points out the importance of establishing relationships with potential host organizations through internships or volunteer work:  “It’s more intimidating to apply if you didn’t work at the host organization or if you don’t have a host organization and you are [blindly] asking places . . . .”  Applicants who are unsure about how to identify potential employers should speak with law school faculty, especially clinical advisors. Applicants should also consult with their career services and pro bono advisors for employer suggestions.

  1. Successful applicants are not required to present themselves as subject matter experts.

Many applicants are dissuaded from applying for these types of fellowships because they may feel the need to possess an expert-level knowledge about a given practice area at almost an expert level.  While such expertise is always helpful, it is not mandatory in order to develop a viable fellowship project. In fact, Laura did not have a background in education when she started her fellowship at LFC, but the training she received during her two-year fellowship allowed her to essentially become LFC’s “in-house expert” on education. Simply put:  “[d]on’t expect to be an expert because you are doing an application; you are doing an application to become an expert once you [start to work at the host organization].”

Laura notes that a pre-existing relationship with the partner organization is most advantageous because it makes it easier to talk with the organization about its specific legal service needs when preparing the project proposal.  Other resources to utilize during the brainstorming and drafting process include: practitioners at other organizations that perform similar work and supportive law school faculty who possess relevant subject matter expertise.

  1. Successful applicants propose focused and sustainable legal projects.

Fellowship sponsors emphasize in the application materials that a project proposal must be specific and sustainable—that it focuses on definitive legal issues or themes and will last past the fellowship’s formal shelf life.

The proposed project needs to provide law-related services as opposed to a purely social services type of project.  It is imperative to the proposal’s viability that the host organization does not already provide the type of legal service that you seek to provide through the proposed project—“there [must be a] definite need for [the proposed legal service]  . . .by “this specific population that is serviced by [the host organization].”  In her personal experience, Laura and LFC pinpointed LFC’s needs in 2008 to education/special education needs of children in the foster care system because it did not have such a project at the time.

For her fellowship proposal, Laura relied on statistical information in order to substantiate the need for her education project with LFC.  She adds that where statistical information is unavailable, addressing an organizations need for certain legal services based on personal experience as an intern is a good way to make an application positively persuasive.

  1. Successful applicants create opportunities to jumpstart their professional brand.

Laura cited the rewards she has reaped as a result of proactively pursuing a post-graduate fellowship:

  • Her experience as an Equal Justice Fellow has come full circle-- she supervised an intern who recently started a post-graduate public interest fellowship at LFC.
  • She continues to manage the legal services project she helped to develop and launch 6 years ago as a law school graduate.  In fact, LFC has several legal services projects that started as post-graduate public interest fellowships.
  • She developed her proposal into an area of legal expertise and, in turn, garnered respect within the legal bar and fostered collegial working relationships with other organizations that are typically her adversaries in court.
  • Laura continues to hone her subject matter expertise and LFC’s mission through collaborative efforts with non-profit education advocates, government agencies and other public interest education institutions through task force groups.

For more information about post-graduate public interest legal fellowships please visit the Public Service Jobs Directory which offers valuable advice and guidance about a variety of research based and organizational based post-graduate fellowships.

Like Laura, careful timing and foresight can also put you in the driver’s seat of your public interest legal career, while empowering those who are not in a position to do so on their own.   I wish you all tremendous success with your applications!

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