kmiceli

What To Do When Your School Can’t Help You Get a Policy Job

In law school, I had an amazing party trick. The first month of school everyone was asking the three standard questions. “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” And finally, “what do you want to practice?” The first two elicited pretty typical responses. But, the third was my astounding trick. Instead of saying I wanted to be a prosecutor or a civil litigator, I said I wanted to work in policy. Brows furrowed. Jaws dropped. Panic flickered in their eyes. They could not understand why someone would suffer the three-year torture of law school to never see the inside of a courtroom.

While I expected this reaction from classmates, I did not expect it from my own career services office. My 1L year, I set up a meeting with a career services staff member and told her my dream was to work at the National Women’s Law Center. She gently told me that I should try something where I could gain “more varied experience”. In other words; work at a law firm, for a prosecutor, or for a public defender. Bonus points if you work for a judge. I left the meeting disappointed and confused. My other friends who were interested in more traditional fields received encouragement and advice. This pattern continued throughout law school for myself and several others with similar career interests. Even when I started my post-law school job search, I was told in no uncertain terms I would regret not doing a clerkship or getting some firm experience.

I asked to write this particular blog post because I know many of you have similar experiences at your schools. Everyone claims to be “ra ra public interest” when the reality is they don’t have the institutional knowledge or resources to support the number of students interested in policy work. Luckily, I’ve been through it and can pass along how I did it.

Networks Matter

The first thing you need to accept about policy work is that everything runs on a word-of-mouth, you need to know somebody type of network. I’m currently working on the Hill and almost everyone I know got their job because someone knew someone and dropped their name. This adds an obstacle for many students who are coming from out of state, are first-generation law students, or lack connections in the policy world. Policy work adds an additional hurdle because law schools are not deeply familiar with the employment or fellowship application process.

If you’re just starting out, it can seem very difficult to build your network because you don’t know where to begin or how to contact potential connections. But, fear not, this is where I come in! You should start to work the connections you already have, your professors and fellow students. Let’s say you’re interested in employment policy. Go talk with the professors who teach employment law, employment discrimination, and labor law or speak with a student who interned for the EEOC, NLRB, or Department of Labor. They will likely know someone they can put you in touch with for a coffee or a phone call if distance is an issue. If you’re currently interning somewhere, ask your colleagues and supervisors if they know anyone you should meet.

Another way to build your network is to expand outside the law student community. I participated in an excellent political leadership program, The Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, while in law school. This provided me with a network of 23 peers who work for U.S. Senators, state Delegates, and various advocacy organizations. I still frequently call on my fellow classmates when I need help on an issue or want to know if certain legislators are hiring. Additionally, I joined the Planned Parenthood junior board and a millennial advocacy junior board in my area. This allowed me to expand my horizons and connect with non-law students on issues I was passionate about. It also acts as a resume boost and shows your knowledge and interest for certain subjects outside of internship experience.

Lastly, and it truly pains me to say this as I loathed doing this as a law student, go to networking events. You need to see networking events as an opportunity to meet potential employers or connections. For example, let’s say you’re going to an event with family law attorneys. Brush up on the policy issues affecting family law and any experts in the area. Prepare for them to be at the event and mention something they’ve done recently. One time I was at a networking happy hour and I spoke for a while with a woman who told me she worked at the EEOC. I assumed she just worked as an attorney or policy advisor and kept the conversation to general topics of employment law. After she left, someone told me she was an EEOC Commissioner! I was kicking myself the rest of the night because that could have been a major opportunity if I had done some research before the event.

Get as Much Experience as Possible

There’s a running joke in my family about the number of internships I’ve done, specifically unpaid. While in law school, I did five internships of which four were policy related. I understand that five internships may seem excessive, but I’ve been told in every job interview I’ve done that my work experience sets me apart from other applicants. Unlike big firms and clerkships, policy jobs put less stock in your GPA and Law Review experience. They care much more about what practical experience you’ve gotten. I’m not telling you to completely stop caring about your grades and quit your law journal, because good grades and research experience are critical for some employers. But, you should be thinking more broadly about how to set yourself apart from your classmates and work experience is the best way to do that.

If you’re interested in politics, contact your local legislator or representative. Even if you don’t go to school in a state capital, there are representatives for every area of a state. Don’t be afraid to go local like the school board, city council, or Mayor’s office. If you’re interested in advocacy, contact any organizations based in your area. If there aren’t any, broaden your search to your state and see if they would allow you to do research remotely. If you’re interested in a specific topic, contact the professor who teaches in that area. They may need a research assistant or help with a law review article.

I’m aware that unpaid internships are not available to everyone, especially law students who are parents or working full-time. Unfortunately, the reality of policy jobs involves a decent amount of unpaid labor. The best way to rectify this issue is to see if you can get class credit for an internship or ask if your school will provide a small stipend. Some really great jobs may even offer to pay you! I wish I had better advice on that front, but I never figured it out myself.

Long story short, policy jobs are not impossible to get! I know it can seem frustrating and hopeless to pursue a career no one in your law school understands. Trust me, I was that frustrated person. Work on growing your network and getting experience any way you can. To end on a brighter note, after my disappointing meeting with the career services staff at my school, I vowed to work at National Women’s Law Center no matter what it took. I ended up getting a job there that summer.

Please feel free to reach out to me with further questions. I'm happy to help!

This post has been brought to you by the Ms. JD Journalists. If you have suggestions for any topics that you think should be covered on Ms. JD, feel free to email your suggestions to contentdirector@ms-jd.org and the Ms. JD Journalists will get right on it.

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