This blog post was contributed by Marlene Bennett, Senior Attorney of the Health Legal Services, a program of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. For more information on how to be proactive with social justice opportunities, click here: http://www.lawfoundation.org/index.asp.
Students planning to work in the public interest/social justice/legal services sector follow a much different path than the traditional OCI, second summer ends with a job offer route. Unless you’ve been fortunate (and forward-thinking) enough to receive a fellowship, students hoping to work in legal aid or the like will not have a job lined up at graduation. And that is FINE. Organizations like mine generally do not hire until there is an opening and those openings do not generally correspond with graduation or even the Bar exam.
Finding a job in PI/SJ is a process that begins your 1L year and carries on until you are hired. Below are some of the steps you can take to better your chances of securing one of these jobs, and ways to impress the attorneys reviewing your résumé:
- Start early.
In my experience, a demonstrated commitment to public interest work is essential to an applicant being considered for a position. It is important to have a connection to the work and a genuine interest in doing it. In order to build this experience and to show your dedication to the field, you should start your 1L year. The Alexander Center has great opportunities for 1Ls to volunteer at advice clinics. Legal Services organizations also hire 1Ls for summer internships. Take advantage of volunteer opportunities through the law school and make sure you document them on your résumé or in your cover letter. It all counts!
2. Take it seriously.
Though you’re (most likely) not being paid for your social justice internship, this does not mean that you don’t have to approach it with the same professionalism as you would at a BigLaw gig. The legal services community is relatively small and tight knit. We will call your references. So, when you work for one of us, work hard, be reliable, and take the opportunity to learn from your colleagues. The impressions you make during law school will follow you into the profession.
It’s not just for hopeful litigators and in-house counsels. Networking is incredibly important in the public interest sector. The people you meet could be the ones to send you job announcements, introduce you to other organizations, or even hire you. When my former clerks are looking for work, I send them every lead I have. Get to know your colleagues during your internships or volunteer work. Use the alumni network to ask folks to talk about their jobs over coffee. Don’t be shy: attorneys love to talk about themselves. Your network in the legal services world is just as important as a network in white shoe law – maybe more so.
4. Try not to worry about the money aspect.
The best advice I received in law school (Thank you, Mr. Brown!) was to do fulfilling work and the money issue would sort itself out. I love my job. I say that in all honesty. My colleagues are smart, fun and supportive; my clients are kind and grateful; and, my legal practice keeps me interested and feels important. “Fulfilling” is a perfect description.
Also, in all honesty, I have a LOT of debt. Despite scholarships during law school, I still graduated with over $90,000 in student loans. Just as Mr. Brown said, though, the money issue is working itself out. Thankfully, the majority of my loans were federal and I can participate in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. As long as I continue in a non-profit or government job and make minimum payments, in 2020 my remaining loan balance will be wiped away. I still have to live within the means of my salary and watch my budget. It all works out, though, and I’m able to pay my bills, take vacations and even put a little away in my savings account. The money does not have to be a deal breaker.
5. Stick with it.
As I mentioned above, legal services employers want to see a demonstrated commitment to social justice from applicants. Participate in clinics – KGACLC is right at your fingertips. Take internships, externships and clerkships during the summer and during the academic year – these placements will teach you more about being an attorney than any book. Join the Public Interest/Social Justice student groups, attend their meetings and lunchtime speakers – you never know when you’ll meet an attorney with a job that interests you. Take classes in the Public Interest/Social Justice Certificate curriculum – these professors know more people than you may think. Keep notes and put all of this experience somewhere in your résumé or cover letter.
After you’ve done all of this, don’t give up: keep up your contacts; watch www.psjd.org for job postings; after Bar study, volunteer at a legal aid office. I was fortunate enough to find my job in September after the Bar. However, I’ve seen friends and colleagues apply and search for much longer. They all eventually got hired, and you will, too.