Public Interest Careers
Whether looking for a summer clerkship or a post graduate position, there are some differences in how you approach a public interest job search as compared with a traditional legal job. Major differences include what employers are looking for, the kinds of jobs available, where to look for work, and the need to find funding for student summer positions.
What Employers Look For
Good grades and law review open doors everywhere, but public interest employers are more interested in your connection to the community and your commitment to the cause. Lewis & Clark students can build those qualities through our Public Interest Law Program. The Program features a robust Pro Bono Program and numerous Clinics, as well as support for summer opportunities through PILP Awards, Lezak Legacy Fellowships and the NW Public Service Career Fairs. Students may focus their time at Lewis & Clark by earning a Public Interest Certificate. Students should utilize the Director of Public Interest Law, who is a member of the Career & Professional Development Center and who is dedicated to helping those seeking public interest and public service careers.
Our Alumni can apply to the LRAP for help with loan payments, and can continue to work with the Director of Public Interest Law as their careers evolve.
Fellowships are post graduate positions unique to public interest work, but not all fellowships are exactly alike. Common to all fellowships is the fact that they are for a limited period, typically one or two years. These positions typically accept applications in the fall of a student’s third year, and can be the only way to get an entry-level position at large non-profits and NGOs.
Some fellowships require a cover letter and resume, just like a traditional employer. Other fellowships are project based. Students are required to develop their own work project, find an organization that will host them, and then apply to a third party for funding. It takes time and care to develop the project and sell it to a funder, but successful applicants get to create their own dream jobs. Planning should start well in advance. If you have a plan to help save the world, even just a small portion of it, project based fellowships may be for you.
Read more about these and other kinds of fellowships in our Post Graduate Public Interest Fellowship Manual. Search for jobs like fellowships, project sponsors, and hosts on PSJD.org (registration is free for Lewis & Clark students and alumni), and visit Equal Justice Works, one of the largest project funders.
Finding public interest work
Many public interest employers post jobs with Lewis & Clark, but there are other places to look as well. For students looking for summer work, most employers do not post and prefer that you contact them about opportunities. Here are some ideas for finding a public interest position:
- Pick up a copy of the Public Service and Public Interest Directory from the Career & Professional Development Center, which contains listings and descriptions of public interest employers in Oregon and Washington.
- Check PSJD.org, a national database of job postings for public service employers.
- Talk with the CPDC counselors about your areas of interest.
- Volunteer through the Pro Bono Program. Volunteering for an organization can lead to ongoing work.
- Apply for jobs and volunteer opportunities through the NW Public Service Career Fairs held in February. Portland, Seattle, and national public service offices recruit here and in Seattle. Applications are due in January.
- Review state or local Bar Association websites for pro bono opportunities. The Oregon State Bar lists pro bono opportunities for attorneys; organizations may also accept student volunteers or clerks.
- Ask other students what public interest organizations they have clerked for.
- Help PILP. The Public Interest Law Project engages in fundraising activities to help students fund their summer public interest work. PILP has a list of prior hosts.
- Review the Externship page of the Career Services website. Employers who have accepted unpaid externs may take a law clerk.
- Attend panels and programs that include public interest attorneys. Introduce yourself and ask about any opportunities with their organization or with other employers in the same field.
- Go to the Equal Justice Works Career Fair. In October, Equal Justice Works holds a career fair in the DC area. Nonprofits and governmental offices search for school-year and summer externs and clerks. Applications are due in September.
Funding summer work
Although many public interest employers welcome law student involvement, many cannot afford to pay a law clerk and will expect you to “bring your own funding.” There are several funding options to explore, including:
- Federal Work-Study – Provides partial funding for eligible government and non-profit legal employers to hire paid law clerks. To receive Federal Work-study funding, students must qualify financially, and the employers must be awarded a contract.
- PILP Awards – Funds students to perform summer work at public interest organizations. PILP organizes an annual auction to raise funds and grants 15-20 summer awards. The application deadline is usually in March.
- Lezak Legacy Fellowship Program – Funds four to five students to work in public interest law positions for the summer. The Fellowship seeks students with a history of working for social justice, or who plan to work for social justice. The Fellows Program also provides assigned mentors for each Fellow.
- Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps JD – Awards $1,000+ education awards for students working in specific public interest priority areas during the summer or school-year. Award can be in addition to other sources of funding like work study or stipend. Applications are due in April or May.
- PSJD.org – PSJD maintains two lists of summer funding sources across the country, one location based and one universal. Look for the PSJD’s Resources Renter.
- Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) – Provides summer funding for law students working at Chicago public interest organizations.
- Peggy Browning Fund – Provides summer funding for students interested in workers’ rights issues. (Lewis & Clark is a member school).
- Externships – Provides school credit for full-time work unlocking summer financial aid. Available to students the summer after their 1L or 2L year or during their 2L and 3L year.
Many stipends and fellowships are not awarded until late spring, but some have fall or early spring deadlines. Check early (and often) to make sure you do not miss a good opportunity!