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After working as a teacher, Nicole Dooley (HLS/HKS ’09) enrolled in a joint J.D./M.P.P. with the knowledge that she eventually wanted to effect change in the education system. Nicole concentrated her time at Harvard on gaining valuable, hands-on experience in education and public interest law.Nicole Dooley, HLS alumna

That hands-on experience came in a variety of forms. Because of her joint degree with the Harvard Kennedy School and an internship she held after graduating and before she started clerking, made possible by her holding off on taking the bar for a year, Nicole had four internships. Nicole worked with a legal services organization in South Dakota, an NGO in India in the education space, the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, and the Children’s Legal Bureau in the Philippines. Her joint degree proved valuable in landing her positions in India and the Philippines, which she secured because of HKS connections.

In addition, she leveraged Harvard’s clinical opportunities, participating in the Child Advocacy Clinic and the Criminal Justice Institute, in which she dealt primarily with juvenile clients. All of these experiences, she said, were intended to prepare her for postgraduate job opportunities: her clinics and internships were invaluable in learning more about the area in which she wanted to focus after her time at Harvard.

After a clerkship with the Alaska Supreme Court and five years with the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program, Nicole landed her current position as an Attorney-Advisor in the US Department of Education’s (ED) Office for Civil Rights, where she has worked for the last year. All three of those positions, she said, have extensively utilized her law degree, although her HKS background has been a point of interest for many employers in interviews and an asset that has supplemented her legal background.

Now, her office at ED is responsible for investigating complaints of discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age—any entity that accepts ED funding (e.g., public schools, universities) can be charged with a discrimination complaint on the basis of any of those areas. Nicole’s work deals with a variety of areas: investigating individual complaints, gathering data from relevant entities, interviewing entities about any disparate treatment, and summarizing and making conclusions on whether certain entities are violating the anti-discrimination laws in question. Her days may include anything from negotiating agreements to address civil rights concern to performing data analysis on disparate discipline rates of subgroups of students in school districts to investigating whether individuals with disabilities were treated in a discriminatory manner in being prevented from participating in after-school activities. While her workflow is steady and the number of complaints continues to rise, Nicole says that additional hiring of 100 new staffers across the nation has helped her office to address complaints in a timely manner.

While at HLS and HKS, Nicole did not lose sight of her end goal of effecting change in the education space. She advises current students to concentrate on their post-law school goals rather than the insular pressures of law school to avoid getting “caught up in law school for the sake of law school.”