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What should I be thinking about as I search for a first post-graduate job?

You are beginning a process of reflection, iteration, and transition that may last for years or even decades. But right now, concretely, you will be focusing on choosing a starting point for your public interest career.

Key goals in a first job:

  • Develop marketable, transferable skills relevant to the areas of practice you are most interested in and/or your theory of change – e.g., litigation skills (investigations, depositions, motions practice, brief writing), client or community skills (organizing, interviewing, active listening), legislative or regulatory drafting skills, etc.
  • Develop substantive knowledge or expertise related to your interest areas
  • Build your connections to organizations and practitioners working in fields or locations that may be of short- or long-term interest to you
  • As necessary, gain foundational experience that may be required for a specific career path (e.g., fieldwork experience for human rights work)

Keep in mind that you may not be able to meet all of these goals in your first job. However, your first job should help you build some of the skills and experience you will need for the next steps in your career.

Where have HLS 3Ls landed post-graduate public interest positions in the past?

Take a look at where 3Ls have landed jobs since 2015 to get a better sense of the many options available to you and to relieve anxiety you might be feeling about the job search process.

How do I find a post-graduate public interest job?

You can start by checking out our post-grad public interest job search FAQs to get answers on topics such as timing, strategy, and entry-level hiring mechanisms, monitoring our fellowship and entry-level job deadlines feed for the most recent entry-level postings we receive, and using our fellowship application calendar to plan out steps to take for certain fellowship processes. In addition, we have created this guide specifically for the entry-level public interest job search.

Step-by-Step Timeline

  • Step One: Reflect and Plan (2L Fall through 2L Summer)
    • Participate in clinics and student practice organizations
    • Continue to build your public interest track record
    • Build a network within and outside of HLS
    • Talk with visiting Wasserstein Fellows, alumni, and other practitioners
    • As you engage in classes, clinics, and internships, reflect on your interests and “best fit” work environments
      • What have I enjoyed and not enjoyed about my past experiences?
      • In what kinds of work environments have I felt the most engaged/fulfilled/challenged?
      • What goals do I have for my first few years of practice? Are they realistic?
      • What kinds of jobs am I interested in as future opportunities?
      • What are my geographic limitations?
      • Where do I have the most flexibility/where can I make compromises? In geography, work type, practice setting?
  • Step Two: Learn About Entry-Level Hiring Mechanisms, Timelines, and Starting Salaries (2L Fall through 2L Summer)
    • Make sure you understand the most common hiring mechanisms for the types of employers that interest you most. Most public interest employers prefer to hire experienced attorneys into open, full-time positions. As a result, a majority of HLS students will start their public interest careers through government honors programs or fellowships. Some employers, like the military, public defenders, prosecutors, certain plaintiffs’ and private public interest law firms (PPILFs), and some civil legal services organizations will hire 3Ls directly.
    • Develop as complete a picture as possible of your own expenses based on the cost of living in the region(s) where you are considering working. HLS’ J.D. Student Financial Services (SFS) has compiled various planning tools and tax resources, including a personal finance tool, to help you see your full financial picture.
    • Ensure that you have concrete information about the salary you would likely earn in the career path(s) you are considering. To the extent possible, we encourage you to focus not only on immediate post-graduate salaries but on salary trajectories over time.
    • Finally, make sure you understand the varying timelines different fields of employers follow when hiring entry-level attorneys or fellows, and make sure to begin your own planning process with those timelines in mind. Note that if you are also pursuing post-graduate clerkships, you may need to begin your public interest job/fellowship and clerkship searches at the same time.
  • Step Three: Develop a Personalized Job Search Plan and Timetable (2L Spring)
    • Schedule an appointment for general advising to develop a personal post-graduate job search game plan, and for fellowship advising to plan and get support in connection with a fellowship search. During these meetings, you can:
      • Discuss the results of your self-reflection (or where you are stuck in the process!)
      • Brainstorm about the post-graduate options that might best align with your goals, interests, and geographic preferences, and develop a list of first-choice and stepping-stone options
      • Discuss courses and clinics that might be helpful to pursue your 3L year in light of your job search goals
      • Ensure that you aren’t drawing your search parameters too narrowly or aren’t missing important hiring mechanisms for the jobs you are most interested in pursuing
    • Attend and/or watch the recordings of OPIA’s entry-level job search and fellowship sessions.
    • Consult our fellowship application calendar to better understand the fellowships timeline and how to prepare each month during your rising 3L summer and 3L year for the fellowship search.
    • Review our common job search mistakes to ensure you will avoid them yourself.
  • Step Four: Begin Applying for Fellowship Sponsorship for Project-Based Fellowships and for Early Organization-Based Fellowships (2L Spring)
    • Review OPIA’s Insiders’ Guide to Successful Fellowship & Grant Applications, our Developing a Fellowship Proposal video, and our sample sponsorship cover letters (located within the 3L Samples).
    • Note that fellowship sponsorship deadlines may begin as early as May.
    • As you conduct your research on potential sponsoring organizations, be sure to elicit information that answers these questions:
      • How well do the organization’s values and goals match your own?
      • Are you likely to receive adequate supervision to do the work you are proposing?
      • How familiar is the organization with the fellowship application process?
      • Is a staff member at the organization available to work with you on the application?
      • Has the organization successfully hosted other fellows before?
      • Is the organization enthusiastic about you and your project?
      • Does the organization plan to sponsor a number of candidates, and if so, where do you rank (note that project-based funders are usually reluctant to support more than one fellow at an organization or in the same department of an organization, and it can weaken your candidacy if the organization is supporting more than one fellow through the process)?
    • As relevant, apply for the organization-based fellowships that have spring or early summer deadlines (for example, the Lindsay Fellowship at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Aryeh Neier Fellowship for work at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU).
  • Step Five: Secure Fellowship Sponsorship and Prepare Applications for Fall Fellowships, Government Honors Programs, and Entry-Level Positions with Public Defenders, Prosecutors, and Plaintiff’s and Private Public Interest Law Firms (2L Summer)
  • Step Six: Apply for Fellowships, Government Honors Programs, and Entry-Level Positions across Fields (2L Summer through 3L Year)
  • Step Seven: Interview for Fellowships, Government Honors Programs, and Entry-Level Positions across Fields (3L Year)
  • Step Eight: Manage Offers and Withdraw Applications (3L Year)
    • Congratulations! You’ve received an offer for a post-graduate public interest position and should be proud of the hard work and commitment it took to get here.
    • Read our FAQs and guidance on responding to, accepting, and declining offers.
    • If you receive an offer, acknowledge it by phone (if the offer was by phone) or email (if the offer was by email) within 24 hours.
    • Note that offer protocols may differ across hiring mechanisms (for example, like clerkships, certain fellowships may expect an immediate response to an offer), and make sure you understand the protocols in play for your field or mechanism by speaking to an OPIA adviser or to OPIA’s Fellowships Director, as relevant.
    • If you need more time to decide on an offer, you may politely request a reasonable extension.
    • Do not accept an offer and then later withdraw. The legal community is much smaller than you may think, and reneging on a job offer can have negative consequences for your career.
    • If you receive multiple offers at the same time, or if you have an offer and haven’t heard from your top choice, make an appointment to further discuss your offer with an OPIA adviser.
  • Step Nine: Register for the Bar Exam (3L Winter through 3L Spring)
    • Review HLS’ Taking the Bar Exam website.
    • Work with HLS Student Government to access a free public interest bar review course.
    • Register for the bar exam. If you are unsure of which jurisdiction’s bar exam you should take, or don’t yet have a job offer by the time early bar registration deadlines emerge (note that this is common for students seeking public interest work), speak with an OPIA adviser about your individual situation.