These FAQs are designed to give you initial guidance on many of the most common general public interest job search questions. If, after reading these, you still have questions, concerns or worries about any aspect of the job search, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with an OPIA adviser!
Check out our other FAQs!
What is a sponsoring or host organization, and why do I need one to apply for fellowships?
A sponsoring or host organization is an organization that has agreed to allow you to work for them for a finite term (usually one or two years) if you are able to acquire fellowship funding from a third party to do so. Some funders use the term “sponsoring organization” while others use the term “host organization”, but the concept is the same. Many third-party fellowships (for example, the Skadden, the Equal Justice Works, and the HLS Public Service Venture Fund Organization-Based Fellowships) are simply funders; it is up to you to identify and come to an agreement with a sponsoring or host organization, and then to apply for fellowship funding specifically to work at that sponsoring or host organization.
If I need a sponsoring or host organization to apply for a fellowship, when do I need to get one?
You can start thinking about who you might like to work for if you were awarded a fellowship at any point. If you think you are likely to be applying for fellowships, it can be helpful to have this in mind as one consideration (among many) as you choose your 1L or 2L summer employer. But the actual task of identifying, conversing with, and solidifying an agreement with a sponsoring or host organization usually takes place in the 2L spring, 2L summer, and/or 3L fall. Note that there are some very popular organizations that get asked by many law students to sponsor or host them for fellowships. In some of these cases, the organizations have initiated internal application and selection processes to help them decide who to sponsor or host in a fair manner. If you are interested in one of these organizations, you will need to apply for sponsorship in the spring or early summer of your 2L year, well in advance of actually applying for fellowship funding. That’s why it’s best to speak with an OPIA fellowships adviser early in your 2L spring semester and develop a personalized game plan.
What can I expect to be paid as a fellow?
Salaries can vary across fellowships. Check the Fellowships section of our public interest salary information for more detailed information and some helpful links.
Strategies for Making Choices
How much experience do I need in a particular area to be able to apply for post-grad jobs in that area?
It’s always helpful to have experience that is relevant to a field in which you hope to practice. Having experience makes you more valuable to an employer, signals real commitment to the practice, and helps you figure out whether something that may have looked good on paper to you is actually a good fit in the real world. How much and what kind of experience is necessary, however, is quite variable. In some fields, it is essential to have acquired at least some experience though clinics, internships, Student Practice Organizations (SPOs), or volunteer work before applying for post-grad jobs. Public defense, poverty law with direct client contact and environmental law are examples of such fields. In other fields, comparable or related experience may suffice. Also, there is more than one way to define “relevant experience.” For example, if you are applying for a government job in criminal antitrust enforcement, government, antitrust, and criminal experience would all be relevant, but you may be able to put together a strong application without having direct experience in all three areas. The narrative that you create from your experience can be very personal, so be sure to consult with an OPIA adviser.
I have 3-4 areas of interest. How should I use my summers to get experience?
It can be a great idea to use your summers to explore more than one interest. And your summers are not the only way to explore them. You can use your clinics and Student Practice Organization (SPO) experiences to explore areas of interest as well; an OPIA adviser can help you strategize about which experiences might best fit with clinic or SPO offerings, and which experiences might make the most sense to try out during a summer internship. Sometimes, multiple areas of interest can overlap; for example, criminal defense and immigration work, or environmental and energy policy work. If you can pursue multiple interests that are adjacent, you will be building your resume for both these fields at the same time. There’s also nothing wrong with your interests being diverse and unconnected. Getting one experience your 1L summer and a different experience during your 2L summer may help you decide among them, or build a foundation for a future change of direction. Finally, depending on your personal circumstances, splitting your second summer between two employers may be a way to address multiple interests.
I have 3-4 areas of interest. I’ve heard that public interest employers want a lot of experience in their areas. Does this mean if I try them all I won’t get a public interest job?Some employers do want to see depth of experience, but this can vary by field and practice setting. For some students, it may be helpful to have continuity and depth in a field (though, even this doesn’t mean you can’t taste other areas at all). For other students, the type of practice or the setting, rather than a particular substantive area, is the through-line, and there are jobs for such generalists as well. There is almost always room for exploration during law school, no matter what your path. You should feel free to take advantage of all that HLS has to offer to explore the full range of your career interests. If it turns out that you are interested in an area (for example, public defense, environmental law, or civil rights) where a greater depth of experience may be a plus on your resume, you can strategize with an OPIA adviser how you can best develop that focus while still exploring your other interests.
I don’t think I want to do direct services work. Is it possible to get a job in systemic work (impact litigation, policy, etc.) right out of law school?
You can definitely move directly from law school into more systemic work, like impact litigation or policy work. The issue is that entry-level opportunities in systemic work are more limited and thus tend to be very competitive. That said, every year, HLS 3Ls and clerks secure a variety of policy or impact jobs, almost always through fellowships. Because entry-level opportunities are less numerous and more competitive, though, you should have at least one “plan B”. Some students have opted to begin their careers in direct services work, transitioning several years later to a policy or impact role. Other students have taken more systemic- or litigation-oriented entry-level positions with government agencies or private public interest law firms as a first step.
I want to do impact work. Should I bother doing a direct services internship, clinic, or Student Practice Organization (SPO)?
You should seriously consider doing so! Having hands-on experience with client representation is valuable, even if it does not appear to directly relate to your current career goals. It helps you learn to understand the lawyer-client relationship, it offers insight into the real-life problems that impact litigation seeks to solve, it expands your ability to work with populations that may differ from your own, and it gives you credibility as an advocate. Many public-interest employers, even those in impact work, highly value direct service experience. And, many students find that their clinics or SPOs are their most gratifying law school experiences and lend depth and meaning to their more abstract classroom work.
If I plan to work at a private sector firm for a few years before moving into public interest work, what should I be thinking about now?
You can lay the groundwork while in law school for a future move into public interest work. Take advantage of clinics and Student Practice Organizations (SPOs) to get good hands-on experience. Choose your classes to demonstrate an interest and expertise in the substantive areas that interest you. Develop a relationship with a faculty member who can be a mentor to you in your field of interest. Look for a firm that has a robust pro bono program and, if you are interested in government, one employing several former government attorneys who will appreciate your interest in government work later on. Pro bono or other volunteer work while in the private sector will enable you to gain hands-on experience and continue to demonstrate your commitment to public service – both of which will help in a future public interest job search. Check out OPIA’s panel on how to choose a firm if you’re hoping to move into public interest work afterwards.
How can I tell what I will be paid as a public interest lawyer?
The public interest sector is quite diverse, and there is a wide range of salaries across practice settings and geography. In addition, keep in mind that salaries do increase over time across the board. Check our public interest salary information for more detailed information and some helpful links.
Who can review my resume? How far in advance do I need to submit a resume to get meaningful feedback?
While it can be tempting to bring your resume to your appointment with an OPIA adviser in the hopes of getting line-editing then and there, this is neither the easiest way for an adviser to review your materials, nor is it the best use of your limited one-on-one time with an adviser. Instead, and to make sure we carefully track materials that have been submitted for review, learn how to use our materials review portal. HLS current students, admitted LL.M.s, and alumni may submit their resumes and cover letters for review by an OPIA adviser (after October 15 for 1Ls). We will review one cover letter per student or alum per academic year. Consult the materials review portal for current turnaround times.
Once I’m past 1L year, can my resume be longer than a page?
For most purposes, no. Employers still expect to see a one-page resume from law students (and even, in most cases, from young lawyers). If you need assistance in tightening up your growing resume to keep it to a single page, try some of our tips for efficient formatting. If you’re still flummoxed, you may submit your resume to be reviewed by an OPIA adviser; you can note that you’d appreciate help in getting down to a single page. An important exception to the one-page rule, however, is for fellowships applications; here, an expanded multi-page resume is accepted and, in many cases, desired.
My resume doesn’t have an overarching narrative. How can I develop one?
This is a great question to bring to an OPIA adviser, who can get to know you better and work with you to craft an appropriate and authentic narrative for a particular internship, job, or fellowship application. While you may see no overarching narrative to your resume, an adviser may be able to see a different perspective, and help you find the elements of your experience that, when highlighted, tell a persuasive story.
I’ve recently developed a new professional interest, but don’t have any experience on my resume in that area; what do I do now?
It’s almost never too late to get experience in a new area on your resume. If you are a 1L or 2L, come in and talk to an OPIA adviser, who can help you strategize about how you might be able to build up your experience in this area through clinics, coursework, volunteer, or research opportunities.
Even if you are further along in your law school career, it may not be too late to revisit your coursework, clinic, and volunteer choices. If you don’t feel you can add new experiences, you can still discuss and explain your new interest in your cover letter, and/or find creative ways to allude to it on your resume—did you take a class in this field? Did you do a project related to this interest at one of your summer employers? Strategic use of detail can be beneficial here, and an OPIA adviser can help you brainstorm.
What is the difference between a reference and a recommendation?
When you use someone as a reference, you are merely giving their name and contact information (along with some insight as to how they know you) to a prospective employer. The employer may then choose to reach out to the reference by phone or email to ask about you and your qualifications. A recommendation is a letter written on your behalf by a professor, employer or other source who writes to a prospective employer to recommend you for a particular position.
Who should I use as references?
The best reference is someone who knows you well, and thinks you are exceptional. The closer you can get to these two characteristics in your recommender(s), the better. Some employers specify from whom they’d like to see references, but if it’s not specified, you should use some combination of work supervisors and/or professors as references. It is generally not advised to use a family member as a reference, even though he or she may have also been your employer in a prior job.
The employer asked for 3 references. Of these, how many should be professional or from internships, and how many academic?
If you are listing three references, it’s probably a good idea to have both professional and academic recommenders, to afford a good assortment of opinions on you from different perspectives. Employers are likely to prefer references from past employers, since these people can speak to you as an employee, which is going to be the most relevant information to a prospective employer. Other things being equal, therefore, two employer references and one academic is a good goal to aim for. However, if you have fewer employer references and more professors, the reverse ratio is fine too. It matters less exactly who the recommenders are, and more how well they know you and how highly they’ll sing your praises.
Is it okay to use college professors as references?
Yes, but with some caveats. If you are going to use an academic reference, it’s generally preferable to use a law school professor for legal internships and jobs because they should have a better sense of how well you handle the kind of things you may face in your job, like legal analysis. But if you are a 1L, it’s understandable if you don’t yet know any law professors well enough, and therefore in some circumstances it may make sense to use a college professor. In what circumstances does it or doesn’t it make sense to do so? If you’ve been out of college for a long time, and/or if your college professor isn’t someone who knew you all that well to begin with, a college professor may not be the best choice for a recommender. On the other hand, if the professor knows you very well (as, for example, a thesis adviser or mentor, or as someone for whom you worked as a research assistant) and if it hasn’t been many years since you were in college, a college professor can be a good choice as a recommender.
Is it okay to use a clinical professor as a law school reference?
Yes; in fact, clinical professors are often great choices as references. Clinical supervisors often get to know you very well, and also have the benefit of seeing you handle responsibility and take initiative in a work environment. In some ways, a clinical professor/supervisor is the best of both worlds: able to speak to your work-relevant abilities while also able to assess your intellectual abilities and compare you to other HLS students.
Is it okay to use a visiting professor who is no longer at HLS as a law school reference?
Sure! You may want to identify to the employer the context in which your reference got to know you, however.
Is it okay if my references from past positions are no longer with the same organization where we worked together?
Yes, that’s not a problem. You may want to identify to the employer the context in which your reference got to know you, however.
Is it better to have a famous reference even if she doesn’t know me all that well, or an unknown reference who knows me well?
Most of the time, it’s better to have a less famous person who knows you well and can speak in credible detail about how great you are than to have an obvious form letter devoid of specific content from a big name. Of course, if you can combine having a big name and strong substance in one reference, so much the better!
How should I inform my references that they might be contacted?
A gracious email or phone call does the trick. If you’ve been in close contact recently, simply letting them know where you have applied for jobs and asking whether they would be willing to serve as a reference for you if necessary is a good approach. If it has been a while since you’ve been in touch, you may also want to bring them up to date on your life a bit first. Mentors and former professors and employers who think highly of you will likely enjoy hearing about your latest exploits, but be careful not to write them a novel.
Is there anyone I should avoid using as a reference?
If you had a difficult relationship with an employer or professor, or if you feel you did not do a good job in their office or class, you probably should not reach out to them as a reference. (The one exception here might be the rare case of a professor who gave you a poor grade, but who nonetheless appreciates your abilities and will sing your praises in spite of the grade; such a recommender can not only support your application but can also counter the effects of a bad grade on a transcript). Likewise, if you have seen or heard that a particular potential reference tends to write inadequate letters, damn by faint praise, or fail to follow through on their commitment to be available for phone calls or to submit letters of recommendation, steer clear.
I received only Ps in classes in my substantive area of interest. Does that mean I won’t be able to get a job in that area?
Straight P’s are not a disqualifier to working in your field of interest! These are not bad grades. While in any given field there may be employers who are competitive enough that you would need higher grades to do well with them, these employers are never the only game in town. Some public interest employers don’t even ask for transcripts; others consider grades as only one factor among many. If you are worried about the impact of your grades on your job search, come speak to an OPIA adviser for perspective on your individual grades and the employers or fellowships you are targeting.
I received an LP in a class that’s in my substantive area of interest. Does that mean I won’t be able to get a job in that area?
An LP will not be a disqualifier to working in your field of interest; there are plenty of happy public interest lawyers with LPs tucked away on their transcripts! In particular, if the LP is the result of a health issue, family stress or other atypical interference with your ability to perform in a course or on a final, you can offer an explanation to an employer that may help it to appropriately consider that grade within the larger context of your performance and qualifications. Occasionally, a professor may be willing to write a letter on your behalf if they agree that your grade does not reflect your overall performance in their class. However, even if you simply didn’t do as well as you’d hoped in that class, strength in other elements of your application (high quality hands-on experience, passion for the mission of the organization, a clear commitment to public service, strong recommendations, etc.) can often easily outweigh a disappointing grade or two. And some public interest employers don’t even ask for transcripts in their hiring process.
I’ve interviewed for a number of jobs but I haven’t landed any. What should I do?
If you are having good luck getting interviews but they aren’t translating into job offers, it’s possible that your interviewing skills may need some buffing up. Schedule an appointment with an OPIA adviser to help assess where you might have room for improvement or for a mock interview to practice before your next scheduled interview – this can make a world of difference.
I’ve applied to 20 jobs, and haven’t heard back from any employers. Why?
There may be many reasons you haven’t heard back yet. It could be too early to expect replies from employers or from the kinds of employers to whom you applied. Maybe there were problems with your application materials that are getting in the way of the employers seeing the desirable qualities you bring to the table. Or perhaps you applied only to a very competitive set of employers, in the most competitive markets, and need to broaden your scope a bit. An individual meeting with an OPIA adviser may help you figure out whether you just need to be patient, or whether (and which) more active steps may be of benefit to your job search.