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These FAQs are designed to give you initial guidance on many of the most common post-grad 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!

3L Timing and Strategy

  • How do 3Ls get jobs?

    It depends on what kind of job they want. Some employers (like public defender and district attorney’s offices) hire graduating 3Ls directly. Some employers (like quite a few federal agencies and some state AG’s offices) run “honors programs” or “fellowship programs” that hire a small number of 3Ls or clerks directly into their offices. Some employers (like many nonprofits and legal services offices) can’t afford to hire inexperienced lawyers but are glad to host entry-level hires who bring fellowship money with them. Review the public service employment placements at graduation to get a sense of where HLS grads have started out. Many 3Ls also work as judicial law clerks immediately after graduating. It’s possible as a 3L to apply to a range of different jobs through more than one of these pathways.

  • When do I need to start my 3L job search?

    It’s great to start thinking about your game plan in the second half of your 2L year, though you won’t be applying to most opportunities until later that calendar year. Meeting with an OPIA adviser during the spring of your 2L year is a good way to be sure you have a handle on the types of entry-level opportunities that might best fit with the work you’re most interested in, have an actionable plan for your 2L summer and 3L fall, and avoid missing deadlines. If the types of employers that most interest you typically hire at the entry-level through post-graduate fellowships, you should also meet with an OPIA fellowships adviser sometime in the early spring of your 2L year; while many fellowships’ deadlines are later in the summer, fall or winter, others have earlier action items, and you’ll want to be sure not to miss deadlines.

  • When are 3L job applications due?

    Deadlines for 3L job applications vary tremendously, based on sector, practice setting, and particular office preferences. A small number of employers may require applications at the end of your 2L year or by mid-summer. Very generally, government honors programs’ application deadlines run from late summer into early fall of your 3L year. Other employers begin their hiring processes in September or hire throughout the fall. International employers and Capitol Hill offices tend to hire later in the season.

  • I’m worried I will end up without a good job; how often does that happen?

    Almost never. If you are thoughtful about your choices during law school, take advantage of the resources OPIA has to offer, and meet early and often with the OPIA advising staff, you will be fine. Both our experience and the data we have collected over time back up this reassurance. Review OCS’ recent employment data and OPIA’s public service employment placements at graduation. OPIA works hard to make sure that everyone who wants a public interest job can get one. Being open-minded, flexible to the extent possible, and patient are also good qualities to bring to a public interest job search.

  • How many public interest jobs should I be applying to for as a 3L?

    While we’d always prefer to see you apply to too many positions rather than too few, the answer here will vary a lot depending on a number of factors: what practice settings, job types and employers you are targeting, your level of geographic flexibility, your depth of experience and range of skills relevant to the jobs to which you’re applying, etc. It is, therefore, difficult to generalize a target number of applications.

  • How should I explain to public interest employers why I chose to spend my summer at a law firm?

    The reasons for spending a summer at a firm vary from person to person, so your explanation should be personal, not cookie-cutter, as well. If there were family or financial reasons for your choice, you should not be afraid to share these. If there were specific skills that you hoped to gain from the experience, come speak with an OPIA adviser about the best way to communicate this to the public interest employers that interest you most.

  • What are some of the common mistakes to avoid in my 3L job search?

    The most common mistakes include failing to take advantage of OPIA’s resources, failing to speak to an OPIA adviser early and often, missing application deadlines, taking yourself out of the running for jobs or fellowships because you wrongly assume you would not be competitive or that those jobs or fellowships wouldn’t be good options for you, and applying to too few/only the most competitive opportunities without an alternative. Read our e-advising post on common job search mistakes.

  • How can I factor salary information into my 3L public interest job search?

    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.

Strategies for Making Choices

  • What if I don’t know what I want to do by the time I have to apply for post-grad jobs?

    Figuring out what you want to do as a lawyer is an ongoing process, often throughout a lawyer’s career. As a 3L, You are not applying for an entire career; just a first job. You should, however, have some ideas for jobs that would be exciting or attractive to you as a first step in your career. Think about the experiences you’ve had so far leading up to and during law school—jobs, clinics, internships, classes. What issues have been compelling to you? What day to day tasks have given you gratification, or felt exciting, or challenging in a good way? Do you have a long-term goal that would help you identify some strategically wise short-term choices? Is there a particular legal skill you want to hone during your early years of practice? Do you have geographic limits or preferences for after graduation? It’s never too late to explore these self-assessment questions, ideally with a trusted OPIA adviser, to increase the odds that you have at least a little clarity about what you’d like to do.

  • Will I be pigeonholed based on my first job out of law school?

    In our experience, no. Careers are long, and most lawyers change jobs with some regularity. There are many ways to move from one field to another, whether segueing gently or making a clear break. It can be very surprising to speak to some mature public interest lawyers and hear what their first jobs were! If you have done entirely one kind of work throughout law school and your first job is in the same field, you may have a harder time making a change than if you have a more varied resume, but it’s still not impossible. However, there are a few fields where it can be extremely difficult to “switch sides”. For example, if you hope to be a public defender, in most cases it’s not a good idea to start your career as a prosecutor.

  • What makes a job a good “stepping stone” option?

    Ask yourself: will I gain skills or experiences in this job that will be valued in a next job that I’d like to have? These can vary widely, from litigation skills (investigations, depositions, motions practice, brief writing) to client or community skills (organizing, interviewing, active listening) to legislative or regulatory drafting, to gaining depth in particular substantive areas, etc. You may also gain connections in a field or geographic area that will serve you well down the road. There are also some practice areas that expect certain experiences; for example, if you ultimately hope to work in an international human rights organization, you would do well to get some field experience under your belt first.

  • If I hope to do both direct services and policy work in my career, should I start with direct services and shift to policy, or vice-versa?

    Either is possible, but starting with direct services is a better bet. You will gain real-world knowledge about what needs changing in the legal and legislative arenas, and how that change can best be achieved. You will also gain credibility within the communities you seek to benefit. Finally, it can be harder to move into direct services after years in policy, but the reverse is a natural progression.

  • If I hope to do both litigation and policy work in my career, should I start with litigation and shift to policy, or vice-versa?

    Either is possible, but starting with litigation may make the ultimate transition easier. Your litigation experience will inform your policy judgment, and you will better understand the real-world impact of policy choices. Employers hiring litigators typically look for litigation experience, and beginning your career in policy work may make it hard to convince a future employer to hire you as a litigator. Transitioning from litigation into policy, however, is a more intuitive and common path.


  • Do I need to apply for post-graduate fellowships?

    It’s not obligatory, but for certain kinds of public interest work, fellowships afford an excellent—and sometimes essential—way for new graduates to break into public interest employment. While many public interest employers welcome new talent, few can afford to do the sort of entry-level hiring that is common in the private sector. But they are often thrilled to have the benefit of a smart young attorney on someone else’s money from a fellowship. In many cases, a fellowship may lead to a permanent position with the host organization, but a fellowship can also provide critical experience and exposure to secure the next job. If you are interested in nonprofit advocacy or impact litigation organizations, direct legal services offices, capital defense work, and even some government offices, you should at least consider applying for fellowships and, depending on your preferences, fellowships may give you a chance to get a dream job right out of school or a clerkship.

  • When should I start the process of pursuing post-graduate fellowships?

    Typically, the post-graduate fellowship application process begins in the spring of your 2L year and can extend well into your 3L year (for students with clerkships that start right after graduation, that would translate to the process beginning in the spring of your 3L year and extending well into your clerkship year.). However, there are so many different kinds of fellowships that it can be hard to generalize. To figure out what your own application calendar should look like, it’s best to spend some time reviewing our fellowship resources and to make an appointment with an OPIA fellowship adviser.

  • How many fellowships do I need to apply to?

    This will vary based on both your interests and geographic flexibility, and on the popularity of the host organization you are aiming for. A 3L or clerk might submit 10-12 fellowship applications, although there is often overlap in the materials submitted, with each application ideally tailored to its audience. As with other job searches, if you have geographic constraints, it’s wise to be flexible and apply to fellowships in a broad range of issue areas; if your goal is to work on a very specific substantive issue, it’s wise to apply to fellowships across a wide geographic range. If you have other reliable job options and have a very narrow interest, practice setting, or geographic area that you can consider, you may choose to target fewer fellowships.

  • What kind of fellowships are out there?

    The world of public interest fellowships is quite wide and diverse, and it’s hard to generalize. To learn more about the types of fellowships available to law students and young lawyers, we recommend you start by spending some time reviewing our fellowship resources.

  • With respect to HLS’s PSVF, what is the difference between an organization-based fellowship and a seed-grant fellowship? Do I need to apply to both?

    The Public Service Venture Fund (PSVF) is an HLS-funded fellowship that has two components. The organization-based fellowships are for 3Ls and recent graduates to support a year of work with an eligible public interest organization. The seed grants support 3Ls and alumni usually, but not always, a bit more senior in their careers who are trying to develop a new public interest organization. As these two components do entirely different things, you should select the component that is right for you.

  • If I’m interested in working at a nonprofit through a fellowship, do I apply to that nonprofit for funding or to a different organization?

    It depends; some organizations offer and fund their own internal fellowships, like the NRDC and certain ACLUs. But to work via a fellowship at most organizations, you need to both come to an agreement with your host organization and apply to a third-party funder for the financial support. The HLS Public Service Venture Fund (PSVF) Organization-Based Fellowships is a good example of such a third-party funder.

  • If I want to work at an organization through a fellowship, do I need to come up with my own project to do there, or can I simply be a new staff attorney?

    It depends on the fellowship and the organization. While some fellowships require the development of a unique project, others happily fund fellows to work as entry-level staff attorneys. Some fellowships and host organizations are open to either.

  • Do I need to summer with my sponsoring or host organization?

    No. It can be helpful to have spent a summer at an organization where you later hope to work as a fellow, because it’s easier to write a good fellowship application about an organization that already knows you and where you are already familiar with the office and their work. However, you are not obliged to have worked at your sponsoring or host organization, and plenty of successful applicants have not interned with their organizations. In either case, getting to know your organization is a plus. You can collaborate with your prospective supervisor at the sponsoring or host organization in the design of your project and/or expectations of your responsibilities. Even a brief week of volunteer work can make a difference. Some fellowships put more weight on applicants having interned at their organizations, but all selection committees, especially the HLS Public Service Venture Fund (PSVF) Organization-Based Fellowships, appreciate applicants who can show a close fit with their sponsoring or host organization.

  • Must I have a project in mind before I approach a potential sponsoring or host organization? What if I don’t have a project idea?

    Not having a project idea should not bar you from thinking seriously about fellowships. First, not every fellowship or sponsoring/host organization requires that you have a special project in mind; many are happy to simply take you on as a staff attorney and allow you to join in the core work of the organization. Even where a project proposal is required in the application, potential sponsoring or host organizations differ in their expectations. Not all organizations will ask for a formal proposal. Many require just a cover letter and resume (often a two-pager) highlighting relevant information that reflects your interest in the work and population the organization serves. Learn more about choosing a host organization and designing a project.

  • Can I apply for a direct services fellowship without having done any direct service internships while in law school?

    Yes! Direct services fellowships often welcome applicants with a wide range of experiences. Volunteer activities before law school, active involvement in an SPO, or a clinical experience can allow you to argue that you are motivated and prepared to engage in direct service after graduation. You should mention any relevant experiences, past or even future, in your application.

  • What are Traveling or International Fellowships?

    Traveling fellowships provide opportunities for international study, work, or exploration. A few of these fellowships specify regional restrictions, while others offer a wide variety of locations. Certain traveling fellowships are offered exclusively for Harvard University students, and HLS students are eligible to apply for these as well.

  • Can I apply for both international and domestic fellowships?

    Yes, though note that international and domestic fellowships operate on different timelines. While many international fellowships require you to submit a series of materials well in advance of your departure, they do not announce results until at least April, whereas domestic fellowships are often awarded sooner.

  • Can I apply for fellowships and entry-level jobs simultaneously?

    Yes, and you should do so. In terms of timing, the fellowship and entry-level job searches can certainly overlap, and if there are entry-level opportunities available to you, you should absolutely apply. If you wait until the fellowship process is complete to apply to entry-level positions, you will potentially miss many opportunities.

  • If I hope to do both a clerkship and a fellowship, does it matter which I do first?

    For most clerkships, it doesn’t matter whether you are straight out of law school or are coming off of a fellowship. Some judges do prefer their clerks to have experience, though; in those cases, doing a fellowship first could prove an advantage. Eligibility criteria for fellowships vary, however. While most fellowships accept applications from clerks, there are some that will only accept them from, or strongly prefer, 3Ls. You should consult with an OPIA fellowships adviser on the eligibility rules for specific fellowships.

  • Who can review my fellowship materials?

    An OPIA fellowships adviser can review your entire fellowship application, and getting this kind of feedback is a great idea. The goal is to bring out your personal strengths by assisting you with your written materials, preparing you for interviews, reviewing handouts for presentations, and discussing budgets. Submit your application materials through our materials review portal, making sure to leave plenty of time before any fellowship advising appointment. Take advantage of other resources in drafting your materials as well. For example, you can collaborate with your host organization on your application essays, or ask former fellows to share their application materials with you. Review our list of previous HLS fellowship awardees. The Skadden Foundation also maintains a list of all former and current Skadden Fellows regardless of the law school they attended, and these can be a resource for you as well.

  • 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.

Government Honors Programs

  • What are government honors programs?

    Most government law offices are thinly staffed, and their lawyers, therefore, get a lot of responsibility quickly. As a result, these offices don’t typically hire inexperienced lawyers, instead using their limited resources to hire lawyers with substantial experience. However, several government agencies have “honors programs”, which are competitive programs designed to bring in comparatively small numbers of high-quality newly-credited lawyers. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has the oldest and largest government honors program, but more than 20 other federal agencies, a small but growing number of state Attorney General’s and Solicitor General’s Offices, and a few city attorney’s offices also host such programs.

  • What is the time frame for applying to government honors programs?

    Each agency sets its own schedule, but typically the honors application season is late summer/early fall of the 3L year. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) application is typically open from the last day of July until shortly after Labor Day, for example. However, deadlines can vary, and a few are unusually early. Check the Arizona Guide during your 2L spring semester and summer for honors program deadlines to be sure not to miss any that are important to you. It is updated on a rolling basis, so it is helpful to check back from time to time as the summer progresses. Email OPIA for the password to the Arizona Guide.

  • Can I get an entry-level legal job with a government agency that doesn’t have an Honors Program?

    Yes, in two ways. First, there are some government offices that do have routine entry-level hiring. A few federal offices (like the State Department), as well as many District Attorney or State’s Attorney offices, public defender offices, and some city and state legal departments (like the New York City Law Department, some smaller local city solicitor’s office, and the occasional state Attorney General’s Office) may hire 3Ls or clerks. Second, all these offices will hire laterally and, depending on the position, may be willing to consider candidates with only a clerkship or fellowship as their post-grad experience.

  • Must I have interned with a particular government agency to apply to its Honors Program?

    No, definitely not. We have seen many graduates get honors jobs in agencies where they did not intern. However, if you don’t have that easy way of demonstrating your interest in the agency and its mission, make sure your application materials do so in other ways – coursework, research, journal work, recommendations, etc. Of course, interning with an office is a great way of figuring out if you’d enjoy working there after graduation and having interned there is always a boost to an honors application with that agency. If you have a strong interest in a particular agency, it’s worth seeing if there is any way to intern there, whether during a summer, a split summer, a January term, a clinical placement, or the Semester in Washington program.

  • What is the Presidential Management Fellowship?

    The Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) is a two-year competitive program designed to develop a cadre of experienced federal government managers. It is not limited to law students or lawyers, but law students and certain young lawyers are eligible to apply. While the PMF does not itself fund your employment, it provides a streamlined pathway to federal hiring, and those who have succeeded in the PMF application process are regarded as coveted employees. If you are strongly interested in federal government, particularly if you are not committed to litigation, you may well want to consider applying for it. The online application is typically open in early fall, and OPIA holds an information session each fall to help students navigate the sometimes quirky application.

  • What can I expect to be paid as a government attorney?

    Salaries can vary across agencies. Check our Federal Government salary information and State Government salary info for more detailed information and some helpful links.


  • Should I clerk?

    If you want to, yes! If not, no! Clerking can be a great experience, but it’s not for everyone, and if it holds no interest for you or does not seem at all relevant to the kind of work you want to do, you should feel no obligation to clerk. Clerkships can be valuable if you hope to litigate, work in government, or pursue a career in academia. If these are not your goals, but the research and writing experience, exposure to the courtroom process and/or potential of a mentoring relationship with a judge are appealing to you, then a clerkship could also be a good fit for you. But if you want to pursue other goals, are eager to begin representing clients, or don’t want yet another year of term-limited work before you settle down into a longer-term job, these choices are fine, too. Finally, many judges are willing to hire (or are affirmatively interested in hiring) clerks with some experience under their belts. If after a year or two of working at a job other than a clerkship you change your mind, or the logistics of your life shift making clerking a more realistic option, you may still have the chance to do so. If you are curious about or interested in clerking, make an appointment with the clerkships advisers in the spring of your 2L year. If you’re especially interested in judges with a public interest background, consult the OPIA/OCS public interest judges list (xls).

  • If I want to clerk, should I wait to apply for post-grad jobs until after my clerkship search is complete?

    No, generally you should apply for clerkships and post-graduate jobs or fellowships simultaneously. If you wait until you have exhausted all your clerkship options, you may well have missed many job or fellowship application deadlines. Make sure you speak with both an OCS clerkship adviser and an OPIA adviser about your particular plans before you make such a choice.

  • I don’t have a clerkship. Does that mean I can’t apply for impact/policy work?

    No, you can still apply for such work. Some competitive employers may strongly prefer those with clerkship experience, but “impact/policy work” covers a wide range of employers, and this is certainly not true for all of them. A clerkship will be an excellent credential for a litigation job and will help you distinguish yourself in competitive applications, but you should not rule yourself out of any applications just because you don’t have a clerkship unless the job explicitly requires one.

  • Is it OK to clerk for a judge with a very different political ideology than mine?

    Yes, definitely. Some judges even go out of their way to make sure their clerks cover a wide ideological range. What’s important is that you and your judge can respect one another. If it is important to you that your judge be public interest-minded, or if you have other questions in this area, consult with an OPIA adviser and an OCS clerkship adviser for assistance, and make use of the OPIA/OCS public interest judges list (xls).

Writing Samples

  • I am a 3L, and I don’t have a writing sample OR my only writing sample is from 1L year. What should I do?

    Consider whether there is anything else you can use, like a memo or pleading from a clinic or summer internship, or a paper from a class that could be used or excerpted. If you can find something a bit more mature than your 1L sample, that would be ideal. If not, consider using your current skills to update and improve that sample. If the writing sample is for a fellowship application, it’s best to use one appropriate to the fellowship, and that reflects your facility with the language and issues that the project entails. If you do not have a brief, memo, or class paper in the fellowship’s subject matter, then use your best example of legal writing from either your classroom or work experiences. In all cases, remember that work you have done on behalf of clients may require permission of your employers or clinical supervisor and that sensitive information may need to be redacted to ensure professional confidentiality.


  • I haven’t developed a close relationship with any faculty member. Is it too late to do so 3L year?

    No, it’s not too late to get to know a professor! Think about those professors who teach in your field of choice and/or who you have admired in the classroom or elsewhere. If you did exceptionally well in a class, that’s a good place to start as well. Make an appointment during the professor’s office hours to begin a conversation about the professor’s field and your ambitions. Ask their advice about your plans. While it’s certainly possible, and often a great idea, to rely on supervisors from internships, jobs or clinical placements to speak on your behalf, it’s worth checking to make sure that a particular opportunity doesn’t specifically require a faculty recommendation, as do several of the major fellowship applications.


  • How important are grades to my 3L job search?

    The importance of grades to the 3L job search varies by employer, but even the most grade-conscious public interest employers also care deeply about your commitment, experience, and skills. Many public interest employers and fellowship funders adopt a holistic approach to their selection process and weigh other factors as heavily or more heavily than they do grades. Some public interest employers do not even request a transcript in their hiring process.