Questions to Think About
The questions below are designed to help you think through your values, your skill set, and the environment you would thrive in, in order to better frame your practice options to discover the right personal fit.
How do you like to work?
The work done by public interest lawyers covers a broad range of activities. For some people, the type of work/the way they work are the most critical components of job satisfaction. Here are some factors to think about:
- Do you love to research and write?
- Do you need to have a great deal of contact with people? Must it be with clients or are colleagues enough?
- What kind of client do you want to serve – will you be happy with a group client? How about a business as a client, or do you prefer individual clients?
- Are you happier juggling multiple short-term assignments or would you rather spend lots of time on a few long-term assignments?
- Do you embrace or fear a great deal of autonomy and responsibility early in your career?
- Do you need to see the immediate results of your work or are you satisfied with the potential for eventual large impact?
- Do you think you will like litigation – which can be somewhat adversarial – or will you prefer policy work, transactional work or other types of “lawyering”?
What practice setting do you want to work in?
Public service practice takes place in legal services and law reform organizations, as well as in government agencies at all levels. It encompasses charities, educational and public international organizations, private public interest law firms, and private law firms performing pro bono work. Questions to ask about setting include:
- Do you want a formal organized atmosphere, or will you be happy with a more casual non-hierarchical setting?
- Do you seek formal training, or will you be satisfied by on-the-job training combined with some supervision and/or mentoring?
- How important is it for the office you work in to have a great deal of resources at your disposal?
- Will you be willing to take into account the economics of your practice? For example, private public interest law firms often have to evaluate whether a case will make money for their firm, not just whether it is the “right” case to pursue.
- Do you have a strong need for political/ideological compatibility?
- Do you need to feel like an activist?
- What kind of people do you want to work with?
- How much teamwork do you want versus working solo?
What issues do you want to work on?
If you think the substance of the work will matter to you but have not yet identified an issue area that you want to work on, consider the following:
- What have you liked and disliked from your prior work experiences and extracurricular activities?
- What issues do you like to read about?
- What volunteer work do you gravitate towards?
- What academic subjects excited you in college or grab you in law school?
What are your lifestyle needs?
Career choices should not be made in a vacuum. Instead, they should take into account the other aspects of your life that are important to you. Some students come to law school with concrete ideas about what they want to do with their law degrees; many do not. How much time you need outside work for family or personal pursuits, how much money you need to live happily, and how much stress you can tolerate are all factors that play into what is the “right” job. Some factors to consider include:
- How much time do you want for friends, family, hobbies, etc.?
- How much control do you want over when you work and when you have time for other pursuits?
- How much money do you need to live comfortably? Will you be jealous if your peers have more or better possessions than you do?
- Geographic considerations – where do you want to begin your career? Do you have geographic constraints?
- Do you want to work in one of the few cities that HLS grads tend to gravitate towards or would you rather be a “big fish in a small pond?”
- Are you willing to sacrifice being where the perceived “action” is in order to have a perhaps calmer lifestyle or lower cost of living?
How do you define success?
Different people have different measures of success. Consider the following:
- Prestige – what is prestige? Does it have to be an employer whose name people recognize?
- Helping people – how many people/what kind of people?
- Making a difference? On what scale? One person at a time? Entire groups of people?
- Money – how much do you need to feel successful?
- Fame – e.g. name in paper
- Day-to-day satisfaction
- Balanced life
What trade-offs are you willing to make?
There is no perfect job, though there are many great ones. You may have to give up something to get the right fit, particularly at the beginning. Some of the items you may need to trade off are:
- Geographic location – you may need to go to a different city than you had planned to land the right job. Or you may need to go to a different city to afford the lifestyle you want.
- Money for responsibility – while many public interest jobs do pay less than private sector jobs, this is often balanced by a significantly earlier and higher level of responsibility in public interest practice. It is also important to remember that there is a wide range of starting salaries even within public interest practice and that salaries rise across the board over time. Review our public interest salary information to consider salary-related factors.
- Time for outside pursuits or control over own time – some kinds of public interest positions can be very demanding; litigating positions can mean less control over your life as courts often set the timetable. Don’t assume that it is just large firms that require long or unpredictable hours.
- Client contact vs. high impact – while some positions offer both, many jobs will give you either the opportunity to work with many clients or the chance to work on class action or law reform work.
Answering these Questions
You may not know the answers to all of these questions now. In fact, if you have not had much work experience yet, you probably do not know the answer to many of these questions. Beyond reflecting on your academic and professional experiences, there are a variety of ways to sample different legal opportunities that might illuminate your preferences, including:
Exploring Your Options
Summer internships can offer substantive exposure to legal work that seems initially appealing to you. Summers are often the only opportunity to work full-time for more than a month.
Clinics provide students with hands-on legal experience in a wide variety of practice settings under the supervision of attorneys who are not only great practitioners but also trained in individually educating and mentoring students. Through their participation in clinics, students gain a wide range of skills, including
- interviewing, counseling, and advising clients
- representing clients in court
- conducting legal writing and research
- investigating and analyzing facts
- drafting policy
- developing negotiation skills
- collaborating with other students and attorneys
Learn more about the HLS clinical program from the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs .
Pro Bono Placements
Students can work on an individual basis for HLS pro bono credit under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Students can find many of these pro bono opportunities by searching the Public Service database in Helios. Results can be filtered by position type, issue area, practice setting, work type, and/or clinic. The Pro Bono Service Program will also provide exciting new projects that you can get involved in.
Student organizations offer a way to start to learn about different types of law. 1L students can begin representing clients through student practice organizations. 2L, 3L, and LLM students may also participate. Most student practice organizations focus on public service; examples include: HLS Advocates for Human Rights, Harvard Defenders, and the Tenant Advocacy Project. And journals can be an excellent way to get experience in research, writing, and editing.
Many students use winter term to further explore public service practice by taking a course with a clinical component, or by doing an externship through the independent clinical program or the independent writing option. You must meet the Clinical Program’s requirements or the requirements for obtaining credit for written work in order to take advantage of these options.
Many HLS faculty produce scholarly works on public interest topics and are often in need of research assistants to assist them in this work. Some faculty members are also involved in pro bono projects. You can find out more about faculty with a public interest background or focus through searching the faculty directory.
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
An additional way of discovering what kind of work setting and environment suits you is taking a personality or interest based “test” such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI is a standardized test designed to provide some insight into your preferences, tendencies, and characteristics. It is based upon character types developed by Carl Jung, in his work, Psychological Types. It is one of the most widely used psychological testing instruments in the world today. While the MBTI does not in any way dictate that you should pursue a particular job or career path, it can serve as a useful tool as you try to identify the right career fit.
- Please keep in mind that the MBTI is not geared toward lawyers specifically. Rather it is a tool that is used across all professions and all educational backgrounds.
- To learn more about the MBTI, please watch the MBTI Self-Assessment Workshop video and review the accompanying slides.
To learn more about your individual MBTI type, please click below.