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Special Considerations for International J.D.s

International J.D. students pursuing public interest work face some structural constraints that their U.S. citizen classmates do not. It is important to familiarize yourself with some of these constraints and work together with OPIA advisers to strategize your job search accordingly. OPIA’s citizenship guide offers more insight into navigating the job search as a non-citizen.

All students, regardless of citizenship, will need to identify the kind of work that matches their interests and apply broadly for positions at organizations that work in that space. 2Ls and 3Ls pursuing public service work will need to be proactive because there is only a small, limited on-campus interview process as compared to recruitment for private sector work.

For 3Ls, entry-level positions in nonprofits and government agencies tend to be more competitive than the large law firm positions. It is very rare for public interest employers to make permanent job offers to law students who intern with them. Most students use a combination of fellowship applications and job applications to successfully land a position.

Working in the U.S.

  • Work Authorization

    The work authorization process differs for continuing and graduating international students. The Harvard International Office (HIO) is the main resource for work authorization procedures for both summer and postgraduate employment.

    The Office of the Provost provides resources and information for undocumented students.

  • Summer

    Most public interest employers are open to hiring non-citizen summer interns. The main exception to this is the U.S. federal government: Most federal government agencies will not hire non-citizens even for summer internships. However, noncitizen students are not statutorily barred from working in state government.

    Since Summer Public Interest Funding is guaranteed, noncitizen students can take government and nonprofit positions that would otherwise be unpaid. Students should consider saving their Optional Practical Training (OPT) year for after graduation by pursuing Harvard funding, such as SPIF, for summer internships, or by taking part in Curricular Practical Training (CPT).

  • Post-Grad

    With some exceptions, postgraduate public service employment in the U.S. can be a huge challenge for non-citizens. Due to the fact that most public interest employers do not sponsor employment visas, noncitizen students generally can count only on being authorized to work through the OPT year and many employers may be reluctant to hire someone who is only able remain with them for one year.

    There are some exceptions to this. If you have work authorization by being a green card holder, only places that have categorical citizenship requirements – such as the federal government – will be inaccessible. If you are a Canadian or Mexican citizen, or an Australian citizen, you may be able to secure a TN Visa or an E-3 visa, respectively. Such visas provide several years of work authorization and make it less risky for a public interest employer to hire noncitizens. Applicants from other countries may run into significant obstacles trying to obtain long term postgraduate public interest positions in the U.S.

    If you have no path to longer term work authorization but are eager to remain in the U.S. for the twelve months of OPT, fellowship funding can be very helpful. Unfortunately, such funding is competitive. If you are interested in applying for fellowships, you should consult with Judy Murciano, OPIA’s fellowships director, by your second year in law school. It is important to remember that noncitizen students should look specifically for 1-year-long rather than 2-year-long fellowships, because you are working within the confines of what OPT will allow.

    Noncitizens should consider targeting organizations that may value the unique language and cultural competency skills that international students have to offer and/or target organizations that may have more resources to support you throughout the visa process. Again, it is important to consult with an OPIA adviser early in your post-graduate job search process to strategize.

Returning to Your Home Country

If you return to your home country to work, you will not face the same visa issues that you would face in the United States and many other countries. Please bear in mind that OPIA is not an expert in the opportunities in every country. Because Chinese, Canadian, and South Korean students make up a significant percentage of the international J.D. population at HLS, we have highlighted resources that we are aware of particular to public interest work in those countries. Often, we find that students know more about the opportunities in their own home country than we do. Another great resource are LL.M.s from your home country; they have usually worked in the legal sector before coming to HLS and can be a source of information about opportunities. OPIA Advisers can offer you insights into how to build a public interest career and conduct a public interest search and can help edit written material.

  • Canadian Law Students


    Public service positions in Canada can be competitive for the summer and largely unpaid. Harvard students are fortunate that they can find unpaid positions with the help of guaranteed Summer Public Interest Funding (SPIF).

    Networking is a major part of finding summer public interest positions in the smaller Canadian market. Contacting alums and current students from the Who Worked Where guides may be helpful, as well as speaking with organizations directly about open positions.

    Students in the past have worked with:

    • EcoJustice
    • Canadian Civil Liberties Association
    • Centre for Law and Democracy
    • International Institute for Sustainable Development
    • Justice for Children and Youth
    • Provincial governments across Canada

    Spending a summer in Canada may also be helpful to those students who are undecided about staying in the U.S. or returning home after graduation. If you intend on returning to Canada after graduation, it may be easier to market your familiarity with Canadian law after spending a summer in the country.


    Landing a postgraduate public interest job in Canada can be a laborious process. There are several steps to becoming licensed to practice law in Canada. The process is generally similar across provinces, though not identical.

    First, the applicant must apply for admission to the law society in the province in which they want to practice. Applicants pay a fee to initiate the Lawyer Licensing process.

    Next, the National Committee on Accreditation must evaluate your U.S. J.D. degree. To obtain an NCA Certificate of Qualification, the NCA will assign exams based on your educational background to satisfy Canadian law requirements. HLS students may be required to take additional exams after graduating. Pay careful attention to NCA exam dates and fees.

    After finishing the NCA exams, applicants must complete an articling term. Articling is a training year (around 10-12 months, depending on the regulating law society) meant to transition applicants from study to practicing law. Articling students can generally do what a bar-admitted lawyer can do, except they must be supervised by an experienced lawyer approved by the province’s law society.

    Articling positions can be difficult to find, and are not guaranteed. Students must be aware that they cannot begin an articling term until they have received their NCA exam results, which can take 10-12 weeks to arrive. Being aware of the timing of hiring processes for articling positions is crucial to optimizing your chances of placement.

    In special circumstances, a clerkship in Canada may satisfy part or all of the articling requirement; please refer to the specific policies for the law society in the province where you wish to practice.

    After the articling term has been satisfied, law societies may require a “good character” statement of fitness. Finally, applicants can be called to the bar.

    Fellowships/Special Programs

    There are limited fellowships available for public interest opportunities in Canada. For example, the Law Foundation of Ontario (LFO) has a Public Interest Articling Fellowship to complete the articling requirement. Students will need to contact specific law societies or organizations for possible fellowships.

    The Recruitment of Policy Leaders initiative is another way to start a public interest career in Canada. RPL recruits professionals, scholars, and scientists for federal public service positions. Applicants must hold or be close to finishing a master’s, doctoral, or law degree.

    Similarly, the Canadian government recruits for various positions every year; please check for updated hiring schedules.

  • Chinese Law Students

    Practicing public interest law in China comes with a unique set of challenges rooted in the relationship that the sector has with the Chinese government. The Chinese government has initiated a number of restrictions on foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations, most notably through the Foreign NGO Law, which took effect in 2017.

    • Students should monitor the list of registered NGOs and the list of NGOs registered for temporary activity on ChinaFile’s website.
    • Although subject to some of the challenges governing other nongovernmental organizations, look into U.S.-based public interest organizations that conduct work in China – they are often excited about the prospect of hiring Chinese graduates from HLS because of their unique insights.
    • Consider looking at organizations elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region that are engaged in work related to China.

    Start the job search process EARLY. For example, reach out to organizations for post-grad sponsorship at the end of the 2L year.

    Consider environmental law as an area of public interest law with more opportunities in China and think about practices that are perceived as less “political.”

  • South Korean Law Students

    Public interest lawyering in South Korea has evolved over the years as a response to inadequate rights protection. In the past decade, public interest law groups have emerged to focus on the rights of minorities, such as migrants, refugees, people with disabilities, and sexual minorities.

    Read more about the latest dynamics of rights advocacy mechanisms and the personality of nonprofit public interest law organizations in South Korea: “Public Interest Lawyering in South Korea

Resources for International J.D.s