Law students interested in pursuing public interest careers can gain valuable experience and connections in a variety of ways: externships, internships (paid and unpaid), clinics, pro bono service and other volunteer opportunities. There are also a number of post-graduate fellowship programs for new graduates pursuing public interest careers. Below you will find explanations and examples of some of the public interest law opportunities for law students.
Public interest law opportunities for law students
A variety of public interest opportunities exist for students interested in pursuing public interest careers. All of the opportunities help students gain practical experience, develop relationships and demonstrate their commitment to public interest. Below we briefly describe some of the experiential learning opportunities that law students interested in public interest careers should consider.
A public interest internship is a work arrangement established between a student and a legal aid or other public interest organization through which the student gains practical, hands-one experience by working as needed at a legal aid or public interest organization. Internships may be funded by your school, the organization itself or another supporting organization or they may be unpaid. More information about paid internships and unpaid internships is provided below.
An externship is typically an opportunity for a student to work at a legal employer and receive credit for that work or a class associated with that work. Externships offer students the opportunity to gain experience under the supervision of a practicing attorney, often with a class component that provides an additional opportunity for learning and reflection. Check with your school about eligibility requirements and the application process for externships at your school.
Law school clinical programs
Clinical programs are typically school-based, for-credit clinics in which students gain hands-on legal experience under the close supervision of faculty. All schools offer clinical programs of some kind. Many clinics are only open to students who have a 7-11 license. Check with your school about eligibility requirements and application periods for clinics at your school.
Pro bono service
Engaging in pro bono service as a law student is a way to help people in need while also developing your legal skills. Law schools often have ongoing pro bono programs, which make it easier for students to find pro bono programs that are appropriate for their skills and interests.
Community service and leadership opportunities
Community service initiatives allow law students to engage in service right away and can help students develop a broader understanding of social justice issues. Helping develop or run a community service or pro bono initiative allows students to demonstrate leadership and commitment to the public interest. Consider getting involved with committees or programs at your school or in the community for a rewarding experience that will also help build your skills and your resume.
Law students interested in public interest careers should consider pursuing a postgraduate fellowship. Typically students develop and apply for these fellowships during the first semester of their third year of law school.
Paid public interest law internships
Equal Justice America
Equal Justice America awards law students spring, summer and fall fellowships to work with organizations that deliver civil legal services to those most in need.
Equal Justice Works Summer Corps Program
Equal Justice Works Summer Corps Program provides law students with the opportunity to dedicate their summer to a legal project at a qualifying nonprofit public interest organization.
Law school-funded internships
Many law schools sponsor public interest law internships. Contact your career counselor or public interest law center for more information on possible law school sponsored internships.
Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) Law Student Program
PILI funds summer and school-year internships for law students to work at public interest law agencies in the Chicago area. PILI raises the funds necessary for each agency to pay its PILI Interns, ensures quality supervision by experienced agency lawyers, provides an educational luncheon seminar series, hosts social events and offers networking opportunities.
This is not an exhaustive list. You can learn more by searching for job opportunities in PSLawNet or through your law school's career services office.
Unpaid/volunteer public interest law internships
Limited funds are available to support paid internships and, therefore, obtaining paid positions is very competitive. If you have tried but are unable to obtain funding for an internship, consider seeking an unpaid internship. Most legal aid and public interest law organizations work with unpaid/volunteer interns throughout the year. Especially after their first year, some students balance unpaid internships with other part-time legal or non-legal work. While it can be challenging, gaining public interest experience through an internship or other program is important for law students who are interested in public interest careers. There are differences in how organizations hire and work with unpaid interns, but below are some general tips to help you secure a position.
Start by searching for volunteer internship positions or through your law school’s career services office. If you find a position that interests you, follow the instructions identified in the opportunity.
If you don’t find an opportunity, review the legal aid organizations in Illinois and identify organizations whose mission and work is important to you. Also, your law school’s career services office may have a list of organizations that accepts interns.
Once you have identified some organizations that are of interest to you, check their websites for information about their internship programs. Some programs will have specific information but others may not, even though they may accept paid or unpaid interns. If the website provides instructions, follow those instructions.
If the organization does not provide specific instructions, consider sending your resume with a short but detailed email that addresses the points identified below. If the organization does not identify a specific contact for internships, check the PILI website for the person who is responsible for interns or email the pro bono contact and ask her to direct you to the correct person if they are not responsible for interns. Your cover email should address:
- What position are you seeking? Explain that you are looking for a paid or unpaid internship at the organization.
- Why should the organization select you as an intern? Why are you interested in the organization? Be specific about why you are interested in that particular organization, any relevant experience you have and your commitment to the internship, whether it is paid or unpaid.
- What hours are you available to work, and over what period of time? Keep in mind that organizations invest time and resources to train and supervise interns, and therefore, want to work with students who can commit to a set period of time. Many organizations target 300 hours over the summer, but may be somewhat flexible. Many organizations will understand if you also have a part-time job, so explain your parameters and any flexibility that you have.
Public interest law post-graduate fellowships
AmeriCorps Legal Fellowships
AmeriCorps Legal Fellows work in a variety of issues, including health care, public benefits, foreclosure prevention, veterans' issues, education and more, providing legal assistance to thousands of people each year.
Equal Justice Works Fellowship
The Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program provides two-year fellowships to lawyers who want to pursue public interest legal careers with a host organization. Fellows receive a competitive salary and generous loan repayment assistance, a national training and leadership development program and additional support during their tenure.
The Skadden Foundation sponsors attorneys to work as Fellows for two years with a sponsoring organization in the field of providing legal services to the poor, elderly, homeless, disabled and disenfranchised.
Soros Justice Advocacy Fellowship
The Soros Justice Advocacy Fellowships fund individuals—including lawyers—for 18 months to initiate innovative policy advocacy projects that will have a measurable impact on one or more of the Open Society Foundations' U.S. criminal justice reform priorities.
This is not an exhaustive list. You can learn more by searching for job opportunities on PSLawNet or through your law school's career services office.
Other ways to get involved
Use your school’s Career Services Office (CSO). Spend some time in your CSO and meet the counselors and advisers there. Take advantage of the networking and social events sponsored by your CSO. Attend programs and symposia; join local bar associations and the student divisions of other bar associations. Join student groups that interest you such as your law school's public interest organization and, if your schedule allows it, register for one of your school’s clinics.