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Penn Law launches fellowship program to create pathways for government service careers

January 13, 2014

The interior of the United States Capitol rotunda taken from behind the statue of George Washington. © Matt H. Wade
The interior of the United States Capitol rotunda taken from behind the statue of George Washington. © Matt H. Wade
“Catalyst Grants” will double Law School’s postgraduate public service fellowships. 

The University of Pennsylvania Law School has launched a new program that will effectively double the number of postgraduate fellowships available to students pursuing careers in public service, especially those pursuing careers in federal and state government, as well as in domestic and international nonprofits.

The newly established fellowships, called Catalyst Grants, will be awarded annually, starting in April 2014.

Catalyst Grants will make it possible for students to volunteer to work in federal, state, and local government agencies or NGOs that wouldn’t otherwise be in a position to hire them, providing Penn Law students with practical experience; such fellowships often lead to permanent jobs.

The Law School offers six public interest fellowships a year to its graduates to help launch their careers in the public and nonprofit sectors. With the launch of the Catalyst program, Penn Law will award between six and eight additional one-year stipends, and recipients will also be eligible for Penn Law’s generous Toll Loan Repayment and Assistance Program (TolLRAP), which eliminates significant student loan debt for graduates who pursue public service careers.

“To solve the problems our country faces, it’s crucial that new generations of lawyers dedicate themselves to public service, including and especially in government,” said Law School dean Michael A. Fitts, who started his legal career in the U.S. Department of Justice.  “This new program builds upon our existing programs and on our historic commitment to making careers in government and public interest work accessible to our graduates.”

“Penn Law’s postgraduate public service fellowship program is a great opportunity for students to get a foothold in an industry where jobs are not readily available on a cycle that matches the academic calendar,” said Congressman Matt Cartwright, a 1986 Penn Law graduate who represents Pennsylvania’s 17th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.  “Additionally, this program can offer a much needed gateway for students who seek to devote their careers to public service, benefitting those students and the communities they will serve.”

Government and public interest jobs are less traditional career paths for most JD students, but competition for such positions is intense, especially in an era of governmental fiscal crisis and budget constraints.

“Students seeking public service careers have incredible talent, deep passion, and  strong skills, but a lack of funding for government and nonprofit organizations means that few positions are available to meet both student interest and community need,” said Arlene Finkelstein, associate dean and executive director of the Law School’s Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC). “It makes such a difference when we can offer students the means to just get a foot in the door – the Catalyst grants enable students to  approach organizations and agencies that otherwise might not be able to consider them. They will have an opportunity to work as staff attorneys or in law-related jobs to gain experience, to establish a reputation that will make them even stronger candidates for long-term positions when funding becomes available, and of course to address critical and otherwise unmet social needs.”

The creation of the Catalyst Grant program is Penn Law’s latest effort to support public sector careers. In the past year, it also revamped and expanded its TolLRAP loan repayment assistance program, making it among the most generous in the nation for students pursuing public interest careers.

The commitment of Penn Law students to public service has never been stronger. The Class of 2013, for instance, provided more than 30,000 hours of pro bono service, with 90 percent of students exceeding the Law School’s minimum graduation requirement.

The Catalyst Grant program is open to graduating JD students seeking funding for unpaid positions with local, state, federal and international government agencies, public defender offices, NGOs, or international tribunals.

The grants will be offered to students on a competitive basis, with applications being accepted in January/February 2014 for review by the TPIC advisory board.  Applicants will then be interviewed in March, and awards will be made in April.