Public interest legal employment includes work with nonprofit legal organizations that specialize in particular issues or that serve certain client populations. Most public interest organizations are dedicated to advocating on behalf of the underserved. Other organizations work on environmental issues or do community economic development or international human rights. There are also private law firms that specialize in issue-oriented work such as civil rights, employment discrimination or representing “whistle blowers.”
Whether you are interested in working in the public sector for a career or for a summer, there are many benefits to seeking this type of employment.
- If you expect to join a public interest organization in your second summer or after graduation, working in a public interest organization for your first summer allows you to demonstrate your commitment to public interest practice. Public interest employers do look for a consistent, demonstrated commitment.
- A summer experience at an agency or nonprofit organization can help you to identify mentors who will be invaluable in obtaining a future position with that agency or another employer.
- If you are interested in several areas of law, public interest jobs allow you an opportunity to learn more about different practice areas and to prioritize your career interests.
- Work in public interest organizations often gives you hands-on lawyering and courtroom experience that will place your law school course work in a real context.
- Employers interviewing you will want to talk with you about the “lawyering” skills you have gained from your past employment. Public interest work often gives you substantive experience of interest to all employers, in both the private and public sectors.
If you expect to join a law firm next summer or after graduation, the first summer provides you the perfect opportunity to experience work in the public sector, and to carry your desire to do public service into your pro bono work with the firm.
Step one: Strategizing Your Search
A government job search can be a highly individualized one. The good news is that an agency that does work in an area of interest to you surely exists. You will want to think about what kinds of work and what substantive legal areas interest you, and then identify the agencies that do that work. Your first step in looking for government job is to ask yourself some questions.
- Do I want to work at a government agency?
- Do I want to do litigation or regulatory work?
- Do I want to do criminal work or civil work?
- Do I want to work for prosecution (DA, DOJ, US Attorney, State AG) or defense?
- Do I want to defend the state or city against law suits (City Law Department, State AG)?
- Is there a particular subject or population I want to concentrate on such as immigrants and refugees, disabled veterans, employment discrimination, environmental issues or civil rights?
- Do I have an interest in a particular area such as tax, commerce, or communications (IRS, DOC, FCC)?
- Am I interested in litigation, transactional, or legislative work?
Whatever the answers to those questions, you will find an agency that meets your interests. You may not know what you want to do now or in the future. However, the process of identifying and researching government employers in your first year will help you to narrow your interests for the future. Much of the work you will experience will be transferable to public and private sector jobs in the future.
Step two: Researching Organizations
The key to a successful job search is information. It is important that you take the time to explore the types of organizations that interest you to (1) find those agencies that most closely match your values and interests, and (2) develop enough background on the type of work done by the agencies you are targeting to articulate your interest in a cover letter and in an interview.
Often the most frustrating part of the government job search is finding out who is hiring and when. CP&P has access to internal and external databases that list government agencies and their hiring processes. We have many resources that will give you information about government agencies and the work they do. You will also want to peruse Job Postings on Symplicity, which include jobs and internships interested in Penn Law students and alumni, and the other online sources.
You can research organizations and agencies based on geography, issue or practice area. You can also research agencies by the type of work they do: for example: policy work, criminal enforcement, tax regulation or impact litigation. Use this information to create a chart or list of the government offices you would like to contact.
If your career plans will include government work in your second year or after graduation, it is important to keep a record of who you contacted in your first year search and the outcome of those contacts. This will help you organize your search in the future.
Step three: Contacting Targeted Agencies
Once you have identified organizations that are doing the work you want to do, you should decide on a strategy for contacting these agencies. Generally, your “application” for a government job will consist of a resume, a cover letter and a writing sample. It may also include your transcript, a personal statement or essay and a list of references.
What you send and how you approach your potential summer employers will depend on how you developed your list. If you are responding to a specific job announcement (found in Symplicity or one of our other sources) you will want to do exactly what the announcement tells you to do. Thus, if the announcement calls for a resume, cover letter, transcript and list of references, send those items. If an item is not available at the time you apply (e.g., your transcript), explain that in your cover letter and forward the item to the employer when it becomes available.
If you have created a list of agencies that interest you, you should then identify their hiring deadlines and application information. For employers without formal programs, you may want to call them to learn how to apply. Sometimes an email of a resume and cover letter explaining your interest can be a way to reach out to employers without formal hiring programs for internships. You can send the other materials if asked by the employer.
CP&P will also be happy to review any cover letters and resumes for you. The important thing to remember when writing a cover letter is that you want to be as specific as possible about why you are interested in the particular organization or agency and the work they do. You also want to indicate if and when you will be in their city and available for an interview. If you will not be in that city any time soon, offer to schedule a telephone interview in the meantime.
You may have a friend, former employer or an attorney you meet informally tell you of a great opportunity with a government employer. In this type of situation you may be told to write or call a specific person at the agency. In the alternative, you may just be asked to give your resume to your contact and wait for the employer to call you. These are appropriate job searching scenarios and often the way that law students and lawyers find jobs.
Another way to find potential employers is to contact alumni working in the fields that interest you. Penn has an network of graduates willing to speak to students about their areas of practice. This resource can be used for a summer or permanent job search. Additionally, your classmates may have contacts through the agencies they worked for before coming to law school or in past summers. You may want to contact these individuals for informational interviews. On our Resources page you will find links that can guide you through this networking process.
- 1L Summer Job Search - Questions to Ask Yourself
- 1L Summer Job Search - Checklist and Suggested Timeline
Register with PSJD , the comprehensive resource for public interest jobs, for information on:
- Career Fairs
- Numerous Public Interest Resources
- Funding Resources
- Helpful Links to Public Interest Organizations
- Check Symplicity for Job Postings
- Arizona Guide (for summer and postgraduate government jobs; password: tame)
- Greater Philadelphia Area Public Interest/Public Sector (PIPS) Career Fair Information
- Other Online Public Interest Career Resources
- Juvenile Defense Policy and Practice Career Resource Guide
- Examples of Public Interest-Focused Law Firms
- PSJD’s List of Firms Allowing Splits