August 2017

How to Land a Public Interest Attorney Position

By Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi

Assistant Director of Public Service, University of San Diego School of Law

Many new attorneys ask how landing an attorney position at a public interest organization can be so difficult when it was so easy to land internships at those organizations during 1L summer. As 1Ls, students have two years of law school and two summers to show an organization that they are committed to public interest. Nonprofit organizations are structured to train and mentor students, and the opportunity is provided for students’ benefit. With attorney positions, the situation is flipped — organizations must hire to benefit the organization and its mission.  

Public interest organizations have limited resources and a growing client base. More families are falling below the Federal Poverty Level and becoming income-eligible for services at a time when funding sources are in jeopardy. Attorney positions at public interest organizations are few in number and competitive. Nonprofit organizations hire with one question in mind: Can this candidate help us pursue our mission and contribute to our cause? 

Unlike many entry-level attorney positions, graduating from a highly ranked law school with top grades does not guarantee a job in public interest. To be competitive for a public interest attorney position, one must demonstrate commitment to public interest law and a passion for the organization’s mission.

For a new attorney to be competitive for public interest positions, she must have acquired public interest experience during law school through clinics and externships. Passion, however, is just as important as practical experience. The candidate must be able to articulate what drives her to do this work. Passion and drive are essential because caseloads are large, stakes are high (eviction, immigration detention, etc.) and resources are limited. Competitive candidates may hold a Masters in Social Work or have impressive pre-law school experience.

New attorneys interested in public interest work should pursue fellowships. A fellowship is a postgraduate position at a nonprofit organization that does not have the funds to hire a full-time attorney. Fellowships are funded by outside sources, often nonprofit organizations or law firms, and are limited in duration, generally one or two years. Some are open only to 3Ls or recent graduates, others welcome attorneys with up to two years of experience. Fellowships are the launching pad for many public interest careers, as host organizations often offer the fellows staff attorney positions after the fellowship, or at the very least, help the fellowship secure a permanent position at another nonprofit organization.

While fellowships are ideal, new attorneys should also consider limited in duration, grant-based positions. The contracts for these positions are limited to the projected use of specific grant funding. They may lead to permanent positions at the nonprofit organization, and at worst, they provide in-the-trenches experience and strong references. I started as an attorney in rural Ukiah under a one-year contract through a federal homelessness grant. When the grant funding was exhausted, the organization offered me a staff attorney position in their main office to continue practicing poverty law.

Attorneys can also improve their qualifications for public interest after graduation. For new attorneys who are unemployed or underemployed, pro bono work is crucial. It provides the practical skills essential to land a public interest position, the subject matter expertise to be competitive, and the familiarity with nonprofit organizational structure that is crucial to succeeding at an interview. Moreover, pro bono work allows one to demonstrate commitment to public interest work while making meaningful connections to the local public interest community, including the organizations to which one would be applying for jobs.

Private sector attorneys applying for public interest positions may benefit most from pro bono work, even if they pursued public interest opportunities during law school. A nonprofit organization may assume that an associate hasn’t handled the type and breadth of work that a public interest attorney of that level will be handling, and may not seriously consider the associate as a candidate. Public interest attorneys have direct client contact, control over case management, and courtroom experience almost immediately.

An associate who has primarily worked on research projects, document review, and motion preparation would benefit from taking a full representation case pro bono. The associate will gain exposure to public interest practice areas, hone practical skills, and understand procedural issues involved with advocating before administrative agencies. San Diego pro bono opportunities include Casa Cornelia, San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, and Legal Aid Society of San Diego. These organizations provide mentorship and support.  

Applying to public interest attorney positions is time-intensive. Unlike large firms, public interest organizations generally do not have a set hiring schedule or a person dedicated to recruitment. Instead, organizations hire when there is an opening due to the departure of a staff attorney or the expansion of a grant-based project, and the person responsible for hiring is likely also balancing a large caseload and has duties supervising less experienced attorneys. Keep in mind the resource constraints of when applying and be patient after submitting your application materials.

Once you have secured an interview with a public interest organization, be prepared to speak about your credentials, qualifications, and, most importantly, the reason you want to do public interest work. During the interview process, be yourself, explain what drives you, and be honest about your passion.