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Job Search Process and Resources

OPIA provides access to a number of databases, guides, and other online resources that will assist you in your job search. We also provide one-on-one career counseling; schedule an appointment with Carolyn Stafford Stein as you begin your job hunt.  HLS alumni may sign up online for in-person or telephone appointments.

Alumni Job Search Overview

The following overview provides suggestions to help you analyze what you are missing in your career and what you are looking for, identify your strengths and weaknesses, get a sense of what your options are, and find a job that is a good fit for you. 

Self-Assessment – In order to determine the type of public interest work that is right for you, begin with a candid personal assessment. Try to identify the key qualities you want in a job. We also have more extensive self-assessment materials available.  For alumni contemplating leaving private practice for public interest work, our publication The Great Firm Escape discusses the considerations relevant to such a move.

  • What matters most to you in your professional work?
  • How can you best use your talents?
  • What do you love doing the most (as opposed to what you are good at doing)?
  • What skills has your current job demanded from you, and which do you most enjoy using?
  • To what type of work are you drawn?
  • At what do you feel most successful?
  • What kind of balance do you seek between work and family or personal time?

Get Up to Speed on Public Interest Practice – A variety of publications are available in which public interest and governmental practitioners describe the substance of their work. Each specialty guide OPIA produces includes narratives from practitioners in the field. Our publications Alumni/ae in Action and Outstanding Public Interest Lawyers in Action (.pdf) also provide insight into the work of public interest lawyers.

Update Your Resume and Other Materials – Take a critical look at your resume. Ensure that your resume reflects the aspects of your current activities about which you care the most. Emphasize any experience that is relevant to your public interest job search. Your resume should illustrate how, in school, in previous and current jobs, and in outside activities, you have shown commitment to whatever area of the law you are now pursuing.

Before launching your job search, you should identify a writing sample that does not breach client confidentiality. Also, consider carefully who can serve as professional and personal references.

Start Networking – The public interest legal community in any given city is often small and close-knit. Thus, the more people that you meet in your field of interest, the better your chances for employment. When you begin to network, start with friends and colleagues. But do not hesitate to branch out to friends of friends, former classmates, fellow members of professional or community organizations, and others who may be able to help you establish a link to the practice area you are targeting. While you must find a style of networking that is comfortable for you, the key lies in meeting people who work in areas that you want to learn more about or are interested in pursuing.

Another avenue you should pursue is to contact those people whom you do not know but who practice in areas of the law and settings that interest you. Hundreds of Harvard Law School graduates with public interest legal experience have offered to network with alumni/ae interested in their fields. Graduates of other law schools should try to contact fellow alumni/ae for similar advice.  Using alumni/ae directories, legal periodicals, bar publications and general interest newspapers can also be great ways to identify attorneys active in your field of interest.

Once you have constructed a list of potential contacts, you should begin to set up informational interviews. In doing so, make it clear that you are not asking for a job interview, but are seeking advice about the field and suggestions for how you may find a position somewhere in it. Of course, if someone on the list is looking to hire, he or she might consider you. But that is not the primary purpose of these interviews. Rather, your objective is to gain both a better sense of the field and possible routes to a specific job opening. Make it known that you are looking to change jobs, and enlist others to help you.

How Do I Build Public Interest Experience? – Public interest employers are especially interested in job applicants who have demonstrated some previous commitment to public interest work, and, ideally, have some experience in the particular area of law with which the organization is involved. Listed below are some helpful ways to begin developing experience in public interest practice:

  • Pursue pro bono work – You can take on pro bono cases or matters related to the type of legal work that you would like to pursue.  For more information, see OPIA's Pro Bono Guide.
  • Join organizations – There are a wide range of membership organizations in areas where you might like to practice, ranging from environmental groups to civil rights organizations. These organizations need the help of experienced volunteers.
  • Write articles – Write articles on an area of interest for publication in anything ranging from a law review to the op-ed page of a newspaper. Such articles can be included with a cover letter and resume when you apply for employment, especially when the subject matter of the article is relevant to a particular position.
  • Develop language skills – Certain types of public interest and government employers need attorneys who speak languages other than English. Brushing up old language skills or even tackling a new language will improve your ability to communicate with clients in certain types of practice and will demonstrate your interest in pursuing that field.
  • Self-education – If you want to practice in a certain public interest field, read extensively, both in case law and more general sources, in that area. This self-education will provide you with the confidence and knowledge to do well in an interview. Of course, it is also important to remember that an interviewer is looking for someone to practice law, not to give academic lectures or theorize.

Give Yourself Time – Remember that people do not find jobs overnight, particularly in public interest law. Public interest hiring tends to be sporadic, usually occurring only when an attorney leaves or when funds exist to create a new position – a rarity in today's public sector market. Allow yourself at least three to six months to locate your next position and try not to be discouraged when early leads do not pan out or employers tell you that they are not hiring. Give yourself the time to make an informed and strategic decision rather than leaping at the first job opportunity that presents itself. By taking the time to think carefully about your next step, you can increase the likelihood of finding work that is fulfilling on both a personal and professional level. Take heart; you will find such work!

Last modified: August 28, 2014

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