Planning for your job at an NGO

Obtaining post-law school positions with international NGOs is very complex; more so than landing a job with a domestic nonprofit and dramatically more complicated than landing a big firm job. There is no formal process for seeking positions; however, throughout the world there are many attorneys working in NGOs. As with summer internships, persistence and patience are critical. Flexibility helps a lot, too. The groundwork involved in researching and applying for positions with international NGOs can be extensive. It demands commitment and persistence matched only by working in the field itself. 

If you wish to pursue international work upon graduation, it is usually not enough these days just to have one summer job at an NGO. You must present potential employers with a resume that attests to your persistent commitment and the development of expertise.

Building a Track Record for a Postgraduate Job

Variety Versus Focus

One problematic question for students is whether they should develop experience in a variety of issues or countries or whether they should focus on one issue or region. Your own interests should in large part drive the answer to this question. Some students find their niches before law school and can focus on developing expertise from day one. Others find fields they are passionate about after their 1L summers and pursue similar work during their 2L and 3L school years and perhaps during their 2L summers to build up the most competitive resume possible in that field. However, many students pursue different types of international experiences in order to explore which regions or issues most interest them. While it is of paramount importance to use law school to hone in on what type of work will make you happy – even at the cost of building a “better” resume”– if possible, it is useful to build some type of expertise whether in a particular issue area (e.g. women’s rights), a particular region (e.g. Africa) or with a particular skill set (e.g. litigation). The sample resumes can illustrate these differences. 

Academic Versus Practical Experience

A choice students sometimes face is whether to pursue academic or practical experiences. As might be predictable, the optimal course is to pursue both, at least for U.S.-based NGOs (academic/ “prestige” credentials often mean less to foreign employers). The students best-positioned to land postgraduate NGO jobs might be those with journal experience and/or research assistantships with a professor to demonstrate research and writing skills, combined with lots of hands-on experience gained through volunteer, clinical and summer (or other “break” time) work. Take a look at some of the sample resumes to see how HLS students managed to balance their experiences. For example, on the more academic end of the spectrum, Isabel Symmers served as a Research Assistant for a professor working in her exact field of interest and was the Submissions Editor for the International Law Journal. At the same time, she used summer, winter term and even term time (through an independent clinical) to gain practical experience. However, if you are not able to pursue both, NGOs generally favor practical work experience over more academic or “prestigious” pursuits. 

Any international work will help you advance your chances of landing postgraduate NGO work, including work with intergovernmental agencies, foreign governments and international work within the U.S. government. However, be aware that if all of your work experience is with governmental bodies and you do not have any NGO experience, you may be at a disadvantage in securing a postgraduate NGO position. In some instances, NGO employers see working for an NGO as a serious sign of commitment to social justice. In other instances, NGO employers may simply be looking for evidence that you can handle the level of resources, the adaptability, and the independence that can be seen as unique to the NGO world. NGOs often have smaller staffs in the field, fewer resources to draw upon, and truly rely upon self-starters.

Judicial Clerkships

Judicial clerkships can be useful in helping you land a postgraduate international NGO job. U.S.-based judicial clerkships, though often focused on domestic issues, can demonstrate – at least to U.S.-based international NGOs – development of analytical, research and writing skills. International clerkships both with international courts and tribunals are growing in popularity among U.S. law students. HLS graduates, for example, have clerked for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the Israeli Supreme Court and the South African Constitutional Court. Some HLS graduates have even done both U.S.-based and international clerkships. International clerkships can be valuable entries into a particular niche (e.g. ICTY offers exposure to the growing area of international criminal law) or more general exposure to international litigation that can be useful to a wide cross-section of employers. American law students may find, however, that they have to muster their own funding to work at foreign tribunals or foreign national courts. Students and graduates do so by obtaining “traveling” or “research” fellowships, by first garnering money from paid sources (e.g. private law firm work) or by borrowing. Yale Law School offers a terrific guide to international tribunals and courts found here: http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/CDO_Public/CDO-10-IntlTribunals-PUBVer.pdf.

Know the Field

Whether you are applying for a permanent or temporary postgraduate position, it is important for you to know about the issues you will work on and/or the region you will serve. One of the benefits of working in a particular region or on a particular set of issues while in law school is that you will be able to demonstrate substantive knowledge to a potential employer. However, if you do not have completely relevant knowledge, or if your knowledge has become rusty, read up on current events in the desired field/region and review a prospective employer’s website as valuable preparation for cover letters and interviews.

Be Willing to Take “Temporary” Positions

As noted above, NGOs often want you to have experience before they hire you. Sometimes they require postgraduate, not just law school, experience. If you want to go directly into NGO work upon graduation, you may therefore need to take temporary, intermediate steps to obtain a permanent position. This requires a bit of risk-taking and an entrepreneurial spirit. However, we have found that those who have been willing to go this route and who have worked hard in their temporary positions have been able to parlay their experience into terrific permanent positions. For example, one HLS graduate who spent a year in Guatemala on the HLS Henigson Fellowship (an in-house human rights fellowship, the Henigson Fellowship permits recent graduates to work in a developing country for up to a year) landed a permanent position with a DC-based human rights NGO litigating cases against the government of Colombia. Fellowships and volunteer positions are two such intermediate steps; consultancies (paid short-term jobs) are another option.

Fellowships

Recent law school graduates often land their first jobs through fellowships. See the Fellowships section of the OPIA website for greater detail on the applying for and landing a fellowship. Many recent graduates apply for fellowships to work at specific NGOs for one to two years. As fellows, new attorneys are able to familiarize themselves with particular organizations and expand their relationships with individuals at the NGOs and within the field. Fellows may work themselves into permanent positions in the NGOs. Not surprisingly, NGOs are apt to hire individuals with NGO experience and those with whom they are familiar. For example, a number of HLS graduates have obtained fellowships with Human Rights Watch; those fellowships, though time-limited, have allowed them to either move into permanent positions at Human Rights Watch or have given them the experience necessary to move into other jobs.

Fellowships can also help students break into the postgraduate NGO world by funding a year or more of “field” work. In other words, fellowships can fund work overseas with a local NGO. At HLS we are fortunate to have several fellowships that fund postgraduate public interest work, and also access to a number of university-wide “traveling” fellowships that fund study or work abroad. However, even if your law school does not have access to these resources, you can tap into outside “traveling” fellowships. For example, HLS students have used the Fulbright, Rotary and Luce Fellowships to fund their overseas experiences. Often one or two years of postgraduate “field” experience funded through these fellowships, especially in combination with international experience during law school, is enough to help you land a permanent position with an NGO.

Entrepreneurs

One way to find a great international job is to create one. Some attorneys use fellowships as seed money to start their own NGOs. Check out work in an entrepreneurial setting and the entrepreneurial narratives to learn more about how this was done. 

Volunteering

If you can afford it, volunteering for a group where you might seek a permanent position, or at a place that will allow you to build experience towards a permanent position, will give you a foot in the door. NGOs will hire someone who has come in and proven himself or herself both because they have demonstrated an extremely strong commitment to their mission by volunteering and because they now know that the volunteer can actually handle the work. Some HLS students have saved money from paid positions to enable them to take valuable temporary volunteer positions.

Finding a Job/Networking

We urge you not to just rely on advertised openings or even a blitz of applications to multiple NGOs. We have mentioned networking as a means to learn about a particular field and to develop contacts to help you break into that field. The role of networking in landing a postgraduate NGO position cannot be underscored enough. As with many public service positions, and perhaps especially so in the international NGO sector, numerous NGO jobs are not widely advertised. Those doing the hiring at NGOs also like to hire those who come with a recommendation from individuals the employer may have a personal or professional connection to. Thus, getting out and talking to as many people in as many organizations of interest as you can is an extremely worthwhile investment of time. As one HLS alumnus with a great deal of NGO experience put it, “hit the phones or, better yet, meet people face-to-face”. You may actually be able to persuade an organization to hire you even if you lack some of the experience they seek if you impress them enough.

Interviewing

Even if you do all the right things to build an impressive set of credentials for a job, you may not land it if you do not interview well. For general interviewing tips, see the interviewing section of the OPIA website. However, for NGOs in particular, it is important to underscore that you should demonstrate knowledge of their field and – perhaps most importantly of all – passion for their work. As an HLS graduate who does hiring for NGOs says, "show fire in the belly" and a "determination to do justice."

Last modified: December 10, 2012

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