Fellowships are time-limited employment opportunities that serve as an important pathway into the public interest legal sector for recent law graduates, including judicial clerks. The universe of public interest fellowships is vast and dynamic. Some fellowships fund recent law graduates to carry out innovative legal advocacy projects, while others are essentially endowed entry-level attorney positions at non-profit organizations. Fellowships offer access to networks and the cachet that comes with having secured a coveted public interest opportunity.
This guide focuses on five categories of established post-graduate public interest fellowships: project-based, organizational, firm-sponsored, entrepreneurial, and clinical. It also points you to other resources if you are interested in international fellowships or government honors program opportunities.
Many Vanderbilt students have been successful in obtaining public interest fellowships, and with planning, foresight, and effort, you can be too!
Fellowships are an excellent springboard into a public interest career. Fellowships are an opportunity for recent law graduates to follow their passions, create their dream jobs, and put their law degrees to immediate use in service of the greater good. They offer graduates an opportunity to build networks, experience, and strong public interest credentials early on in their legal careers.
What's more, the process of exploring and pursuing public interest fellowship opportunities forces students and recent graduates to assess their own career goals, to identify organizations that would be good fits for them, and to build professional relationships. In other words, if you pursue a public interest fellowship strategically, you are also positioning yourself as effectively as possible to land an entry-level job and embark on a satisfying public interest career.
Getting a post-graduate public interest fellowship requires passion, foresight, and strategy. Two things are absolutely necessary: first, commitment to public interest work, and second, skills that will enable you to do that work well. But commitment and skill are not enough. Fellowships also require planning. That planning ideally begins early in your law school career. It is critical that you take advantage of the support and resources Vanderbilt Law School offers if you think a fellowship may be a post-graduate path you want to explore.
"The Equal Justice Works fellowship program is a phenomenal way to start a career in public interest law. Funding, networking and mentoring are built in to the fellowship. The application process is highly competitive and involved, so I recommend starting to plan early!"
Fellowships are only one way of securing a post-graduate legal position in the public interest. Furthermore, they are competitive, and no one should assume that he or she will receive one. You therefore also should be exploring other entry points into the career you want, and should take full advantage of the resources offered by the Director for Government and Public Interest Advising in the Office of Career Services.
Like fellowships, clerkships are a fantastic way to begin your career, no matter what sort of law you hope to practice. Fortunately, you can aspire to do both. If you are interested in a judicial clerkship, you should be in touch early in your law school career with the Clerkships Advisor and ensure that you are on email lists for updates about clerkship application processes. You can apply for fellowships while you are clerking. Indeed, you are likely to be a stronger fellowship applicant because of your clerkship experience. A number of Vanderbilt graduates have been awarded public interest fellowships that began immediately after their clerkships.
Clerkship application deadlines are generally earlier than public interest fellowship application deadlines. In most cases, you will know whether you have secured a clerkship prior to the fall applications for public interest fellowships. This will not always be the case, though. Moreover, successful project-based fellowship application planning often requires that you secure a commitment from a host organization in the summer before your third year, when some clerkship applications may still be pending. You could face some difficult timing issues if you find yourself pursuing fellowships and clerkships simultaneously. It is therefore imperative that you consult closely with both the Clerkships Advisor and the Assistant Dean for Public Interest if you are interested in both opportunities.
Here are the basic steps you should take to position yourself competitively for a post-graduate public interest fellowship: