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Chapter 1: Introduction and Overview

What are public interest fellowships?

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!


 

Why would I want a public interest fellowship?

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.


 

How can I get a public interest fellowship?

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!"

Susan D. Wright, Esq. '03, EJW Fellow 2003-2005
 

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.

I am interested in applying for clerkships. How can I coordinate my clerkship and fellowship application processes?

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.


 

I am interested in pursuing public interest fellowships. What do I need to do?

Here are the basic steps you should take to position yourself competitively for a post-graduate public interest fellowship:

As a 1L...

  1. Start to brainstorm your post-graduate plans. What would be your dream job? Are you drawn to a particular issue, target client population, or geographic area?
  2. Imagine yourself in two years explaining to potential funders and employers how and why your background and experiences have led you to that dream job. Then think about how you can use each semester and each summer in law school to develop the experience and contacts you would need to have that conversation.
  3. Review this guide and the sample applications posted on the Social Justice Program webpage as Appendix C to familiarize yourself with the world of post-graduate fellowships.
  4. Meet with Vanderbilt's Assistant Dean for Public Interest to find out about the fellowship opportunities that may be of interest to you. The Specialist can help you brainstorm about how to build the law school experience that may help you get those fellowships.

As a 2L...

  1. Attend the Vanderbilt Career Services-Social Justice Program fellowship panel, usually held in October or November.
  2. Begin to work through the project-based fellowship checklist at the end of this guide.
  3. Apply for summer internships and term externships with an eye towards your post-graduate plans. If you hope to partner with an organization on a project-based fellowship, try to work with that organization before the application cycle begins. Likewise, if you are interested in pursuing an organization-based fellowship, interning for that organization could make you a particularly competitive applicant.
  4. Meet with Vanderbilt's Assistant Dean for Public Interest (again!) to confirm that you are on track, to make sure you are aware of all the opportunities that could be of interest to you, and to chart out a concrete timeline for pursuing those opportunities. Be sure to consult with the Assistant Dean and the Clerkship Advisor if you aspire to both clerk and obtain a fellowship.

As a 3L (or during your clerkship year)...

  1. Submit fellowship applications! Many project-based and government fellowships have early fall deadlines; others run later in the school year.
  2. Continue to explore other employment opportunities until you get confirmation that you have been selected for a fellowship.
  3. If you do not receive a fellowship, do not despair! You may be able to apply again in future funding cycles. And the networking and research you have done while preparing your fellowship application will serve you well in your public interest job search.

CHECKLIST - Before your first meeting with the Assistant Dean for Public Interest, do the following:

  1. Review this guide and familiarize yourself with the various categories of public interest fellowships and their application processes.
  2. 1Ls should send the Assistant Dean for Public Interest their resume before the meeting; 2Ls and 3Ls should send resume and transcript.
  3. Ask yourself – and be prepared to discuss –the following questions:
    • What would be my dream job coming out of law school or a clerkship?
    • What issues, problems, or communities am I passionate about? How can I use my law degree to address these issues or serve these communities?
    • What relationships do I have that would help me connect with organizations and advocates in the field I want to work in?
    • What are the biggest gaps in experience that I would like to fill?
  4. If you are interested in pursuing a project-based fellowship, fill out the questions in the checklist attached as Appendix A as best you can. Send your responses to the Assistant Dean for Public Interest.

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