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For Project-Based Fellowships Only: The Project Description

Applicants for project-based fellowships must (a) develop a project and (b) secure a commitment from a host organization with which to partner in applying for and implementing their project. This process sounds daunting - and it does require planning and coordination well in advance of the application deadlines – but many law students each year do it, and so can you!

How do I choose a host organization?

First, recall that project-based fellowship funders often have their own eligibility criteria for host organizations. For example, Skadden and Equal Justice Works require that host organizations have 501(c)(3) status and the capacity to provide legal supervision to fellows (Skadden requires at least two attorneys on staff). Visit fellowship funders' websites and speak with the Assistant Dean for Public Interest to ensure that you understand the funders' criteria for host organizations.

After confirming that an organization meets the criteria of the fellowship funders you are targeting, there are a number of other factors to consider in determining its suitability as a partner:

  • The organization's commitment to you and the proposed project: Funders will want to know that the host organization is invested in you and your project, and has the capacity to provide you the support and supervision necessary to carry it out.
  • The relationship between the host organization and the funder: Some funders have long-standing relationships with particular host organizations, and partnering with those organizations may increase your chances of being awarded a fellowship. You may review funders' webpages to get a sense of which host organizations have a strong track record in acquiring these fellowships.
  • Whether there is an identified EJW sponsor preference for the organization: Each year some Equal Justice Works sponsors indicate that they want to fund a project to be carried out by a particular host organization. If you are able to secure a commitment with one of those host organizations, you are well-positioned to get an Equal Justice Works fellowship.

However, if you want to work with an organization that has never hosted a fellow before, do not be discouraged! The most important consideration, after ensuring that the organization meets the fellowship funder's eligibility criteria and has the commitment and capacity to help you implement your project successfully, is that there be a good fit between you, your organization, and your proposed project.

How should I approach a host organization about partnering to apply for a fellowship?

Some host organizations maintain their own formal application procedures for selecting a student or clerk to partner with in applying for project-based fellowships. These organizations will usually post their solicitations for fellowship applicants on their own websites and on PSJD. Some are forwarded to Vanderbilt's Office of Career Services, which posts them in Symplicity. Often, the deadlines for these applications are in the summer before the fall fellowship applications are due. Usually, this will mean in the summer between your 2L and 3L years, or the summer before you start a clerkship. If you are selected by the host organization, this does not mean you are guaranteed a fellowship. But it does mean that the organization wants a fellow, wants you to be that fellow, and will throw its resources behind the application.

Most fellowship applicants, however, secure a commitment from a host organization by approaching them informally. In an ideal world, you will have worked with an organization or have some connection to it prior to initiating that conversation. Often, though, that isn't feasible. Many successful fellowship applicants secure host organizations through contacts from law school advisors or previous employers—or by simply reaching out to those organizations directly. If you don't have a clear sense of your target host organization, talk with the Assistant Dean for Public Interest, who can help you both identify potential partners and strategize about contacting those organizations.

  • You should have a general sense of the kind of project you would be interested in pursuing prior to approaching a potential host organization. For example, you should know that you'd like to work with disabled youth in state care, or address predatory lending issues in low-income communities, or tackle legal barriers that formerly incarcerated persons face re-entering society.
  • However, do not feel as though you need to have a fully-developed proposal before you initiate these conversations. Host organizations often want to play an active role in designing fellowship projects. This is good for everyone, because the best project is one that feeds your passion and fits within the overall goals of the organization. To design such a project, you need their input.
  • Further, it is a good idea to approach potential host organizations well before the fall project fellowship application deadlines. Waiting to talk to them until you've fully developed your project idea could put you at a disadvantage, since they may commit to sponsor other applicants before you've had a chance to introduce yourself.

How should I come up with a project idea?

First, you should familiarize yourself with fellowship funders' project eligibility criteria. Visit funders' webpages and speak with the Assistant Dean for Public Interest to ensure that you understand what kind of work may be undertaken through the various project fellowship programs.


  • As a general matter, public interest fellowship funders will only support projects that serve or promote the interests of populations whose interests are not adequately represented in the legal system.
  • Beyond this general rule, each funder has its own criteria for the kinds of public interest work it will support. For example, the Soros Justice Fellowships Program only funds projects intended to reform the criminal justice system. The Skadden Foundation supports projects that provide direct civil legal services to poor and marginalized populations, and will not fund fellows who propose to engage in direct criminal representation. The Borchard Foundation provides support for fellows to pursue a project on law and aging.

Lauren Lowe '09

"The key is choosing a project that (1) you are passionate about in a way that comes across clearly in your application and during your interview and (2) fulfills a real need for your host organization."

Lauren Lowe '09, Skadden Fellow 2010


There is no uniform process or timeline for the development of a project proposal or securing of a host organization—except, or course, to the extent that both elements must be in place sufficiently in advance of the due date to enable to you write a strong application.

  • Some students come up with project ideas without much involvement from the host organization, but for most applicants, the process of developing a project and engaging a host organization are intertwined.
  • Some host organizations come up with their own project ideas and look for applicants to partner with, while other host organizations play a far more limited role in the project development process.
  • At a minimum, a host organization must buy in to the project, be able to articulate how the project relates to its existing work and mission, and commit its resources to the fellow and project as required by the rules of the fellowship program.
  • Remember that you will need to solidify your relationship with a host organization no later than the end of the summer between your 2L and 3L years, or the summer before you clerk, if the fellowship for which you are applying has a fall application deadline.

Throughout the process of developing a project, you should be speaking with other advocates working with the communities you plan to serve. The feedback and input from advocates in the field will help you strengthen your proposal, and fellowship funders will be happy to hear that you have been doing your homework.

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