Just as there are many different kinds of post-graduate public interest fellowships, the application processes for these various opportunities vary widely. For example, some (like Skadden) have very strict word limits. All of them, however, require at a minimum:
- Some sort of personal statement or letter of interest
- A resume
- Letters of recommendation or references
You should use all elements of the written application package to introduce yourself and set forth your commitment to and passion for the opportunity you are seek. Think of it as an opportunity to explain what makes you you and why you want this particular fellowship.
Examples of fellowship applications submitted by past Vanderbilt students are available in Appendix C: Fellowship Application Library.
As with any job application, you should take time to carefully craft the written pieces of your fellowship application. Make sure that you send all your drafts—including your resume—to the Assistant Dean for Public Interest for review well in advance of the application deadlines. They will give detailed feedback on your drafts and ensure that your final written product is as strong as possible.
Whether it is in the form of a personal essay or simply a cover letter, all fellowship applications require that you explain your background and experiences in some narrative form. Again, always read carefully the specific instructions of the fellowship for which you are applying.
You should use this opportunity to get very personal, to show the reader who you are and why you want to do the work you want to do. All fellowship funders are looking for commitment to and enthusiasm for the work you propose to undertake. Your personal narrative should be brimming with passion while also providing a clear explanation as to how you developed that passion.
Make sure that your personal statement also reflects your intention to use the law to address the issues you are passionate about. While you may have always known that you wanted to help poor or marginalized individuals, public interest legal fellowship funders will be paying you to use a very specific tool – your law degree – in service of those communities. There is an important distinction between volunteerism and public interest legal advocacy, and you should make clear that you are not conflating the two. Even if you are applying for a fellowship that does not require direct legal practice—such as an entrepreneurial opportunity focused on organizing work—you should be able to articulate why your law degree will help you achieve your goals. The best personal statements are those that reflect a deep personal passion for social justice work and an excitement about the prospect of using a law degree to contribute to that work.
The personal statement is, of course, highly individualized—there is no formula. These short excerpts provide a window into the sorts of things that successful fellowship applicants have said. Think about what you can say that will capture your motivations and goals as well as they captured theirs.
Describing how a family commitment to community work cemented an interest in serving poor children:
"Carl Buechner wrote that one's vocation lies at the intersection of one's deep gladness and one of the world's deep needs. This project lies at the intersection of my deep gladness and one of the world's deep needs."
"On my second day interning at the Davidson County Public Defender's office, so many defendants were called into the courtroom at once, the bailiff ran out of handcuffs. The last defendant in the line of ten was told to pretend he was cuffed; obligingly, he held his wrists together as if invisibly bound. In a few minutes, each defendant pleaded guilty to a felony.... A felony conviction in Tennessee functions like the tenth defendant's invisible handcuffs: despite the absence of physical restraint, it limits employment opportunities, stymies reintegration into society, and prevents participation in one of the most fundamental activities in a democracy... What I saw in that Tennessee court that day was ten people losing part of their personhood. If they are fortunate, they may find employment and housing; but, without the right to vote, they will never find their voice as citizens. It is time that these invisible chains of felony disenfranchisement be removed."
"I come from a background of environmental sustainability and land use planning, and I believe that the future of sustainability work is realizing the potential of effective planning to confront health and poverty issues. Similarly, I believe that the future of anti-poverty work will embrace the value of sustainable land use and planning in creating healthy, stable urban communities that will grow with a city rather than get left behind."
"By litigating against non-compliant employers and conducting community education and advocacy to ensure that government agencies enforce health and safety protections for the rapidly-growing Spanish-speaking workforce in the rural south, I will help contribute to a climate of accountability and respect for the rule of law in workplaces and government agencies. In so doing, I will participate in making the central promise of our country and its legal system – commitments to equal opportunity and equal protection for all – meaningful in communities throughout my home state and region."
Describing a passion for indigent criminal defense work:
"To embrace someone at a moment of his or her greatest weakness and, against all odds, help him survive that moment with humanity, dignity, and respect is a moment that makes all other moments worthwhile. To be able to lock eyes with a so-called 'monster' and feel a genuinely angry, indignant, and empathetic energy is an experience that will keep me coming back for a very long time."
Your resume, too, should reflect your commitment to and passion for public interest work. Make sure to include all your public interest experience on it. Do not worry about keeping your resume to one page or less for the purpose of public interest fellowship applications. College public interest work (for example, interning for a legal aid organization or public policy institute, international human rights work, and the like) should be included, and you may even want to include significant high school public interest work if you have it. You should include volunteer experience (for example, tutoring children, working with Habitat for Humanity, or running food drives) on your resume as well, though it is less important. Make sure that you will be able to distinguish in an interview between volunteer or charity efforts and legal advocacy in the public interest.
If your resume is not long on public interest experience, you should take extra care in your personal narrative to explain your career trajectory and to detail your commitment to public interest work.
Many fellowship applications require that applicants submit letters of recommendation. Others require a list of references. In general, you should include as recommenders (a) someone who has supervised you in a work or practice setting and (b) a law professor who is familiar with your academic work. Again, check the specific requirements. Some funders, such as Skadden, expressly require the submission of recommendations from an employer and law professor.
As with other elements of the written application package, the recommendation letters should be highly personal and should emphasize your commitment to public interest work.
In addition to the above materials, these sorts of fellowships generally also will require:
- A project description
- A letter of support from any host organization
The description of the project you will undertake, whether within an existing host organization (for project-based fellowships) or in a new organization of your making (for entrepreneurial fellowships), is the heart of those applications. In order to obtain an interview and the opportunity to sell your idea in person, this section of your application must be strong and coherent. It should set forth clearly the needs you propose to address and how you propose to address them. Your project goals should meaningful but not unrealistic, and you should explain clearly how you will meet them. Most funders require that you lay out a specific timeline in your project description.
If you are partnering with a host organization, coordinate closely with that organization in both your project description and their letter. You need to show that you are on the same page, and even small differences in how you describe the mission and methods can cause confusion. The organization needs to convey clearly that (a) it will be a competent and caring home for this project and (b) the legal need your project will address is a pressing one they cannot otherwise take on, but can with you on board. They will also need to review your draft application to make sure you have accurately captured what they hope to accomplish with your fellowship. The Assistant Dean for Public Interest will work with you and your host organization on your written materials in order to maximize your joint effectiveness.
One mark of a solid project is the ability to convey its fundamental mission and methods in a sentence or two. Here are some examples of projects that have been funded in the past. Can you boil down what you'd like to do in a concise way like this? That's your ultimate goal.
The Assistant Dean for Public Interest has a database of Vanderbilt students' applications from previous years, which you should consult once you reach the drafting stage. Personal statements and project/organization descriptions are particularly hard to write, so take advantage of these high-quality examples.