Student Guest Post: Summer Public Interest Jobs

[Today I have another terrific guest post from one of my former students, Ginger Tanton, who worked in a public interest job last summer and loved it. Ginger plans to go into public interest work after law school, and believes there are many benefits for students from working in summer public interest jobs regardless of their career plans following law school.]

Summer Public Interest Jobs

By Ginger Tanton, 2L at Northwestern University School of Law

Summer jobs are obviously a common topic for 1L’s and 2L’s alike.  For students who plan to work mainly in the public interest after law school, public interest 1L jobs are often an obvious choice.  However, 1L public interest jobs offer many benefits for students regardless of their post-law school career plans.

A few disclaimers: I’m writing for myself, a student who came to law school with very specific public interest law goals for the future.  I worked in a large nonprofit over the summer, and the following is based on my own experiences and those of friends who spent their 1L summers in nonprofits as well.  While working in a nonprofit is clearly not the only way to do legal public interest work, that’s my experience and what I speak to in this post.

The Benefits of Public Service Work

  • Real clients with real problems right now.  Everyone I know who has worked in a public interest job in the summer was put to work immediately.  Most public interest organizations have more demand than they have time, so even 1L’s step up to the substantive plate right away.  In my first week, I did client intake solo.  In my first month, I represented a client at a hearing in front of an ALJ.  By the end of the summer, I had written an appellate brief for the Illinois Supreme Court.  At times, it was close to overwhelming, but my supervisor was extremely good about providing a reasonable amount of guidance, and I learned more than I would have thought possible.
  • Close, helpful supervision.  In a related point, my level of supervision was terrific.  I was given a lot of work to do, but I generally watched a task once, then did it under close supervision, and then did it on my own with the understanding that help was always close by.  It was a good way to build comfort level with new material but still get to work almost immediately.
  • Mentorship.  In addition to great supervision, my organization provided good mentorship.  I had regular meetings with my supervisor, and I was welcome to talk to her about work or school or career questions.  She was great about helping get projects tailored to my specific interests, and she’s been helpful in making career contacts too.
  • Observe/participate in decision making.  The last really helpful point from this summer was the opportunity to sit in and participate in collective decision making.  Many public interest organizations have case acceptance meetings (or “CAMs”) to decide which cases to take on for representation, and I was made a part of these meetings, literally at the table.  Since I took over my supervisor’s intake responsibilities for most of the summer, I did presentations at almost all of these CAMs and then got to observe the process of lawyers making decisions.  It was a great window into the function of the organization.

Doing Public Interest Work Well

Just a few final thoughts on doing public interest work well if you do end up in a nonprofit.  Remember that you are there to zealously advocate for your clients- they are not there to provide you with interesting problems or to give you a chance to practice your skills (although these things are happy bonuses).  Also, take it easy with the “when I’m at a firm” talk.  First, you don’t have a firm yet, and second, you don’t want to insult the people around you who love their jobs.

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