Preparing & Applying For Public Interest Fellowships

Introduction

Post-graduate fellowships are a wonderful way to fund a public interest law position. There are many different types of fellowship programs. Some fellowships are sponsored by a particular non-profit organization; fellows receive a stipend for working within the organization. Some fellowships allow applicants to develop their own specific project in conjunction with a sponsoring non-profit organization of the applicants' choice. Other fellowships provide the opportunity to earn an advanced law degree, such as an LL.M.  For a description of these various types of fellowships, click here.

How do I find out about possible fellowships?

One of the most comprehensive resources for exploring and locating public interest fellowship opportunities is the on-line PSJD.org (formerly PSLawNet). PSJD provides excellent general information on applying for fellowships -- including "dos" and "don'ts" -- as well as a comprehensive list of fellowships and a calendar of application deadlines.  In addition, the Law School's Job Bank often has postings for fellowship opportunities.

If, after reviewing these resources, you are interested in developing an application, we encourage you to make an appointment with Emily Kite, Associate Director in the Office of Career & Professional Development, who advises students regarding public interest opportunities and fellowships (emily.kite@wisc.edu). Once you have decided on a fellowship or fellowships, Emily is happy to review your application materials and give you suggestions and feedback.  In addition, many Law School alumni have obtained prestigious public interest fellowships, and are happy to offer you insight and advice as you begin the application process.

Some fellowships require me to design my own project -- how do I start?

A successful fellowship application requires a significant amount of advance planning. Indeed, the Yale Law School Career Development Office, in its Public Interest Fellowship Handbook (available on PSJD), suggests that you begin thinking about, and setting the groundwork for, your fellowship applications as early as the first semester of law school! While initially this might seem premature, it is important to remember that you will need to demonstrate to fellowship sponsors a commitment to public interest law; the best way to do this is through networking, working for public interest employers, enrolling in clinical programs, participating in student organizations, and volunteering in the community, among other things.

A number of the major fellowships provide funding for you to create your own project at an organization of your choice. Before you begin to develop your project, however, you should engage in self-assessment by asking yourself some questions, developed by former Skadden Fellow Vicky Selkowe ('03), to help you focus and organize your thoughts:

  • What, specifically, do you want to be doing? Individual representation? Advocacy? Coalition-building? Policy development? Impact litigation?
  • What is the need for your project? Who is the community to be served? How is your project distinct?
  • What measurable outcomes/goals do you want to achieve? (E.g., Certain number of clients served? Specific piece of legislation proposed/enacted? Certain number of local advocates/clients trained? Specific change to case law? New coalition formed to address a particular issue/fill a particular need?) How does the project fit with your longer-term career goals?
  • Who do you need to get on board or to develop relationships with for your project to succeed?
  • What in your background/interests prepares you to do this project? What is your particular passion for or connection to this project?
  • With whom do you want to work? From whom will you learn? Who will be a good co-worker/mentor?

In addition to answering these questions, you should review summaries of projects that fellowship sponsors have funded in the past (because each fellowship has its own funding preferences). Then think about the subject areas that interest you the most. Spend some time researching the cutting-edge issues in the area. This research should include not only library-based research (e.g., law review articles), but also consultation with faculty members and practicing lawyers.

A public interest summer placement can serve as the testing ground for a post-graduate fellowship program. Also, think about the geographic location you would like to be in. You may have a better chance of obtaining a fellowship if you are willing to go to a geographic area that has difficulty attracting attorneys. For example, Equal Justice Works specifically encourages applications from people who want to work in areas other than large cities on the coasts.

Once you have developed your project, you must identify the organization(s) that may be interested in having you work with them if you obtain a fellowship. The best place to start is with an organization with which you have previous contacts, perhaps through an internship or summer job. Another approach is to use alumni or faculty contacts. The sponsoring agency does not have to be a "big name;" however, funders are concerned with whether the sponsor is qualified to house and supervise your project (in addition to scrutinizing the feasibility and overall benefit of your project).

What do most fellowship applications consist of?

Most fellowship programs require personal statements/essays by the applicant, recommendations from professors and/or former employers, and transcripts. Many also require a statement from the sponsoring organization, and others require a legal writing sample.

How do I prepare my application?

Make sure that you leave yourself plenty of time to prepare your application. Most fellowships require you to write one or more essays describing your project and your background. Editing is crucial! Ask friends, family members, faculty and Career Services staff to give you feedback and advice. Networking with those familiar with the fellowship sponsor is also important.

Fellowships are often evaluated on how well the applicant conveyed the goals of the project, the concrete and specific strategies to accomplish these goals, and the particular skills and experience the applicant has to ensure the project's success. Commitment to the public interest and sincere enthusiasm are both qualities that help an application.

For more tips and advice on preparing your fellowship application, visit PSJD.org and click on "Postgraduate Fellowships."

How do I keep track of all the fellowship deadlines?

This can be one of the trickiest aspects of applying for fellowships, particularly because much of the work on your application should be done far in advance of any deadlines. Check each fellowship application carefully and, if you are applying for multiple fellowships, maintain a separate calendar with important dates and deadlines. PSJD.org maintains a comprehensive fellowship calendar that you should consult frequently.

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