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Public Service Careers: Research Tips

Last updated Feb. 22, 2014.
Prepared by Mary Whisner.

Preliminary Thoughts

Thinking about what sort of job you want involves at least three interests:

  • the substantive area -- environmental law, women's rights, etc.
  • the nature of the work -- litigation, lobbying, education, etc.
  • the geographic area where you'd like to land

Your goal is to find something in the intersection of these three factors.

So far, this is the same as it is for any other sort of legal career. The challenge for students interested in public interest law is that the numbers are smaller. For instance, for any city in America (geography), there will be a lot of lawyers drafting (nature of work) estate planning documents (substance). But there will very few people in that city (geography) litigating (nature of work) on behalf of low-income LGBTQ people (substance).

diagram of 3 overlapping ovals (substance, nature of work, geography) with little overlap


As you develop your interests, think about where you are willing to stretch them to make their intersection bigger. If your substantive ideal is working on housing discrimination, would you consider landlord-tenant law? the mortgage crisis? civil rights generally? If your geographic ideal is Seattle, would you consider Tacoma? San Francisco? any city on the West Coast? any city?

Your opportunities multiply if your diagram looks more like this:

diagram of 3 large ovals (substance, geography, nature of work) with lots of overlap



There are more factors to layer on top of these:

  • timing—an externship in two months or a job three years after graduation?
  • size of office—two or three lawyers or a hundred?
  • type of employer—government, nonprofit, private sector?
  • pay (or not)—volunteer work, externship for credit, paid work, fellowship?
  • office culture—good leadership? likelihood of mentoring?

Cast a wide net.

In the early stages of your career planning, remember that finding a job in the short-term is just part of what you're doing. You're also learning about the nature of the work, exploring the job market, meeting interesting lawyers (and others), and learning more about yourself. You don't have to want to work somewhere to benefit from learning about the organization and talking to its lawyers. And you don't have to want to do something for thirty years in order to get a lot out of a summer job doing it.




screen shot of PSJD's home page

The University of Washington School of Law subscribes to PSJD so that students and alumni can have access to it. Use it. Set up your own account to take full advantage of its features.

  • Job postings, including law-related jobs, international jobs, fellowships.
  • Organization descriptions. (Don't wait for a job posting if you find an organization that interests you!)
  • Career resources -- tips on resumes, interviewing, etc.
  • Customize your own homepage (saving favorites to go back to).
  • Sign up for alerts tailored to your interests.

(PSJD used to be called PSLawNet.)


Other Websites with Public Service Jobs

  •, a project of Action without Borders, offers information about volunteer opportunities and jobs with nonprofit organizations.
  • Equal Justice Works (posts jobs before annual EJW Conference & Career Fair)
  • National Public Defender Association: "[I]ncludes positions in civil legal services, defender organizations, pro bono and public interest organizations, public interest law firms and academia."

Learn about Fields That Interest You

Make the time to keep up with some of the fields that interest you.

But what about the time???

You might be thinking that you don't possibly have the time to do any of this. After all, you're a busy law student.

Amazingly, it doesn't take a whole lot of time to be more informed than you are. Twenty minutes here and there can make a big difference. Go ahead, give up a couple of games of Spider Solitaire or a "Friends" rerun. (I'm not judging you: I take breaks and indulge in diversions too.)

You'll find that it makes it much easier to make conversation when you meet lawyers -- you can bring up a news item or something you came across.  This sort of reading can be a great break from studying. It will remind you of why you wanted to be a lawyer!


Prepare for Networking & Informational Interviews

See the tips in Sample Searches for Networking & Informational Interviews.


Start a Career Notebook

Consider keeping a journal (or a folder in your laptop) where you jot notes about what you're exploring.

  • Did you attend a networking event? Whom did you meet? Do you plan to follow up with anyone?
  • Did you hear an interesting speaker? Note her name and what impressed you.
  • Would you like to contact an attorney you met during moot court? Make a note.
  • When you're volunteering or doing an externship, write down interesting (or uninteresting) projects—what skills did you learn? what did you like? what was challenging? whom did you work with?
  • Before you have an informational interview, make notes about the person you'll meet. Afterwards, note what you discussed. (Don't forget a thank-you note!)
  • List the people you're using as references, and make sure you stayed in touch with them about what you're doing and where you're applying.




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