Expert Opinion: Project-based Fellowship Proposal Tips From One Who's Been There

Today’s Expert Opinion column is full of great advice about how to approach your project-based fellowship applications this summer from David Steib, a 2008 Skadden Fellow. David joined the Legal Aid Society of DC in September 2008 as a Skadden Fellow in the housing unit. His project focuses on bringing legal services to the Spanish-speaking community through direct outreach in the Columbia Heights area and through work with the DC Language Access Coalition. During law school, David interned for several public interest organizations, including the Legal Aid Society of DC. In 2007, he was awarded the John J. Curtin, Jr. Fellowship by the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty to intern for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. David also interned with Bread for the City and the Humane Society of the United States. He was a student of the Georgetown Domestic Violence Clinic. David received his B.A. from Yale University and his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center.

Finding your first job after law school is often a major preoccupation of 3L year. It makes sense to start the search as early as you can in hopes of having your plans in place before the spring. As a Skadden Fellowship recipient, it was a relief for me to know in December what my plans would be after graduation. Although the summer feels like it just began, the fourth of July is already behind us. The applications for two of the major project-based fellowships, those offered by Equal Justice Works and the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, are now available [Ed. Note – EJW applications are due Sept. 15, Skadden Oct. 4]. It’s a good time to give some thought to your proposal.

If the prospect of applying for a postgraduate fellowship scares you, take baby steps. Start by reading the applications for the two project-based fellowships mentioned above. The application for the Equal Justice Works Fellowship is structured enough that it will give you ideas of where to start in formulating a successful proposal. The application for the Skadden Fellowship is succinct enough to help you focus on the main points.

Hopefully, reading through the applications will help give you an idea of where to start. Remember that this process is supposed to be fun. You are, after all, creating the prefect job for yourself. You are identifying an unmet need in the world that you are in a position to serve. As you research the problem that you will be tackling, in order to include specific information about the need for your project in your fellowship application, your will find yourself more and more fired up to do the work.

As a Skadden Fellow, I have worked on improving language access for limited and non-English proficient tenants in rental and public housing in the District of Columbia. When I began speaking to people in the community that I hoped to serve, I learned that there was a very limited number of Spanish-speaking housing attorneys in DC. I also learned that there were no housing advocates active in the DC Language Access Coalition. I was excited by the thought that I could make a unique addition to the fight to improve the lives of limited and non-English proficient tenants living in poverty in DC.

As has been mentioned on this blog before, it is a good idea to speak with former fellows about their projects, their experience with the application process, and any advice that they might have. Get in touch with your law school career center or public interest office to get the contact information of alumni from your school who have served or are serving as fellows. The Office of Public Interest and Community Service at my law school was an invaluable resource for me throughout the application process.

You may also be able to contact acquaintances from college or even high school who have served as fellows. Take a look at the lists of current and former fellows to see whether you recognize any of the names. (http://www.skaddenfellowships.org/sitecontent.cfm?page=recentFellows&listYear=2010; http://www.equaljusticeworks.org/communities/participants/fellowships#c2010). Searching through the list of past fellows and projects will also give you a sense for the kind of work that is likely to be chosen for funding. When I read through the list of former fellows for project-based fellowships, I was surprised to see the name of a high school and intermediate school friend. I hadn’t spoken to her in years, but the discovery served as a nice reason to get back in touch with her and to ask her for advice regarding my application.

Sometimes it is helpful to read the successful applications of those who have come before you. The alumni fellows whom you contact may be willing to share their applications with you directly, or your law school career center or public interest office may have past successful applications on file for you to review. In addition, some successful past applications are posted on the Equal Justice Works website. By reading over these past applications, you’ll begin to see that the task is manageable and that creating your own successful application is within reach.

Although it is not necessary, it is ideal to choose a host organization with which you have worked in the past, or with which you are currently working. If you are interning this summer at an organization that might possibly serve as your host organization, you should have a good sense by now about whether or not you would like to work at the organization as a fellow. Whichever organization you chose, you should touch base with them now, if you haven’t already, to see whether they are able to host you. The first step is to express your interest to them. You can then begin discussing the nature of the project. I ended up meeting with my host organization, The Legal Aid Society of DC, in mid July to talk about whether or not the organization could sponsor me and about possible project ideas. Because I had interned with Legal Aid during law school, the organization had known for some time that I was interested in applying for project-based fellowships.

In some instances, a host organization will be able to help you formulate a project that would best serve their client community. In other cases, a host organization will expect you to come to them with a fully formed project in mind. Once you have established that a host organization has room to host a fellow, you should start a conversation with the host organization about whether or not the organization has any project ideas. Make sure to integrate the expertise of the host organization into your proposal while maintaining ownership of the project and making sure that it is something about which you are excited.

In my case, the Legal Aid Society of DC had already begun thinking about project ideas before I met with them in mid July. Because Legal Aid knew ahead of time that I was interested in applying for a project-based fellowship, they were able to consider whether there were any unmet needs in the community that I was particularly suited to try to address. Knowing that I was fluent in Spanish and had a background in housing law, Legal Aid brought to my attention the fact that there was a need for more advocacy in housing related issues for limited and non-English proficient residents of DC.

It’s July, and it’s time to start creating your dream job. Reach out to fellows, possible host organizations, and your law school career center or public interest office. Don’t let the opportunity to apply for a post-graduate fellowship pass you by!

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