by Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow (2014 – 2015)
Those of you in your last year of law school are probably considering the variety of organizations offering themselves as potential partners for 2015’s batch of project-based fellowships.
If you haven’t heard about these entry-level opportunities, here’s the short version: they’re the most straightforward way to do what you are most interested in straight out of law school. You should read each fellowship’s application materials carefully before applying, but speaking loosely each follows a similar model: Prospective fellows partner with non-profit organizations to propose new projects that the hopeful applicant would undertake—projects which would expand the scope of the sponsoring non-profit’s work. Fellowship committees provide grants to their new Fellows to complete the proposed project at the host organization. In other words, successful fellowship candidates write their own job descriptions—not a bad first year as a lawyer.
The tricky part about getting a project-based fellowship is that you can’t apply on your own. You have to convince a non-profit to sponsor your application. You can find a sizeable number of non-profits looking for promising potential fellows to sponsor right now on PSJD. (Try searching for “Job Type: Fellowship – Legal: Project-Based” in the advanced search or searching for the keyword “Fellowship Sponsor” [in quotations].) Some of these organizations have project ideas already, and are looking for a 3L with the right experiences and skillset to successfully pull them off. Many, however, expect prospective fellows to bring their own proposals to the table.
This can be a daunting task. At the beginning of your third year of legal education, you may have been exposed to public-interest legal work through your internships or a clinic, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve observed some “group or issue not adequately represented in our legal system” and arrived at a clear idea about how to address the problem legally with the support of a host organization, to paraphrase the EJW Application Guide. So, as you set out to secure yourself a sponsor, you may be wondering, “Where do project ideas come from?”
In the non-profit legal world, there is far more work to be done than resources with which to do it. Mostly, this fact is discouraging. But students looking for project ideas should take heart: with a little research, you can find a plethora of already-identified legal needs begging for more attention.
Some of these issues are lucky enough to make the news. For example, last May NPR ran “Guilty and Charged”: a special series documenting at length its yearlong investigation into nationwide practices punishing impoverished defendants more harshly than those with means. Among other resources, the series includes a state-by-state survey of costs courts pass on to defendants and profiles of a variety of individuals who suffered at the hands of such fee-based justice systems. If you’re interested in procedural due process or economic justice, check out the series and see what jumps out at you.
When reading NPR’s series, one thing you’ll notice is that particular legal organizations, such as the Southern Center for Human Rights, NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, and Arch City Defenders, drove NPR’s reporting. Many legal practitioners already know what they would work on if they had the resources and the manpower. Not all of them are fortunate enough to attract NPR’s attention. Look for organizations with missions related to your particular social concerns (try searching PSJD’s employer profiles) and see if they have white papers or reports about emergent issues they hope to address. For example, Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute funds a student-led fact-finding mission investigating an emerging human rights crisis each year. Each mission generates a report based on its research, but few of them attract enough resources to continue their work beyond their initial year. A number of these reports focus on human rights crises in the United States and would be excellent sources for a project proposal.
Once you find an idea that grabs you, try following up with some of the legal authorities behind it. An email or phone call might seem pushy, but these organizations will have unbeatable insight into what needs to be done next and will jump at the chance to help you convince a fellowship committee to devote resources to their issue. (Speaking personally, I would love to see my past work with Georgetown on urban water shutoffs receive this kind of attention from prospective project fellows.)
So remember, if you’re stuck: The proposal will be yours. The project will be yours. The inspiration doesn’t have to be. While you’ve been in school, some lawyer somewhere is already championing your particular interest. Find out what that person would do with enough time or enough money and begin your project proposal there.