Suggested Choices for Students Interested Government and Policy Jobs
There is no single right way to prepare for a career in government or in public policy. There are too many possible careers to be had, and too many ways to get there, for a definitive roadmap to make sense. Nevertheless, the following offers some general advice about how to organize your curricular and extracurricular choices with an eye to future policy work or public service.
Types of Careers
There are three general ways that one may engage in public policy work: through government, academia, or a nonprofit think tank or advocacy organization. In most substantive fields, people pursuing careers in public policy shift among these types of positions throughout their career. They also frequently spend some time, or a large amount of time, in private practice. While no specific ordering is required, it is important to remember, and plan for, the difficulties that may arise when trying to shift between these different careers so that you do not become stuck in one type of position.
The transition between jobs in government, think tanks, and nonprofit advocacy organizations is often relatively straightforward. However, it can be hard to transition from private practice to such positions if you have not demonstrated a commitment to public service. Conversely, it can be difficult to transition into private practice well into your career if you have no prior relevant experience. In addition, it is often much more difficult to obtain a job as a full-time academic if one has been out of academia for more than five years (see generally Suggested Courses for Students Interested in Academic Careers). Building a network of mentors who have shifted between these different types of careers can help smooth these transitions. It also helps to be actively involved with nonprofit organizations in your area of interest throughout your career, whether as a board member, pro bono counselor, or volunteer.
For guidance on course selection, you should refer to the relevant subject area memo. However, if you are interested in doing litigation work for a nonprofit or government agency, you should consider taking a litigation clinic. If you are interested in pushing for legislative or regulatory changes, we recommend taking some courses in economics, econometrics, or empirical methods as the language of economics is used throughout the policy world. You may also want to consider a joint degree with a public policy program or the Brennan Center Public Policy Advocacy Clinic. Clerkships can furnish an excellent platform from which to embark on a career in many areas of policy or government work. You should consult a career counselor or faculty members in your area of interest about how important a clerkship is for your career. Finally, seminars and colloquia are a terrific way to explore the intricacies of a subject matter—and to develop professional rapport with faculty, whose recommendations, advice or connections may prove useful in securing a government or policy post.
Nevertheless, do not feel obligated to exhaust all of the course offerings in a given subject matter just because you are inclined to pursue a position in that field. No one will expect you to start a job in government or policy having already mastered the discipline at hand. As in other aspects of life, some diversification of your intellectual portfolio is well-advised.
If you are interested in a career in public policy, we also generally recommend writing and publishing at least one paper in your area of interest prior to graduation. There is no better way to develop your thinking and voice on issues you care about than by writing a substantial paper. Writing skills are critical to many government jobs, and to almost all think tank and advocacy work. You can write a paper in conjunction with a seminar or as directed research with a member of the faculty. Working as a research assistant can provide you with a further opportunity to develop your writing and research skills.
Law School Community
Hardly a week goes by without a government official or policy expert giving a presentation on campus, or participating in a panel. Whether sponsored by PILC, a student group, or a law school center, these events represent incomparable opportunities to learn from and interact with experts across every conceivable domain. Make attendance and active participation at these events part of your law school career.
Summer Work and Work after Graduation
In choosing where to spend your law school summers, give thought to how they will point you on a path to public service or policy. Keep in mind that a summer in a firm does not disqualify you from applying for a government job (indeed, firms are home to many lawyers who have gone in and out government and who may be helpful to you as you chart your professional path.). But we strongly recommend spending at least one summer in a government or policy job. Nonprofit organizations and government agencies typically don’t start filling summer positions (and full-time positions) until much later in the year than law firms. This can cause some anxiety as you find yourself waiting to nail down a summer position when many of your classmates have already secured firm jobs. But it is worth the wait if this is what you want to do.
When it comes to full-time employment after graduation, only you will know if it makes sense to join a government agency or public policy organization right away. But in general, government and policy jobs tend to offer more substantive opportunities for young lawyers than private sector positions, so getting in early may be wise.