Getting a job is not dumb luck—it’s smart luck


Author: Timothy Sandefur

Susannah Breslin has an amusing article at Forbes about the lessons she’s learned while trying to find a job in this difficult economy. It brought to mind some thoughts that might be helpful to law students who are interested in clerkships at PLF or other liberty-minded organizations, and possibly future careers in this field. As PLF’s law clerk coordinator, I can give some broad indications of what it is we’re looking for—but of course, these Words of Wisdom do not necessarily apply to all organizations equally (or even to everyone on PLF’s hiring committee). So the following are not to be seen as a roadmap to employment in the freedom-based public interest law world, but just as some personal reflections you might find helpful.

1) Be prepared 

There’s an element of luck in everything you do. But luck is often what happens when opportunity comes to people who are prepared. Being prepared means different things in different fields. What we need in this field are people who are able both to litigate and to articulate the principles of liberty. That requires breadth as well as depth. It requires not just a knowledge of contemporary political debates, but of historical ones, as well. It requires you to know not just what Lopez and Morrison mean, but also how to conduct a deposition. Jack Greenberg, in his invaluable book Crusaders In The Courts, says that when he’s asked how to be a great civil rights attorney, his answer is “first, be a great attorney.” It’s not just about being in the right place at the right time—it’s about being someone who can make himself or herself stand out.

Being prepared means: being a Koch Fellow; attending the Institute for Justice’s Law Student Conference or the Institute for Humane Studies summer seminars. Or, less ideologically oriented, it means doing extra-curricular writing—writing for your undergraduate newspaper, or even writing short stories or poetry. Writing is such a critical part of what a lawyer does, and particularly in public interest law, where you’ll be writing not only briefs, but also editorials, letters to the editor, and law review articles. Public speaking—knowing how to do an interesting presentation before an audience. There’s no room for stage fright in a career that requires oral argument before a federal court of appeals judge! And know your non-law stuff: public interest law litigators aren’t just trying to win a case—we’re trying to articulate and defend a vision of the proper relationship of the state to the citizen. That means marshalling all the arguments, from legal to historical to philosophical to economic—in favor of freedom and equality.

2) Know what you want to do

Nothing is more impressive than a person who has it all together and knows what he or she wants to do. It’s no less true in job-seeking than in asking someone out on a date. Someone who’s confident, goal-oriented, and knows his or her own personality is a rare and precious commodity. We’re not interested in hobbyists; we’re interested in people who can challenge the climate of ideas in court, in the media, and in the classroom. An applicant who just sends out a blast of resumes to all sorts of employers, and doesn’t much care where he or she ends up is just not impressive.

3) Do not give up

It’s not easy getting a job in public interest law, particularly in this market. That goes for clerkships, too. In 2011, PLF’s Sacramento office is accepting 3 clerks—and we received about 40 resumes. If you don’t get a clerkship one year, don’t think you can’t try again, with us or with one of our allied organizations. If this is really something you want, you don’t need to be told that regardless of what luck hands you, it’s really ultimately up to you where your career goes. If you get turned down, spend the year finding something impressive to do, and come back again later.

And, on a similar note—don’t be cowed by what you perceive as your own shortcomings. If your grades aren’t perfect, that does not necessarily rule you out—any more than it automatically rules you in. What we need is people who are smart, self-directed, energetic, cheerful, and willing to put in the work to accomplish a goal—a goal that is, frankly, pretty hard to attain, sometimes, and sometimes discouraging. A person with drive, commitment, dedication, and intellectual heft is going to beat out a person with great grades who isn’t really sure he or she wants to be a public interest lawyer.