In the summer of 2018, after my first year of law school, I experienced a career highlight. I completed a three-month internship at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation in New York City, where I represented tenants in disputes with landlords. I spent my summer working in New York, while defending those in desperate need of legal help.
But I didn’t secure this transformative job through a formal recruitment process. Instead, I applied to the position on my own, by searching for public-interest internships that dealt with issues I cared about. I also received a grant that covered most of my expenses. There are plenty of similar opportunities out there, and with a bit of leg work, it’s possible to find an engaging and meaningful internship. Here’s how you can do it.
1. Do your research.
Begin by asking your school’s career development office if they have a list of public-interest internship opportunities that previous students have completed. This is how I learned that past students at my law school, Queen’s University, had completed internships at places like the Urban Justice Centre in New York, the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction in Toronto and Prisoners’ Legal Services in Burnaby, B.C. You can also reach out directly to organizations you’re interested in to ask about whether they have opportunities available.
2. Put together an application.
Before you apply to any position, arrange an informational phone call or coffee chat with a student who has already completed that internship. This will help you tailor your application to the organization. In conversation with the student, here are a few questions you might ask: What did they like best about the internship? What should you emphasize in your cover letter? Who was their contact at the organization? What was their overall experience like?
3. Follow up, follow up, follow up.
Many public-interest organizations don’t have hard timelines for filling their summer positions, so your application might sit on the backburner. The onus, therefore, may fall on you to ensure that they have received your applications and that you are being considered.
4. Find some funding.
Talk to your career development office about any grants and funding opportunities that provide financial aid. In my case, Queen’s had a public-interest internship grant funded by Torys LLP (valued up to $5,000). The University of Toronto has a similar award called the SLS Public Interest Advocacy Summer Fellowship, which goes toward students working with a public-interest organization in Canada. Most of these positions are unpaid, but with a bit of research it is possible to find support.
At my internship, I was able to see the impact of my work on the lives of our clients. On top of that, I made lifelong friends and connections. I continue to cherish these experiences. And so, I encourage other students to seek out similar opportunities on the issues they care about.