How to Win a Public Interest Fellowship: An Interview with Christina Jones

3L Christina Jones came to law school with a very specific mission. She wanted to build her career helping individuals with autism get access to excellent education, enabling them to be successful adults who could contribute in their workforce. For Christina, this dream was personal.

When Christina was five years old, her cousin, Jennifer, was diagnosed with autism. After cycling in and out of schools due to behavioral issues, Jennifer finally found a school in which she thrived. But soon the district told Jennifer’s family it was going to place her in a less costly school. Hearing this, Jennifer’s family feared for her, knowing this would jeopardize her safety and education. Christina and Jennifer’s brother organized walkathons to try to raise money for Jennifer’s school but they could not save her. But a lawyer could. A special education lawyer stepped in, the district backed down, and Jennifer still attends the school in which she is thriving to this day.

Seeing the impact that this lawyer had was a life altering moment for Christina. From that point, she committed to fighting for the rights of people like Jennifer and directed all of her efforts toward achieving that goal.

In February 2016, Christina took a tremendous step toward achieving that goal when Notre Dame awarded her a Bank of America Foundation Community Sustainability Fellowship, enabling her to work with the Arc of the United States in Washington, D.C. At the Arc, Christina will launch a new project she helped create through the Arc’s Center for Special Education Advocacy to enforce their clients’ right to assistance with transitioning from school to employment.

One of the clearest paths to public interest work is taking a two-year fellowship like the Bank of America Fellowship with a public interest organization right after law school. Because these fellowships allow their recipients to create their own two-year dream jobs, they are highly competitive and organizations look to host and fund the best and brightest public interest students.

So if your goal is to secure one of these coveted fellowships, how can you best position yourself to succeed? I asked Christina Jones for advice:

KM: What advice would you give to a 1L trying to get started on their public interest job path?

CJ: If you have an idea of what you want to pursue, learn as much as you can about that topic from legal and non-legal perspectives. I am always reading articles about autism, from as many different sources as I can find. This is simple, but I have liked a number of autism-related groups on Facebook, and followed them on LinkedIn and Twitter, so I have easy access to the latest information in the field. I read news about the latest scientific studies, projects different organizations are piloting, therapy advances, inspiring stories, as well as any updates in legislation and case law development. That’s also a great way to get leads on places where you might want to intern.

Being able to speak the language of the field you want to enter is a significant advantage. It shows you’re committed and that you can add value. It’s also important to recognize that the issues you’ll face in public interest work usually encompass much more than just the law. There are often a number of different elements at play, whether they be social, economic, biological, or something else entirely. To solve these complex problems, you need to understand the other considerations.

If you don’t know precisely what you want to do, still read! You may not want to like or follow autism groups like me, but you can definitely like and follow different legal services organizations that touch on a number of areas. They will post regular updates about their work and you can get a better sense of the different opportunities that are out there to pursue. The more informed you are about your options, the easier it will be to identify a path that suits you. You may be in law school, but go outside the law school curriculum and enhance your learning.

Note from KM: Christina worked at the Department of Justice, Disability Rights Section in Washington, DC during her 1L summer, the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco, CA during her 2L summer, and externed at the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame during her 2L year.

KM: How did you choose The Arc as your host organization and how did you go about asking them to be your host organization? 

CJ: My supervisor at the Disability Rights Section of the DOJ, where I interned my 1L summer, forwarded an announcement from The Arc seeking fellowship candidates. I had heard the name before, so I did some quick research and quickly realized it was the perfect fit.

I had a very clear autism focus, but most disability rights groups are much broader—they encompass physical and mental disabilities of all kinds. Autism sometimes gets overlooked in those cross-disability groups, and I was struggling to find an organization that I knew would be amenable to an autism-related project and candidate. At the time, I was focused on my native San Francisco Bay Area, but couldn’t find the right fit.

The Arc, on the other hand, is a non-profit focused exclusively on serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which includes disabilities like autism, Down’s Syndrome, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The Arc has a number of autism-specific programs. That was a game-changer for me. I had been in DC the summer before and loved it; I was more than willing to prolong my return to California in order to cut my teeth working precisely with the population I wanted to serve. There was finally an organization that fit!

The Arc also is not strictly a legal services provider. It is a non-profit that has a number of programs, including a legal team. That was very appealing to me, because I wanted to get exposure to non-profit management as well.

I very quickly and enthusiastically put together an application. I did a phone interview in early June and was selected as their candidate shortly thereafter.

KM: When did you start preparing your fellowship applications?

CJ: This is a two-tiered process: first, you have to get a host organization to sponsor you, and then you have to actually do the applications for fellowships. After The Arc selected me as the fellowship applicant they would sponsor, I went back and visited their office in DC in late June and met with attorneys in different departments so I could get a better grasp of how the organization worked. I think that was a critical step, especially since I had not interned there previously. Throughout the summer, I exchanged a number of emails and phone calls with the attorney who would be supervising me to brainstorm and refine a project proposal. I started in earnest on my fellowship application essays in August.

It was a much longer process than I initially anticipated. My supervisor was a Skadden Fellow, so she had been through the process herself, which was incredibly helpful. She took a very hands-on approach: we tore apart essays and reworked them for over a month until we were finally satisfied.

I also spent a lot of time in the late summer/early fall contacting attorneys who had gotten fellowships, mainly in disability rights or education areas. I ran my project idea by as many people as I could who worked in the space I was trying to enter. The insight into how things worked in reality was enlightening, and the opportunity to network was certainly beneficial to my fellowship application but also to my career more generally.

It’s a lot of work, and the timeline of when fellowship decisions get made can be excruciating. But it’s so worth it for the chance to literally walk out of law school and into your dream job.

 

 

 

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