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Identify the right opportunity for you
When pursuing a career in social justice, experts say law students should lean into issues close to them and look for inspiration from their own life or experiences. That’s not to say you have to be an immigrant to do immigrant rights work, but you’ll need to be personally connected to or motivated by the work if you’re going to succeed. And if you don’t have the answer right now, try different types of work to figure out what moves you and what doesn’t.
“Something will call you and then you’ll make a life out of it,” said Efrén Olivares, who currently serves as the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. He previously served as legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s racial and economic justice program, where he represented immigrant communities in Texas and along the border, including fighting family separation.
[For more insights on developing your social justice practice, watch our webinar on “Legal Jobs in Social Justice: How to Turn Passion Into a Career.”]
When choosing how to make the most impact in the social justice arena, you are not limited to working at a nonprofit organization – you can seek opportunities at law firms as well – according to Moy Ogilvie, Hartford office managing partner at McCarter & English, LLP.
Knowing how important it was for her and her colleagues to have opportunities to use their skills to improve their communities, Ogilvie helped her firm launch a social justice project in July 2020.
“We wanted to do work that tackled the fact that racial inequalities and other inequalities have historically created consequences that have held back a lot of individuals and groups in our society,” Ogilvie said. “We decided we would start with criminal justice, housing, and community economic development, and figure out ways we can use our skills as attorneys to help in all those arenas. We know that this project is going to be ongoing for years.”
Stand out from the crowd
When applying for jobs, spend a few extra minutes on an organization’s website to learn about its mission statement, then craft a cover letter and resume that demonstrate how your values align with the company’s.
It is important to demonstrate dedication to a movement by thinking explicitly about what change you are trying to achieve, and what tools, strategies, and steps will help you get there. Just as important is weaving your personal narrative into the work.
“Try to find your own story of self and how that fits into the work,” Olivares said. “Use that opportunity to represent yourself as a critical part of the movement that you’re trying to be a part of.”
During the interview process, candidates should show themselves as critical thinkers and lifelong learners. And while a strong academic record is important, a track record of community engagement is critical for employers looking to strengthen their teams.
“Where you went to school is not really as important to me as what you did there,” said Jason Starr, litigation director at Human Rights Campaign. “What else about you as a human being demonstrates a real passion and a real willingness to dig in, and an understanding that these battles are long? Those are things that really stand out to me among strong candidates’ employment.”