Career fair exposes students to work in public interest

USC Gould School of Law • November 4, 2010
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1Ls learn about externships, volunteering

by Sheila Grady

Although summer vacation is months away, interested 1L students attended the annual Public Interest Career Fair to learn more about potential opportunities available during the upcoming break.  
Sponsored by the Office of Public Service, the Career Services Office and the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF), the November 2 event featured representatives—and several USC Law alums—from over 30 local public interest organizations and law firms, bar associations, non-profits and government agencies—all eager to inform students about externship and volunteer positions.   

“We hold this event primarily for the 1Ls to make sure that as they begin to look for externships and opportunities for the summer they know what agencies are available,” said Malissa Barnwell-Scott, director of the Office of Public Service. “The event is designed to provide students information about externships for academic credit as well as summer funding opportunities.”

Public Interest Career Fair
2010 Public interest career fair

As students wandered through the booths lining Crocker Plaza, they spoke with attorneys from the various organizations, hearing recurrent themes about the benefits of non-profit work, particularly the practical experience gained from externships and volunteerism.

Esther Lim, a jails project coordinator at the ACLU of Southern California, highlighted this benefit for students.

“We want to find students who have that passion to work in public interest or want to help affect their community,” she said. “Students work with awesome attorneys who have a lot of background experience and have that passion, as well, so this is a great learning environment.”

Nicole Heeseman ’98, managing research attorney at the Los Angeles Superior Court, agreed, explaining that work in the public sector grants student volunteers and new attorneys immediate access to important cases.

“When you work for an organization that isn’t a law firm, you get a lot more responsibility early on,” she said.  “You see several more different types of law practiced that you wouldn’t necessarily see in a law firm, and most importantly, you are giving back to society.”  
For Pam Marx ’78, the supervising attorney at Mental Health Advocacy Service, externships provide benefits for both the agency and the student.

“The whole point of working with students from our agency’s point of view is that we want to train people well and get them exposed to some of the issues that are out there,” she explained.  

2010 Public interest career fairWhile she recognizes that a number of students may ultimately pursue work in the private sector, Marx anticipates student volunteers will eventually supplement their careers with continued volunteer service. “Our hope is that students get connected with us and see the issues and find that it can be rewarding and valuable, and that there’s good service to be done.”

In addition to networking with attendees, 1Ls were given information regarding USC Law’s commitment to providing students with the tools necessary to pursue public interest careers.  

Martín Ganto ’06, lead detention attorney at Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, learned first-hand about this particular dedication.

“I started working on a temporary contract for six months, and when that was about to expire, I applied for and was awarded the Irmas Fellowship here at USC Law, which kept me at Esperanza for a year,” he said.  “Throughout the course of that year, we found different funding to keep me there as a full-time staff attorney. I’ve been with Esperanza now for almost four years.”

Since new students regularly hear about the prestige of large firms and the advantages of work in the private sector, PILF President Anna Lee ‘12 hoped the career fair would expose 1Ls to the multitude of options available in public interest.

2010 Public interest career fair“It's easy to feel cornered into a particular career path, and this was a great way to demonstrate that law school opens doors to much more than we might think,” she said.   “Law school is a huge investment of our time and money, and it's important to make informed choices about our futures.”

Barnwell-Scott agreed, commenting that externships and volunteer opportunities act as a great complement to the legal education provided to USC Law students, but most importantly, they provide vital services to those in need.

“Public service is a responsibility within the legal profession,” she said. “Students are assisting legal services providers to address the gap in legal assistance, especially for the most vulnerable members of our society.”

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