Interviewing at nonprofit legal services org! Help!
March 6, 2008 7:18 PM   Subscribe

Lawyers/legal staffers: Can you tell me what it is like to work for a nonprofit legal services organization? And what will they be looking for at my interview?

I just received a call inviting me to interview for a staff attorney position at a nonprofit legal services organization. I have only ever worked in private practice, and don't even know any lawyers who have worked for nonprofits, so I really have no idea what the work environment will be like. Obviously you can only give me generalizations about the differences between small firm and nonprofit practice, but I will be grateful for any and all observations.

Also, what do you think they want to see in an attorney applicant? Are they really concerned about your having an abiding commitment to their particular cause? As it happens, I actually do, but I don't want to overstress it if what they really care about is finding someone who can crank out a lot of work in a competent fashion while being pleasant to work with. If you have ever done the hiring for a nonprofit, what were some of the common issues that took attorney applicants out of the running? What made someone particularly desirable?

Submitted anonymously because I'm worried about people finding out that I'm looking for another job.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think they definitely care that you have a passion for their cause, in fact in most ads I see for nonprofit law jobs they want to see a demonstrated commitment to the cause. Also give that most non profits lawyers are paid less than they could get elsewhere they know you aren't going to be doing it for long unless you have a pretty serious commitment to it. All the people I know who work in non profits have more or less devoted their lives to the cause of choice and the jobs are far more competitive than you would think. So short answer, passion passion passion.
posted by whoaali at 7:45 PM on March 6, 2008

I work at a nonprofit legal organization. In attorney interviews we like: a person who seems really engaged in their work, and being a lawyer, and who wants to bring that enthusiasm to our organization; a person who has researched our programs and our reputation, and has thought about how they might fit in and contribute; a person who is interested in our issues, and has thought about them.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:40 PM on March 6, 2008

Less likeable: a person who seems as though they are drifting; a person who hasn't thought about our issues; a person who seems unprepared. Another good trait: a person who acknowledges that it is an opportunity to be considered for, perhaps offered, a position in a nonprofit (that is, a person who is aware that it is a somewhat rare opportunity).
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:45 PM on March 6, 2008

IANAL but know a few lawyers in the nonprofit sector.

From the conversations I've heard, they not only want someone dedicated to the cause, they likely want someone dedicated to working for the cause in the public interest sector. I.e., some people will think you're not a true believer, a sell-out, if you'd consider working for a firm (I personally don't agree with that point of view).
posted by salvia at 9:27 PM on March 6, 2008

If what they really care about is finding someone who can crank out a lot of work in a competent fashion while being pleasant to work with . . .

This constitutes the actual practice of law. That's what I'd be looking for.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:29 PM on March 6, 2008

I worked for non profit legal aid programs for 12 years and I agree with ClaudiaCenter. When we hired, we definitely looked for commitment to the cause. You'd be surprised at the number of people who view this sort of opportunity as a means of getting "experience" and then moving on. We wanted to avoid those people. It takes awhile for a lawyer to get good at what she does; we wanted employees to stick around long enough to get good.
posted by pasici at 4:25 AM on March 7, 2008

I've worked with legal aid attorneys pretty intensively on mental health, housing and family law issues pertaining to my clients (for example, Social Security appeals are big in legal aid). One thing you might want to ask yourself is whether or not you have any direct experience working with poor people, and if not, what has been the most difficult population you've had to represent professionally? A lot of your clients in legal aid services are going to have deep needs; maybe mental illness combined with a substance abuse history, maybe domestic violence combined with a childhood sexual abuse history, etc. Sometimes you might get a client that doesn't understand why things aren't going the way they think they should, on the timeline they think things should be happening. In a situation like that, you might have to navigate a delicate situation; most experienced legal aid attorneys I've watched at work do this rather effortlessly.

And, man, talk about committment. In Philly Legal Assistance the rookie lawyer has ten years on the job, everyone else has over 15. These people are in it to win it; it's pretty amazing, actually.
posted by The Straightener at 5:28 AM on March 7, 2008

You asked: Are they really concerned about your having an abiding commitment to their particular cause? As it happens, I actually do, but I don't want to overstress it if what they really care about is finding someone who can crank out a lot of work in a competent fashion while being pleasant to work with.

Nthing all the "Yes" answers implicitly and explicitly stated above (esp. ClaudiaCenter, who is spot on). In short, your putative employers will want both of the characteristics you set forth above.

You wrote: I have only ever worked in private practice, and don't even know any lawyers who have worked for nonprofits, so I really have no idea what the work environment will be like.

The work environment will be dictated by an overall dedication (if not a healthy and serious obsession) for the cause they advocate. They'll want someone who will fit in to that environment.

You asked: what were some of the common issues that took attorney applicants out of the running?

Demonstrating a lawyerly interest in money in your interview. At the NFP shop I worked at (in the Bay Area), staff att'ys who'd been working there for fifteen to twenty years were making about $50K/annum. To be sure, this was ten years ago, but also to be sure, the Bay Area was still incredibly expensive, even back then. I honestly have no idea how they raised families, sent kids to school, and paid for homes on those salaries (well, I have some idea, but it's not really germane to the topic at hand).

If you have student loans, you need to seriously assess if you can afford to work at this NFP. If you have a loan deferment or forgiveness program tied to public interest work, however, you should make your eligibility for this program crystal clear to your interviewers.

You also asked: What made someone particularly desirable?

NOT demonstrating a lawyerly interest in money during the interviews. A serious and professional, but not obsessive, devotion to the cause. A knowledge of the evolution of case law in this field. A particular knowledge (or experience having clerked with) local state and federal judges who've made law in this field. Demonstrating how you've learned from past setbacks. An interest in fund-raising events and laying out fund-raising strategy. A knowledge of the local media. The ability to laugh in the face of adversity. And most of all, the ability to be earnest in your empathy without losing the professionally appropriate emotional distance your position will likely require: much NFP legal work is really truly heart-rending, and that's exactly why I knew I could never make it a career.

Best of luck. Will the mods let you update us anonymously? Or feel free to MeFi mail me if you have further questions. I can keep confidentiality . . . especially regarding lawyers anxious to escape the big-firm behemoth.
posted by deejay jaydee at 7:15 AM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

You're getting great answers here. I'm a public interest lawyer. I've sat in on many many interviews and discussions about who to hire, so I'll tell you what we want.

You must be able to explain why you're making the transition from private to NFP, and you must make a convincing case that you're switching b/c of dedication to the cause (as opposed to, say, wanting to get into court or not wanting to work firm hours). Show that you are familiar with any current hot issues in their area. You don't have to pretend you're an expert, but it's great to interview someone who cares enough about the cause to know what's in the newspapers about it.

The Straightener also makes an excellent point. We always ask people if they've had difficult clients and how they dealt with them. It's a huge plus if someone knows what they're getting into.

I know that at my office, we want people who "fit." It's hard to define. But, since we don't get paid much, and have stressful jobs, and don't have 100 employees, we want someone who will get along with us and maybe be fun to have around. Collegiality is a big deal. The only advice I can offer on this front is to be natural and be yourself. I've seen that people who treat the interview like a conversation rather than a grilling come across better.

Finally, ask questions! Having been on the interviewer side, nothing shows that you're interested and engaged like asking questions. Ask about the work, the supervision, the office atmosphere. This is more like general interview advice than you asked for, but I've been in a ton of interviews lately, and asking questions is key. It also helps with my advice above about treating it like a conversation.
posted by Mavri at 7:53 AM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

The most important thing to know, for yourself and for the interview, is whether the organization principally serves the personnel interests of underprivileged individuals, or principally seeks to make public policy. The challenges are very different depending upon which the organization is.

Private-client orientation has the challenge of a very distressed (and sometimes distressing) clientele, but also the satisfaction that comes from helping them. It will actually resemble the feel of for-profit practice in some ways because of the orientation to identifying and achieving the most feasible client outcome, with an ebb and flow of filings, negotiations, compromise, and resolution. It's the same business of law practice, just with different cases.

Public-policy orientation can be a lot sexier, of course, but there can be some downsides. The client is a very different creature -- you sift through hundreds of potential clients at intake to find the one who is a useful peg onto which to hang the theory you want to vindicate, and then that client, once signed up, remains a fairly minor part of the picture. Because there isn't the same ebb and flow of law practice with its regular priorities, policy-oriented non-profit organizations can suffer from many of the ills more common to NGOs -- bizarre personality politics, lack of clear incentives, disorganization, etc.

Apart from the above, it is key to understand whether the organization views itself as plebian or patrician. There are non-profit legal organizations where top-10 law school grads and appellate clerkships are de rigeur, and there are non-profit legal organizations where night school grads who took three times to pass the Bar are the rule. Having been invited to interview you've at least passed the paper cut of this cultural and educational screen, but you still need to aware of any tension between your background and the organization's typical background.
posted by MattD at 9:53 AM on March 7, 2008

at my office, we want people who "fit." ... Collegiality is a big deal.

Yes, yes. We're looking for nice, laid back, hard working, smart, good attitude, no drama. Also someone who doesn't need lots of supervision or "processing" -- someone who has the judgment to know when to just make a decision and move on, and when to check in for assistance. I'm not sure how to figure all that out in an interview, though!
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:08 AM on March 7, 2008

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