Learning from the experiences of others: international public interest internships

October 29, 2007Duke Law News

October 29, 2007 -- Taking a risk with summer employment can pay off, advised a luncheon panel of Duke Law students showcasing summer international public interest opportunities. The event was sponsored by the Public Interest and Pro Bono program and the office of International Studies.

“If you are considering being at a firm at some point, there is no reason to not do something wild and exciting your 1L year,” said 3L Kristina Johnson, who spent her 1L summer working at the UN’s African headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. Johnson went on to explain that she had been a bit concerned about spending a summer outside of a firm, but seeing her 1L summer’s activities scrolling across the marquee at the firm she worked for her 2L summer offered ample reassurance.

“There are certain things you can do to make your resume stand out,” said Johnson, talking about the process of finding an international public interest summer internship. “Stress that you are looking for an unpaid internship and that you are not looking for credit or hours.”

“Also stress that Duke is a top-10-ranked law school,” she continued. “And finally, do something to make yourself stand out. Stress your academic background, and your GPA, if you are comfortable doing that. But equally important is stressing any experience you have in the developing world and showing that you will be an asset, not a liability, for the organization.”

Jessica Shulruff, a 2L joint-degree student in cultural anthropology, has a particular interest in indigenous populations. Through her placement with UNICEF Peru, Shulruff worked with the congress of Peru to raise awareness about children’s issues to make sure they were including them in their legislation.

Shulruff spent most of her time studying indigenous children living near the trash dumps, but she also went to the Amazon basin for research. “That was the highlight of my trip, by far,” Shulruff said. “I would advise you to be vocal about what you want to do,” she continued, noting that she had asked specifically for the ability to travel during the summer.

Jessica Sklarshky ’09 was initially intimidated by the thought of an international experience, especially with what she considered to be limited language skills. She started looking for internships at domestic organizations that did international work, but then applied for and received a fellowship to work with Ciudadanos al Dia in Lima, Peru.

“It sounded like this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I should really take advantage of,” Sklarshky said. She worked primarily with the young nonprofit as a sounding board for their ideas for expansion, but also made it clear she wanted legal experience. To that end, Sklarshky worked with the founder of the nonprofit, Beatriz Boza, on a project Boza spearheaded: drafting a new code of ethics for Peruvian lawyers.

Emily Sauter ’09 knew that she wanted to be in Cape Town, South Africa, so she emailed approximately 52 nonprofits in Cape Town over her winter break. Of those, she got seven responses, a rate of return similar to those shared by other members of the panel.

Sauter’s summer internship with the Women’s Legal Centre in Cape Town centered on constitutional litigation and appellate cases. “I worked a lot on domestic partnership law, adoption law, rape cases… pretty much anything you can imagine with women’s issues,” Sauter said.

2L Kelly Taylor, who worked with UNICEF Ecuador, advised students to “know what you are getting into.” She said she knew, given the unstructured nature of her acceptance and placement, that her experience was likely to follow the same pattern. “I had a fantastic experience and I got what I wanted out of it,” she said. “However, if you want something more legal, for example, you need to know that ahead of time.”

For more information about summer public interest employment, students can participate in the Public Interest and Pro Bono program’s “Table Talk” on Nov. 1, where students will share summer experiences, both domestic and abroad, and give advice about finding and financing these opportunities.