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What Law Students Need to Know About NGOs

As a law student focused on the social impact realm, working for a civic-minded organization on an important social issue might meet your needs better than making partner at the nearest big law firm. One avenue for the social impact-minded law student? Support an NGO, or non-governmental organization. Here's what you need to know.

Feb 26, 2019
  • Education
What Law Students Need to Know About NGOs

As a law student focused on the social impact realm, working for a civic-minded organization on an important social issue might meet your needs better than making partner at the nearest big law firm. One avenue for the social impact-minded law student? Support an NGO (non-governmental organization).

The United Nations (UN) first referred to NGOs in 1945, and since then, they have broadly operated as non-profits independent from government influence, although they can receive government funding. What’s the difference between an NGO and a non-profit? While there’s a lot of overlap, NGO’s tend to focus on international issues while non-profit organizations often concentrate their efforts on local issues. NGOs can operate locally or on a broad scale and address social, environmental, advocacy, and human rights issues, including poverty, economic development, public health, and education.

Currently, the estimated number of NGOs in the world exceeds ten million!

Their main focus is promoting social and or political change at any level by encouraging the participation of everyday citizens. NGOs need legal experts as much as any other entity. As a law student, there are many ways to get involved in NGO work. Here are a few...

  1. Intern for an NGO

Interning at an NGO is possibly the best pathway to learn more about your options as a social impact lawyer.

Let’s be clear: it is unlikely that an internship at an NGO will pay much, if at all, but there’s good news. Many law schools offer law students who want to intern at an NGO funding for travel and living expenses.

Finding a summer internship at an NGO is much easier than finding a position after graduation. There is generally funding available through the school, which means you will be able to 'volunteer' for a summer as a 'free' law student, which many cash-strapped NGOs find appealing.

If you are hoping to intern at an international organization over the summer, the time period is finite, which is good for you -- and good for the NGO.

How do you find an internship at an NGO? Start with your law school’s internship office. If you already know where you would like to work, check their website to see if they offer an intern program. The India Justice Foundation, for example, offers a great example of what you should look for when applying.

They clearly explain where you will be in the country, the kind of work you will do with their expected time commitment, and a description of their organization. They also provide clear application directions.

Most NGO internships require a simple application packet: a resume, cover letter, and a list of contacts for references.

Harvard Law School’s website offers a lot of information on ways to break into the internship field, including sample emails to introduce yourself and pointers on best practices.

  1. Work pro bono after graduation

Although the idea may seem counterintuitive, especially if you have a lot of loans, working pro bono after graduation for an NGO that you care about may give you the experience you want doing the work you love.

How can you work pro bono for an NGO after your undergraduate law program graduation?

In 2010, the Thomson Reuters Foundation launched Trust Law Connect, a platform designed to connect high-impact NGOs with free legal assistance. That assistance takes the form of legal research, innovative training, tools and research, and pro bono lawyers.

NGOs and other social enterprises can register through Trust Law Connect for services, and so can lawyers interested in doing pro bono work.

Here’s the good news: you can be in the middle of law school and still register to be connected to an NGO seeking assistance, provided they have appropriate supervision.

Once you register, you will receive a weekly update of opportunities that meet your specifications and needs. Trust Law offers a helpful infographic that explains how their process works.

  1. Make a donation

If interning or working pro bono don’t appeal to you but there are still social issues which you care about and want to make an impact on, you can make a donation, just like everybody else does!

How do you decide where to donate? You know the issues that interest you. You know the work that piques your interest. Do some research, figure out the amount you can spare monthly or yearly, and plan on contributing to an NGO.

A few things to consider: don’t be afraid to ask where your money will go and who will directly benefit. Send an email or make a call. If you cannot get a direct answer, find another NGO to give to. Any place you donate should provide an annual report including finances, personnel, giving, projects, and impact assessment.

What are the benefits? Firstly, you will support something you care about. Depending on where you live in the world, making donations to NGOs may also qualify you for a tax break.

Need some guidance on how to research and decide? Check out the Better Business Bureau’s, Charity Navigator, and GiveWell.

  1. Create your own!

If you are a socially-minded entrepreneurial law student or lawyer, you can set up your own NGO, too!

The first step? Figure out if there is truly a need for your NGO where you plan to set it up -- and that need should not be defined by your desire to set up an NGO. It should be defined by the community where you would like to be.

For example, in 2006, a group of Kenyan social workers and UK executives set up Glad’s House to offer services to the most marginalized and “challenging” children and the youth of Mombasa. In 2015, Glad’s House executive director, Vicky Ferguson told The Guardian, “I had absolutely no plans to set up a charity. I wanted to be an actor.”

She spent a gap year in Kenya and saw a need, so she worked with a group of local social workers.

She explains, “Glad’s House grew out of a gap in the market. I saw hundreds of youths between 16-20 on the streets all day, stoned and just trying not to get into trouble with police. There was nothing for them. I asked around if there was a charity that helped them, but no one was doing this work. Then Abdul [a colleague] said, ‘Why don’t we set up our own charity?'”

After determining the need, Ferguson and her colleagues sought a lot of informal advice and got some help from her father for the organization’s initial capital. The learning curve is steep.

Ferguson says, “Don’t go it alone. When you are starting out, you may be afraid to approach the ‘big boys’ but collaboration is crucial.”

What keeps her going? The commitment she’s made to other people and the good work that her organization does.

Think you have it in you? Go for it!

  1. Here’s what to do if you want to work as a lawyer for an NGO

If that internship isn’t enough and you can’t afford to work pro bono full-time, consider getting a full-time law position for an NGO.

Working as a lawyer for an international NGO without experience is difficult, so pursuing some of the options above during your studies could help you land a coveted position with the NGO of your choice.

NGOs want you to have experience in the field before they hire you. That internship or pro bono work will certainly help. You can also beef up your resume by pursuing post-graduate fellowships in the country or social impact field which interests you the most. Even better? A fellowship at an NGO.

If you are willing to take on temporary positions until you find what you want, you may have more success landing that full-time NGO job, too. Some of these temporary positions may be on that fellowship path, but can also take the form of part-time work or consultancies at the NGO where you want to work, or at least one with your desired focus area.

The bottom line is you need to show that international NGO your passion, interest, dedication, skill, ability, and experience in the field before they hire you. How you do that is ultimately up to you. And, as Harvard Law School explains, the key to finding your dream job is always patience, persistence, and flexibility.

Working in social impact offers you the opportunity to catalyze change in the world, do good, and put that law degree for which you have worked so hard to excellent, civic use.