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Special Considerations for International J.D.s

International J.D. students pursuing public interest work face some constraints that U.S. citizen law students do not. No matter the challenges, OPIA staff are here to support international J.D. students in the job search.

All students will need to identify the kind of work that matches their interests and apply for positions within organizations that meet their needs. 2Ls and 3Ls pursuing public service work will need to be proactive because there is only a small, limited on-campus interview process as compared to recruitment for private sector work.

For 3Ls, entry-level positions in nonprofits and government agencies tend to be more competitive than the large law firm positions. It is very rare for public interest employers to make permanent job offers to law students who intern with them. Most students use a combination of fellowship applications and job applications to successfully land a position.

Working in the U.S.

  • Work Authorization

    The work authorization process differs for continuing and graduating international students. The Harvard International Office (HIO) is the main resource for work authorization procedures for summer and postgraduate employment.

    For any international work done with Harvard support, students must also meet with the Global Support Services of the Provost.

    The Office of the Provost provides resources and information for undocumented students.

  • Summer

    Most public interest employers are open to non-citizen summer interns. International students can offer unique skills and experiences that US students cannot. Since Summer Public Interest Funding is guaranteed, students can take government and nonprofit positions that would otherwise be unpaid. Students should consider saving their Optional Practical Training (OPT) year for after graduation by pursuing Harvard funding, such as SPIF, for summer internships, or by taking part in Curricular Practical Training (CPT).

    However, many positions remain competitive and public interest employers will look for pre-existing public service experience and perhaps even experience in their field. Students should try out different areas of public interest during their time in law school if they know that they won’t be able to pursue public interest immediately after graduation because doing so might be helpful in making a career transition later. OPIA advisors can help guide you through which settings might be attainable for you.

    Most federal government agencies will not hire non-citizens even for summer internships. OPIA’s citizenship guide (last updated in 2013) offers more insight into navigating the job search as a non-citizen.

  • Post-Grad

    With some exceptions, postgraduate public service employment can be a huge challenge for non-citizens. If you have a green card, only places that have categorical citizenship requirements – such as the federal government – will be inaccessible. Because of the ability to get a TN Visa, Canadian citizens are often able to obtain public interest employment.

    Students must keep in mind how visa requirements impact the job search. Otherwise, searching for public interest employment will be similar to the summer ─ networking, researching organizations, and searching for open positions and fellowships.

    For postgraduate work, Canadians are able to use the TN Visa. However, since this is considered a temporary visa, students are strongly encouraged to discuss the application process with Peter O’Meara at the Harvard International Office.

    Applicants from countries other than Canada may run into significant obstacles trying to obtain postgraduate public interest positions in the US. Because of the unpredictability of the visa process, non-citizens generally can count on only the OPT year. Some employers may be reluctant to hire someone who may only be able to remain with them for one year and may be unable to pay the fees associated with sponsoring someone for a visa.

    If you want to remain in the US for the OPT year and an employer is unwilling or unable to take you on, fellowship funding can be very helpful. Unfortunately, such funding is very competitive. If you are interested in trying for a fellowship, you should consult with Judy Murciano, OPIA’s fellowships director, by your second year in law school. It is important to remember that international students should look specifically for 1 year-long rather than 2 year-long fellowships, because of visa restrictions.

    Because international students cannot obtain the vast majority of federal court clerkships, some jobs will be harder to obtain even with a work visa. Although not the majority, some public interest employers view federal court clerkships as a condition precedent.

    International students should consider immigration law as an area that might have more opportunities and resources to support you throughout the visa process. International organizations are also more likely to provide the same opportunities and resources. These organizations might also value the unique language and cultural competency skills that international students have to offer.

Returning to Your Home Country

If you return to your home country to work, you will not face the same citizenship or visa issues that you would face in the United States and many other countries. Please bear in mind that we in OPIA cannot be expert in the opportunities in every country. Because Chinese, Canadian, South Korean students make up a significant percentage of the international J.D. population at HLS, we have highlighted resources that we are aware of particular to public interest work in those countries. Often, we find that students know more about the opportunities in their own home country than we do. Another great resource are LL.M.s from your home country; they have usually worked before coming to HLS and can be a source of information about opportunities. Advisors in OPIA can offer you insights into how to build a public interest career and conduct a public interest search and can help edit written material.

  • Canadian Law Students


    Public service positions in Canada can be competitive for the summer and largely unpaid. Harvard students are fortunate that they can find unpaid positions with the help of guaranteed Summer Public Interest Funding (SPIF).

    Networking is a major part of finding summer public interest positions in the smaller Canadian market. Contacting alums and current students from the Who Worked Where guides may be helpful, as well as speaking with organizations directly about open positions.

    Students in the past have worked with:

    • Neighbourhood Legal Services (Toronto)
    • Canadian Legal Services Association (Toronto)
    • Justice for Children and Youth (Toronto)
    • Klippensteins (Toronto)
    • Alberta Federation of Labour (Edmonton)
    • Access Pro Bono of Society of British Columbia (Vancouver)
    • Pivot Legal Society (Vancouver)
    • Department of Justice Canada (Ottawa)
    • Provincial governments across Canada

    Spending a summer in Canada may also be helpful to those students who are undecided about staying in the US or returning home after graduation. If you intend on returning to Canada after graduation, it may be easier to market your familiarity with Canadian law after spending a summer in the country.


    Landing a postgraduate public interest job in Canada can be a laborious process. There are several steps to becoming licensed to practice law in Canada. The process is generally similar across provinces, though not identical.

    First, the applicant must apply for admission to the law society in the province in which they want to practice. Applicants pay a fee to initiate the Lawyer Licensing process.

    Next, the National Committee on Accreditation must evaluate your US J.D. degree. To obtain an NCA Certificate of Qualification, the NCA will assign exams based on your educational background to satisfy Canadian law requirements. HLS students may be required to take additional exams after graduating. Pay careful attention to NCA exam dates and fees.

    After finishing the NCA exams, applicants must complete an articling term. Articling is a training year (around 10-12 months, depending on the regulating law society) meant to transition applicants from study to practicing law. Articling students can generally do what a bar-admitted lawyer can do, except they must be supervised by an experienced lawyer approved by the province’s law society.

    Articling positions can be difficult to find, and are not guaranteed. Students must be aware that they cannot begin an articling term until they have received their NCA exam results, which can take 10-12 weeks to arrive. Being aware of the timing of hiring processes for articling positions is crucial to optimizing your chances of placement.

    In special circumstances, a clerkship in Canada may satisfy part or all of the articling requirement; please refer to the specific policies for the law society in the province where you wish to practice.

    After the articling term has been satisfied, law societies may require a “good character” statement of fitness. Finally, applicants can be called to the bar.

    Fellowships/Special Programs

    There are limited fellowships available for public interest opportunities in Canada. For example, the Law Foundation of Ontario (LFO) has a Public Interest Articling Fellowship to complete the articling requirement. Students will need to contact specific law societies or organizations for possible fellowships.

    The Recruitment of Policy Leaders initiative is another way to start a public interest career in Canada. RPL recruits professionals, scholars, and scientists for federal public service positions. Applicants must hold or be close to finishing a master’s, doctoral, or law degree.

    Similarly, the Canadian government recruits for various positions every year; please check for updated hiring schedules.

  • Chinese Law Students

    Practicing public interest law in China comes with a unique set of challenges rooted in the relationship that the sector has with the Chinese government. It is difficult to do litigation with clients, meaning that most public interest work is research or policy-oriented. Read this July 2017 article from the New York Times Magazine for more context on the practice of human rights law specifically.

    • China’s new law, placing restrictions on Overseas (not on Mainland China) NGOs, has created a great deal of uncertainty about the landscape of public interest work in China. Even as groups are able to successfully register under the new law, it is unclear how doing so will impact their work.
      • Students should monitor the list of registered NGOs and the list of NGOs registered for temporary activity on ChinaFile’s website.
      • Consider working with grassroots Chinese public interest organizations.
      • Although subject to some of the uncertainty governing other Overseas NGOs, look into US-based public interest organizations that work in China – they are often excited about the prospect of hiring Chinese graduates from HLS because of their unique insights.
      • Consider looking at organizations in Hong Kong that are engaged in work related to China.
    • Start the job search process EARLY.  For example, reach out to organizations for post-grad sponsorship at the end of the 2L year.
    • Consider environmental law as an area of public interest law with more opportunities in China and think about practices that are not “political”.
  • South Korean Law Students

    The climate for public interest work in South Korea is generally favorable, bolstered by the country’s establishment of free economic zones that encourage international organizations to work in South Korea.

    The United Nations, for example, operates several programmes in South Korea, many of which are based in Incheon’s free economic zone.

Resources for International J.D.s