News & Events
Posted March 26, 2013

Kennedy Fellowships Open Doors to Public Service

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Michael Robertson

Michael Robertson '10 now is clerking for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after working as a public service fellow for a year following graduation.

Brian Daner, a 2011 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, wanted to pursue a career on Capitol Hill, a job market that is difficult for new law graduates to enter.

Contact: Mary Wood

"The Hill is a very insular world," Daner said. "Most of the time the only way you can get a job here is if you know someone, and I didn't know anyone on the Hill."

Daner received a Virginia Law postgraduate fellowship — now named the Robert F. Kennedy ’51 Public Service Fellowships after the late senator and attorney general, one of the most famous public servants to graduate from the Law School. The fellowship allowed Daner to start his career in the type of Capitol Hill job that he wanted. After working as a fellow with the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he was officially hired as full-time counsel in June.

"In public service, the resources are just so limited, whether it be in a prosecutor's office, a public defender's office or a nongovernmental organization. They all have the same issue as a congressional committee, which is that they don't have the resources to bring in everyone who wants to be a part of it, so it's very competitive," Daner said. "The fellowship gave me the opportunity to get my foot in the door and prove myself."

Funded by alumni and friends of the Law School, the Kennedy Fellowship provides a salary of $30,000 to graduates working for a year in qualifying public service employment. Fellows work in legal aid offices, prosecutors’ and public defenders’ offices, federal agencies, courts and nonprofit organizations across the country. (See a list of current and recent representative employers.)

Dean Paul G. Mahoney said the fellowships are part of a comprehensive program to encourage public service careers that also includes the school's loan forgiveness program and summer fellowships.

"The fellowships have succeeded brilliantly," Mahoney said. "We made a major commitment to public service employment and it paid off in the toughest legal job market of my lifetime."

The Law School provides ongoing career counseling aimed at securing post-fellowship employment tailored to each graduate’s career objectives. A recent follow-up study of the Class of 2010 found post-fellowship employment information for 35 of the 40 fellows. All 35 are now employed in permanent, full-time positions — 32 as lawyers, two in jobs for which a J.D. was an advantage, and one in a position that did not require a law degree.  

When he graduated in 2010, University of Virginia law alumnus Michael Robertson received a fellowship to work in the legal department of a nonprofit biotechnology industry organization in Washington, D.C. After his fellowship, he secured a federal district court clerkship and ultimately a prestigious clerkship with Judge Stephanie Thacker on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"None of this would have been possible without the initial fellowship that put me in D.C.," Robertson said. "It let me hit the ground running and it gave me the opportunity to network and the ability to find new opportunities out there."

The Class of 2011's fellows have continued to build on the program's success. Four (including Daner) accepted permanent employment as counsel to U.S. House or Senate committees or members after working on Capitol Hill as fellows. Several other 2011 graduates spent a fellowship year in a prosecutor's or public defender's office, or in public interest organizations such as Section 27, a public interest law center in South Africa — which resulted in permanent legal staff positions.

Assistant Dean for Public Service Annie Kim, who directs the Law School's Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, said students interested in becoming prosecutors and public defenders face a tough market because most employers in these fields hire only licensed attorneys with experience.

"Our Kennedy Fellows can start working for these employers immediately after the bar exam," Kim said. "They gain rapid trial experience and begin to build professional reputations and networks. As a result, our graduates enjoy enormous success in leveraging their fellowship experience into entry-level positions as prosecutors and public defenders."

Mary Rouvelas '96, senior counsel for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, has employed public service fellows from UVA Law and other top law schools and says that organizations benefit from these programs as well.

"Along with the rest of the economy, nonprofits have suffered during the economic downturn," she said. "These grants have allowed us to place top-notch law students who want to serve the public interest without their having to incur more debt to do so. Their work has been of the highest caliber, and has helped us further our mission goals in a wide range of areas."

James Hingeley, the public defender for Albemarle County and Charlottesville, has so far employed two postgraduate fellows from the Law School. He said his office is "enormously grateful" to the postgraduate fellows at a time when state funding has been diminishing.

"It's great to see lawyers entering the field with ambitions to work in public service," he said. "They have a lot of hardships because jobs are few and far between. They've got the courage to take a chance and stick to their course to land a public service job that they really want instead of taking a job that is less desirable but that oftentimes people are forced to take out of economic necessity."

While the majority of fellows remain in government or public interest employment after their fellowships, some move on to jobs in private practice. They take with them a new appreciation for lawyers who make a career of public service.

Lisa Leung, a 2010 UVA Law graduate, worked at two Seattle nonprofit organizations — Legal Voice and the Sexual Violence Law Center — during her postgraduate fellowship. She later landed a job in the intellectual property litigation group of the law firm Paul Hastings in Washington, D.C.

Her fellowship gave her an opportunity to work with "great people who are passionate about their cause," she said, and a chance to hone her legal skills.

"I think that the fellowship certainly helped me to secure a job," she said. "On job interviews, I was repeatedly asked, 'So what have you been doing since you graduated?' Because of the fellowship program, I had a record of employment and training to offer."

Daner, who turned down a law firm job in order to pursue public service, said he was pleased with how the fellowship helped him accomplish his goals, as well as with the support from Career Services along the way.

"They allowed me to stay on the career path that I wanted to be on. It laid a foundation for my career that I could not be more excited about," he said.

Reported by Brian McNeill