Advice to Thrive By

In this episode we share a conversation we had with Portia Allen-Kyle, a civil rights attorney and public policy expert, whose new book, Advice to Thrive By: How to Use Your Résumé and Cover Letter to Build Your Brand and Launch a Dynamic Public Interest Career, gives law students and new attorneys the tools needed to build their professional development strategy in a thriving public interest career.

Helping to build out the profession is one of the many focus areas of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.

Show Notes

  • Book link: Portia Allen-Kyle’s new book, Advice to Thrive By
  • Speaker bios: Take a closer look at our speaker and student panel
  • Presentation material: Portia Allen-Kyle outlines different portions of her book
  • Student webpage: A resource for all current and aspiring environmental and public interest lawyers
  • Newsletter sign up: Our bi-weekly newsletter keeps you up to date on actions by state attorneys general and notable developments on clean energy, climate and environmental matters
  • Event sign up: Subscribe and get invitations to upcoming events


Bethany Davis Noll 00:03

I’m Bethany Davis Noll, Executive Director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, located at NYU School of Law. I’m here to welcome you to the very first episode of Recharged with the State Impact Center, our new podcast about emerging issues in climate and clean energy and careers in these fields. We hope you enjoy this episode.

Carlos Minaya 00:27

This episode of Recharged with the State Impact Center showcases a conversation we had with Portia Allen-Kyle, a civil rights attorney and public policy expert whose new book, Advice to Thrive By: How to Use Your Resume and Cover Letter to Build Your Brand and Launch a Dynamic Public Interest Career, gives law students and new attorneys the tools needed to build their professional development strategy. Helping build a deep bench of attorneys committed to public interest work is one of the many focus areas of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center. My name is Carlos Minaya, communications manager for the State Impact Center and host of Recharged. Joining me is Jasmine Elbekraoui, our narrator and guide. Our conversation with Portia Allen-Kyle was held earlier this year in February. For shownotes, including links to what was discussed, search for Recharged on our website at stateimpactcenter.org. And now, our conversation with Portia Allen-Kyle.

Portia Allen-Kyle 01:32

Hello, it is so great to be here. First, thank you so much for for having me today. I’m so excited to talk about this subject. And primarily because it’s the product and the task in which I saw myself carrying forward—being committed to the public interest, having been a public interest lawyer for my career—how to then make sure that I’m giving back, building the bench, and kind of carrying on that spirit, so to speak. And so I wanted to start really by sharing some of the context in which I wrote this. And that is, lawyering in the public interest is nothing more than deploying your skills for the greater good. And I wrote this book because as someone who was always interested in public interest lawyering, to making the world a little bit better of a place than when I found it when I got here, right? There was always such a dearth of information that I felt as I was navigating law school and early career spaces. In that there are so many things that you can do, literally any interest that you have, can be done for the public good, and in the public interest, but there’s no clear career paths to many of the jobs and the opportunities that are out there. And when you do receive advice, or at least when I did receive advice, it was either ill-suited to the public interest journey, or maybe it was useful, but it completely lacked context and it was a little bit detached from strategy and overall trajectory.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 03:16

Portia’s book provides the tools for law students and young attorneys to succeed in the public interest sector, regardless of their educational background and previous experience. Portia wanted to build a roadmap specifically for resumes and cover letters that would help individuals trying to break into this field surpass some of those existing hurdles. She lays the groundwork by taking us back in time through her own story, and the paths that led her here to this point of her life.

Portia Allen-Kyle 03:42

I grew up in New Jersey, living at the intersections, I went to vocational high school. And was always just really interested in why things were the way they were. Why did the settings in which I went to school look different than that from church, look different than that from other schools? What are some of the things that really produced some of the experiences surrounding me that I lived through? And so when I got to Wellesley, which, was kind of on a whim. I had an internship during my senior year with a woman in a marketing department at a financial software firm. And she had gone to Wheaton and I looked at her and she was a really great boss and mentor, and I said, “Well, you know, she’s been pretty successful. Let me apply to Wheaton.” So I told her I was going to apply to Wheaton and she said, “If you’re applying to all women’s, you should really apply to Wellesley.” And that was, frankly, all I knew about it, in the all women’s context, was that like it was a good school, produced successful people and, did that research and ended up there, and worked out in many ways. Luck and happenstance is probably not a substitute for strategy. And, again, kind of leaning into where I am today, and with this book, something I’ve really wanted to hone in on and drive home. But the most important thing I think I walked away with from Wellesley—other than the degree and the friendships that I have to this day—was a contextualized understanding of the world around me, and my place was in it. And from there, I knew that I wanted to spend my life and my career trying to even the playing field, so to speak, and working on behalf of particularly Black communities, but, communities of color writ large as well.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 05:45

From there, Portia went on to attend graduate school at Columbia, getting her master’s in African American Studies. Her goal at that time was to directly go to law school and improve her analytical and research skills. She knew early on that she wanted to pursue her JD PhD and pursue the path towards becoming a public interest lawyer and civil rights lawyer. That idea set her on the trajectory to complete grad and law school, complete various fellowships, and later on teach in academia.

Portia Allen-Kyle 06:13

When it came time for it, there was a position that I heard of from a former mentor and a former dean when I was in law school, and they said, the ACLU was looking for somebody that understands research and data, but also understand the law, and can really bring the two together in meaningful ways. And I wasn’t looking for—I really wasn’t looking for anything because I love teaching, but, with that encouragement, stepped in, and leaned into that position, applied, and ended up getting it. And that set my career on a little bit different of a trajectory than I probably would have imagined. But through those experiences, worked at the ACLU for a while, moved on to a startup voting rights organization, where I really wanted to both expand my role in setting the vision and also lean into a more supervisory and managerial position. From there, went to a nonprofit technical assistance organization that’s done a lot of policy work, I’ve worked on campaigns, et cetera, and kind of come to this place where I’m now in government, I’m soon to transition out, but, have spent my career really doing the things. I look back, and was talking with that same friend, this was probably close to 20 years later, of all these conversations, and said—setting out that vision, right? I want to be a civil rights lawyer, I want to work at large resource nonprofits, and I want to work at the national level on local issues. And I’ve been able to look back across my career and have seen how that vision—although looking back, I would probably be more specific—has set the course and the tone for so much that I’ve been able to do. But through it all, and each step of the way, it’s really been important to me to hold the door open to bring people along. And when, particularly in my segment—my corner of the sector of public interest, and particularly in a civil rights policy, and when you get even more granular, folks that work on title six and all the rest of it—there is not a deep bench of people really ready and able to step in and enter these positions. And part of that is doing better at getting people excited, creating the opportunities, and really giving people the tools that they need to succeed to just step in the door. This section of the field is not set up to train very well, it often requires that people come in with the skills. And in that context then, wanting this book to provide the baseline of a strategy and outline for how to get into the door and one approach, not the only approach by any means, but one approach that can be used to help get that step forward and that leg up.

Portia Allen-Kyle 09:44

And it comes down to—the strategy itself really comes down to these three parts, and I’ll run through each one for you. The first being to start with yourself. That visioning that I mentioned in terms of laying out the desire to be a civil rights lawyer at a large nonprofit, for example, things may get added to the vision, things may get subtracted from your visions as you’re thinking about them. But it is important to have an idea of where you’re going. If you don’t have a sense of where you’re going, as the saying goes, you’ll often end up somewhere else. The second is being the preferred candidate, and that really is about setting the strategy in terms of your career, and how to acquire the skills that you are going to need to get to that dream job and that place you want to be. And when I say dream job in this context, especially while you’re in law school, that like 10 year mark, roughly, your dream job will look different once you are greatly into the field, but 10 years seems to be about the length of time for folks to kind of really think where these early stages are leading them and what it would take to get there and what they should be doing to make sure they stay on that path. And the last part is demonstrating growth with a one plus one approach. And that, in the most straightforward terms, really refers to this idea that you should be growing and not just maintaining, and so learning something new, achieving a critical win, challenging yourself in some way, shape, or form each year. And so I’ll go through a little bit more. But essentially, the idea is, by doing each of these, starting with yourself, being the preferred candidate, and demonstrating growth, that this is one way to stand out in the crowd, and it translates very practically, or hopefully translates very practically in terms of job searches, and decisions to be made throughout your career.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 11:59

Portia mentioned three strategies to keep in mind when working to make yourself stand out from other candidates. And it all starts with envisioning the life you want to live, being the preferred candidate, and utilizing the one-plus-one approach.

Portia Allen-Kyle 12:12

And so when I say start with yourself, that really is a visioning exercise, and those of you who enjoy journaling, enjoy planning, if you’re like me, I love planning, I still keep a written calendar, color code everything, I plan it out, and I’m very deliberate in terms of how I’m spending my time and how I am—and how the ways in which I spend my time either contribute, or they don’t contribute to kind of where I’m trying to go professionally. And there are other balances in terms of personal life, family, etc. But it really helps me to hone in on where I need more focus, where I can allocate more resources, where I’m spending too much time. And that visioning allows you to kind of set the parameters for what you want your life to look like. And so knowing more and understanding what you are deeply passionate about—and when I say passionate, I mean, I actually mean passion, what will motivate you to do something every day, if it’s not for the rest of your life, but at least for some significant portion on the path to that, and what drives it. And that involves getting more specific than just an issue. You know, I am passionate about civil rights. But civil rights writ large is not necessarily what like gets me up in and gets me going. What really drives me are these specific—it’s always a new intellectual challenge and puzzle and problem to be solved, in terms of what levers can be pulled to architect policy and bend the arc towards justice. And that intellectual challenge that has real world implications, drives me in every single move that I have and various aspects of the day on a regular basis.

Portia Allen-Kyle 14:19

Thinking about what change you want to make in the world. And I often frame this question to myself in terms of—and this is how I develop my “why” statements like I shared with you—in terms of, by virtue of you doing something, what do you want to be true? What impacts or outcome do you want to happen simply because you had your hand in something or that you were involved or made your mark? The spending your time—similar to what you’re passionate about—how you’d like to spend your time is really critical. What you want your reputation to be and what you want to be known for. And that is both a substantive question, and like what kind of person do you want people to remember you for? And I think back to my days in law school and taking LRW, and there was always somebody that would rip the required page that people need to cite to or need to research out of the book? And like, do you want to be that person? Is that how you want to establish yourself as a crab in a barrel throughout the rest of your career? Or do you want interpersonally to be known as a great colleague, a supporter, a friend, somebody who will lend a hand, etc? Do you want to be known reputationally as like the go-to person on cannabis regulations? Or do you want to be known as the— there’s someone who I love and admire—he’s like the foremost authority on bail in New Jersey. And like, that’s one of the many things and skills, but it’s a reputation, and one that you live up to. And this visioning should involve your questioning all of that.

Portia Allen-Kyle 16:05

And so as you are writing out this vision, and I encourage you to write it out, it should just be specific, it should include your “why,” it should be well informed, and that really goes to doing your research, and be grounded in reality. And being grounded in reality is not to say dream big, but it is to say dream practical, and so if big as your dream, then it’ll be even more important to break down practically the many steps on the way.

Portia Allen-Kyle 16:44

And so being the preferred candidate—and the first thing here, overcoming impostor syndrome, is it’s so important, and it’s something that so many of us suffer from include including myself, right? Constantly questioning, like, should I be here? Should I be in the room? Am I smart enough? Do I know enough? Do I know the right people? And what I’ve found through it all, is that—and this isn’t a cure all, but just one way that I use and have encouraged others to use and seen some success, in terms of keeping impostor syndrome in check—is developing a plan for career growth that involves going above and beyond, not just hitting the baseline.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 17:32

Portia emphasizes that it’s not just about hitting the baseline and being content with that, but going above and beyond by crafting those preferred qualifications that often end up in job descriptions. Yet through all that time and energy spent, impostor syndrome may still creep up on you. Portia shared the tips she uses when she experiences this herself.

Portia Allen-Kyle 17:55

I do have an objective list of things that, when I’m questioning whether or not I’m qualified, I can pull out my accomplishments and line it up with a job description, and tell myself that I’m knocking it out of the park. The second: identifying competencies of your dream job. So again, I would think of this and your visioning that you’re doing in the context of a 10 year plan, so to speak.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 18:16

Being able to determine what an employer is really looking for, and figure out how to give yourself that competitive edge, is a necessary toolkit to keep in your pocket. And a great way to stand out from other candidates is by identifying your interests and building the skills around that.

Portia Allen-Kyle 18:39

And so, I wanted to give an example. So this comes from a legal director position announcement—usually a position that people step into, whether deputies or directors, around by the 10 year mark, certainly. And it lists out the required and the preferred qualifications. And so here, just wanting to kind of illustrate, it’s often not enough to say like, “Wow, I have really strong oral advocacy and research and writing skills. I am definitely familiar with criminal legal policy, and, I’m mission aligned. And maybe I’ve been a member of the Bar for three years.” I would encourage you to apply but, still apply with open eyes and a recognition of what a stronger position to apply from would be. And that is acquiring down the line—if is the type of job you want, then the question is how do I get three years of prior supervisory experience? How do I acquire civil rights litigation experience? Where are the places that I need to go in order to do that, and what are the types of positions that people work in where they are getting those skills? What does it look like to do policy and advocacy both legislatively and at the agency level? And how do you, in your 10 year journey, make sure that you are acquiring those skills in various ways? And as you are acquiring skills, the one-plus-one approach, is really about moving with intention through your career. It is balancing both your experience and your nine to five, and your service to the profession or service to the community writ large. And it really is about both hard and soft skills and how you’re acquiring and honing.

Portia Allen-Kyle 20:40

I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, having done something once does not make you an expert. You will hear a lot of advice to the contrary over the course of your career, but part of this—and the ability to hone in on the skills that you find useful, and that may kind of lead you down the path where your 10 year goal, your dream job is more likely—really requires the ability to honestly assess, and to use other outside metrics, outside feedback, etc, to do that assessment.

Portia Allen-Kyle 21:29

And as you’re executing the strategy, at a baseline, do your research. The research part nowadays, especially with social media, is on the easier side and getting easier. Find people who work at the organizations that you’re interested in, who hold the positions and the titles that you think you want to have down the line, and see what their experience has been. Did they clerk? Were they on a journal? Were they in private practice first? There are some parts of the field that recruit very heavily out of private practice into these public interest roles. And LinkedIn is just an unbelievably clutch tool to be able to do this.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 22:17

When applying to jobs, Portia provide some technical recommendations to better stand out amongst other candidates. Portia encourages to take advantage of all the resources LinkedIn provides. It’s a great tool that helps identify what skills organizations want their candidates to have. Keeping a master resume up to date will further help during the application process. It should only be one page and highlight all your accomplishments and skills. Now we will hear more about how to utilize existing relationships.

Portia Allen-Kyle 22:49

And then lastly, leverage or build your relationships. And I specifically say leverage or build relationships, because it is relationships. Oftentimes, we hear folks and we ourselves are talking about networking, and it sounds like this, like really kind of sleazy transactional thing that happens and like you do it, and everyone has to do it, so like maybe it’s a little bit less gross and out of it hopefully you get a job. And I’ll talk about this a little later, but it is more about the people that you are with now and surrounding you, your peers, etc, you will all be coming up together. And making sure that you have those solid relationships, that you are kind of reaching back, bringing people along behind you, and again, in service to both your colleagues and the profession, those relationships are critically important.

Portia Allen-Kyle 23:56

And so shifting from the broad strategy to somewhat of the core of what I’m referring to here is the fundamentals. So this section is less about here are the specific things you must do on your resume and cover letter, but instead really shifting in wanting to think about the approach that people are taking to creating materials in the first place. And the one thing that I would say where many, at all stages, many people go wrong is not knowing your audience. And that is, it’s the same skill that you’re taught in legal writing and anything you do you have to know who’s reading it and what they’re expecting. So you’re not writing your resume for you, you’re writing it for your target employer or opportunity. And as you’re doing that, you want to make sure you’re talking to people in their own language and that what is coming across is a brand and an image or, to relate to what I mentioned earlier, a snippet of that reputation that you want to be known for and what you can bring to the table. And remembering at this early stage when you’re applying, and particularly as law students, your initial goal when you submit your materials is to get to the interview. Sometimes, people are simply just doing too much by trying to audition and get the job in their materials, when what you—there are some situations where perhaps there is a little bit higher of a threshold there—but often is the case where all you need is to get through the screening to the next stage.

Portia Allen-Kyle 25:37

And in order to do that, one way to go about and accomplish that goal is looking at job descriptions and being able to parse through and figure out what’s important and what—kind of decoding a job announcement to determine what folks are actually looking for. And so you’ll often—and this is an example of an announcement that that’s actually up right now, in case you know any seasoned folks looking for a Deputy GC position at PRLDEF—but, just because things are bulleted at the same level, doesn’t mean that they’re weighted equally. And sometimes, as people are engaging in their search and setting out to do things, that assumption is made and it’s a bad assumption. And so similarly, you can’t kind of look here and say “Great, I’ll highlight my interpersonal skills in my materials and my resume. And I’ll highlight my values while ignoring the preference for nonprofit or government agency experience, ignoring the preference for deep experience with cross functional implementing of policies and programs, and a track record of success and driving organizational change.”

Portia Allen-Kyle 27:00

And so, as you are thinking about, well, what should you do? It’s really important to avoid some of the common pitfalls. And that being, if you have the opportunity to write a cover letter—and this has been a topic that has gone through LinkedIn, and law Twitter and all the rest of it—if you can write a cover letter in this segment of the profession, write the cover letter. People are reading them, people are determining and making judgments based on your values and what you bring to the table and whether or not you’re a fit, and mission-aligned, etc., often based on what they are seeing in that very cursory review of a resume and cover letter. And when you’re writing the cover letter, it’s important to remember that your materials shouldn’t mirror each other. And so you want to take advantage of the opportunity that you are providing two separate documents, and they should complement each other. They should—the cover letter should highlight and bring to life some of the information in your resume, but shouldn’t just regurgitate information. No one should need Google to figure out what you are talking about. Again, your audience is not you. So avoid the jargon, avoid the acronyms, avoid listing and taking up precious whitespace with extraneous information on fellowships and clubs and all the rest of it that that are sometimes not core to your objectives. And, of course, avoid typos, grammatical errors, and inconsistent formatting.

Portia Allen-Kyle 28:53

But most importantly, what I really want to drive home, because sometimes—I remember being in law school, and sometimes my peers were the largest providers of advice, and a skill to be mastered is discernment. And that avoiding bad advice is equally as important as following good advice. And through this effort, I hope that this book—I encourage you to buy it and read and if you would love to talk about feedback and process etc., I’m happy to do so, I’m looking forward to the conversation here. But really making sure that you have the skills to filter out what is not worth it. And then to implement and integrate into your strategy what is. And what you’re really trying to do and your core task as you’re trying to get to the interview is bridge your past experience with future opportunity. And so again, keep it to one page. Your resume should have the quantifiable facts that support the story that you are telling in your cover letter. So your resume gets the facts, your cover letter gets the narratives. And the goal of the package is to demonstrate the interest and provide your highlight reel, and leave a reader with just enough information about you that they want to know more. Strongly resist the urge to discuss everything you’ve ever accomplished. Instead, think about how you can best showcase what you can do for a company with the examples of what you’ve already done. And I want to kind of drive home and I’m sure the question will come that even as law students, you have already done something. And that is sometimes the big question that I get is like, “Oh, my gosh, I haven’t done this, I’ve never had a job, I’ve never done anything.” That is okay. We all start from somewhere. And that place that you start with, it is about how you are packaging and talking about transferable skills and background to launch into here. And remember your social media as a part of your application process. Like while people don’t want to Google what is on your resume, people will Google you. And you know, making sure that you are aware and in control of what pops up in those background searches will be critically important.

Portia Allen-Kyle 31:14

So I want to just wrap up these remarks with the shout outs to all those who have sponsored and made this event happen today. Thank you so much. And I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 31:24

Then we heard from our student panel who helped guide the rest of the discussion.

Samantha Blend 31:29

Thank you so much for that presentation. I especially appreciated your advice on impostor syndrome, which I know we all experienced during law school.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 31:39

Samantha Blend is a 2L at Pace University’s Elizabeth Haub School of Law.

Samantha Blend 31:43

The first question that we wanted to ask kind of relates to something you mentioned earlier about different classes to take depending on what topics you’re interested in. So it’s kind of a two-parter. First, what sort of classes do you think are most effective help students build their skills for the public sector? And then what skills within that do you feel students should really hone in on to succeed in the public sector as well?

Portia Allen-Kyle 32:16

Oh, so that’s a really great question. And in true lawyer fashion, I’m going to say I think the answer depends. And I think it depends on a few things, though there are a few skills that are universal, and will always take you far. And so solid writing and analytical skills are priceless. It is often the prereq, but it is often the primary complaint for many employers that you’re getting people that cannot write, then they have to spend training on how to write in a certain way. And technical writing varies, but the beauty of it is that it is technical. So there is a formulaic aspect to it all. And that is, as law students, really what I would encourage folks to master. As far as coursework, I can share for me the courses that to this day have probably been most relevant—I don’t know if relevant is really the word—but at least that I rely on and think back to often, those early moments. And that is con[stitutional] law and contracts. Knowing the law is so important, but also when negotiating agreements, knowing what a solid enforceable agreement can look like. And those courses provided kind of the foundations that were then built upon through later practice and experience throughout my career. Civil rights as a dedicated course was one of my favorites, and to this day, most useful, and the other, funny enough, is admin, because I kind of live in the policy space and there’s a lot of focus on legislative advocacy. But understated and really underutilized, I would say, by many on the public interest side is administrative, well, agency level advocacy and admin gives a solid foundation. So what that can look like and where those levers are in the agency contexts.

Portia Allen-Kyle 34:39

Outside of the law, I would say the profession would be better if we—not just language proficiency, non-English language proficiency—but also research methods and data. I know it’s often a joke, people go to law school because they don’t want to do math, but turns out math really matters. And there is some very bad law being made because people do not understand research and data. And so would encourage, if you can, to acquire some of those skills.

Tatiana Zapata 35:10

All of this information has been so helpful.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 35:14

That’s Tatiana Zapata, a part time 4L at St. John’s University School of Law.

Tatiana Zapata 35:20

We do have another question. So the next question is, what advice do you have for students that are self conscious about their grades? Or maybe not being on certain co-curriculars like a journal? And do employers actually focus on these things as much as—I know I’ve heard that they do focus on it a lot. So do they actually focus on as much as we think they do?

Portia Allen-Kyle 35:46

Yeah, so you know, not to be the bearer of bad news, but in my experience employers, they do. I’ve sat on plenty of committees where people are looking at journals, they are looking at grades, they’re looking at clerkships. But it doesn’t actually matter, because of the particular journal, what people are looking for, as a way to sort through sometimes 50 or 100 candidates for our particular position, we’re trying to hire, I mean, maybe at the intern level, you’re hiring, like two to five people in a batch, and for permanent positions, often, unless you’re in a space that hires classes, you’re often just hiring for one person. And so, for better or for worse, things—not just journal, which signals to folks that like you can write, which is important; it’s not just grades, which signals to folks not just that you are a good student, but like an element of discipline and rigor, as well. But it’s also thinking about things such as which school people attended, whether it’s undergrad or law school, and other ways that as humans, like, we just look to sort people. And so sometimes those judgments are interpreted as kind of making value judgments. But it is often people doing the best they can with limited information that just really has detrimental consequences on the ability of people of color, and women, and first generation folks, and others to enter this side of the field.

Portia Allen-Kyle 37:48

Now, that being said, what I would encourage people to do is to master the content in other ways. And so you don’t need to be on journal to write. You don’t need to be a 3.5+ GPA student, which represents all of your classes, to really master the material in the areas in which you say you are committed. And so maybe you are kind of at the 2.8 overall, but you’ve taken a series of contracts you’ve taken advanced con law, or whatever it is, and in all of those classes, you were like hovering at the A territory. Figure out the story, and how you can—there’s narrative to everything. It often is the case not that something exists, but because people haven’t mastered the narrative and the confidence to tell that story and say what it is. I mean, my personal story was, I was going through law school, I started part time, moved to full time, but like, I was a single parent through that entire time, that also, like worked full time. And was I committed to getting a 4.0 in all of my grades? Absolutely not. I would have loved it, but life wasn’t in the place for that to be my number one priority. My number one priority was making sure I was raising a healthy, well-adjusted child who succeed in the world and I, to be seen, but I think I’ve gotten there in some ways. But if that is the case, then like how are you demonstrating other capacities and still getting into spaces and exposing yourself to things, whether they be conferences, whether they be book clubs, or whatever it is that shows your dedication and your mastery of content and your skills and ability differently.

Fatima Ibrahiem 39:58

Thank you so much for that. That’s very helpful and insightful.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 40:02

Fatima Ibrahiem is a 2L at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Fatima Ibrahiem 40:06

This is another two-part question. What is transitioning from the nonprofit sector and into the public one look like? And are there any particular drawbacks or advantages to working in the public sector only after experience doing nonprofit work?

Portia Allen-Kyle 40:24

Yeah. So maybe I’ll start with the latter and saying not necessarily drawbacks. And I would encourage—so before going into nonprofits, like spent a chunk of time in academia, like that was a shift. Going from academia where like your life thrives on your ability to generate ideas, and like be the first to an idea and move the field forward. And that’s not the field of law, like how lawyers are often judged is their ability to kind of see a situation and a fact pattern and apply a past set of rules to that and figure out kind of where things are—it’s a different mindset and a different framing. And then from going from nonprofit to government, similarly, just a shift in the way in which things take shape. So for example, so the transition, I guess, to answer the first part of the question, was an adjustment. I think a lot of that adjustment is because of the level—so I stepped into government as an appointee, who serves at the pleasure of the Secretary and the President, and that is a little bit of a different framing. But what comes through is like mission and accountability to, especially at the federal level, to taxpayers and the American people writ large. And it is fascinating to see how things operate in furtherance of that mission. And we have to do this for taxpayers, but they’re looking at us, and they’re doing this, And it’s kind of funny when you check yourself: in reality, it’s like, if they were upset about this, they would have no standing to sue like, what is this? But the narrative of “you’re working for the people” is a really strong driver. And I’d also say there’s even more of an emphasis on soft skills. And so, especially at the federal level, it’s very bureaucratic. And relationships are so important, just because of the nature of the beast and of the size of government and how many different levers there are and how diffuse power actually is in bureaucracies, it doesn’t necessarily live in one place. And so I guess what I would say in terms of skills to be built and things that I’m happy that I had the experience of is managing complex organizational structures. And that’s not necessarily your kind of hard, like, “I’m a subject matter expert in Title VI,” but like, as you’re thinking about growth through career, managing more sophisticated and navigating more sophisticated spaces and organizations, is also a very meaningful skill to learn and acquire.

Samantha Blend 43:30

Thanks for all this great advice. I have another question that relates to something you were kind of talking about earlier—finding the best job that fits best for you. But what is your advice for people who find a job they feel they’re a good candidate for, but it might not be in their ideal field or doing their ideal type of work that they want to be doing?

Portia Allen-Kyle 43:55

Yeah, you know, it’s funny, because that is a scenario that people often find themselves in. And I think—and maybe this will be a little unpopular to say—what I sometimes just want to encourage and say is like, then you’re not a good candidate for that position. And that number one—and also when working through these conversations, I’m kind of asking like, what makes you think you’re a good candidate? Like what is the thing that you’re seeing that you’re kind of wanting to do? And the reason for that is—and recognizing there may be very unique circumstances where you kind of apply and take jobs, etc. that are not our dream jobs, but you’re taking them for a purpose, for a reason, hopefully on your journey to to a better place that you love, I hope. But the the main problem I see with that, particularly in the public interest, and particularly if you’re interested in mission-driven organizations, and I would really say that includes government, is just this fundamental question: how do you authentically convey passionate about something that you’re not passionate about? And it’s hard and that comes through, if you make it past the screening stage, it comes through in the interview. And if it’s coming through in the interview, even if you get the job, when you’re leaving to go to the place you want to go, now you’re having to explain something that you’re not passionate about on your journey.

Portia Allen-Kyle 45:29

And what I would say as general advice is that you want to limit the amount of “explain aways” that you have on your resume. Your resume should tell your story. You shouldn’t have to tell substories and details. And while that happens, I would just try to be intentional about making sure that your whole resume doesn’t consist of explain aways and details. So it is somewhat painful to—and it’s hard, and I think it’s maybe hard because I’m an empath, and I care about people—but it is really hard to have conversations with folks who are hitting the five, seven year mark, and they’re like, “I really want to do X and shift to public interest and get into certain organizations or work on certain issues.” And it’s “Oh well, I took this job because I needed a job after law school. And I took that job, because it was a raise from this other job I took, but like, yeah, I know, I’ve been doing personal injury and traffic, but like, I really, really, really am your person to lead your national strategy on like X.” And like, yeah, like, you get it, right? But it’s hard to then translate—thinking back to the one-plus-one approach—there’s a way to do that and to be very strategic about it that contributes to growth every single year. So perhaps you are working on personal injury or traffic or whatever it is, and then that leads you to sit on the Bar committee for that particular subject area where you’re publishing practice notes and writing and contributing to the field on a particular area. And that led you then to advocating or testifying or pushing a bill that would make this practice better, and you want to take those skills and now transfer them to this other issue. That—you can begin to understand a little bit better how that transfers. But a lot of folks—and I know this is very long way to answer that original question—but like, a lot of times, if you don’t have the passion, is often the beginning of the story. And if you don’t have the passion, and you don’t have the interest, it’s hard to go be great at a job, in terms of being the preferred candidate, not just good at it. And there is a difference.

Fatima Ibrahiem 48:07

That’s very helpful advice, Portia. Thank you. So this next question relates back to what you were talking about earlier with impostor syndrome. Something that I’ve noticed in my law school experience, and I’m sure others have noticed, is that there’s sort of this herd mentality to do everything that everyone else is doing. So I was wondering how were you able to focus on your own goals and your own vision, in the long run, and to do things at your own pace without getting distracted by what your fellow students and colleagues were doing?

Portia Allen-Kyle 48:39

Oh, so that’s a really good one, because it’s, I mean, it’s real. Peer pressure is real, it’s not just something teenagers go through, it exists at every level, all the time. But I think one of the hardest things I had to learn and—please accept this with grace as I say it—is fundamentally that not all people in the same space are in the same place. And that skill of discernment is the ability to know your true peers. Because again, doing something and doing it well are completely different things. And there are folks, especially in this profession, and we all know those people, who will just want to like accumulate notches on a belt—“and I’ve done this, I’ve done this, I’ve done this”—and look really solid on paper, and when it comes to the substance, you realize the emperor has no clothes.

Portia Allen-Kyle 49:49

And so, the reason why visioning is so important and knowing where you want to go, it helps you maintain a fidelity, and not a “Well, I don’t want to do that because everyone else is doing it.” It might make sense to do that thing that everyone else is doing, but you should know that it makes sense for you before you do it. And help use that as a personal check. Everything that you engage in, in some way, shape or form, should contribute to your professional goals, even as you’re thinking about service or volunteer and this and that. And I say, sometimes everyone can serve soup. But as you are training to become attorneys, and particularly attorneys that are going to work in the public interest, it is how are you deploying the skills you have to that purpose? And if that is what everyone else is doing—and that could be a clerkship, it could be going for a post grad fellowship, it could be (a common one) everyone is doing OCI, should I be doing OCI? If the employers in OCI don’t align with what you want to do, then no, probably not. You should probably be taking that time and using it to identify those opportunities and go for those and go for those positions. And so, having your north star and your “why” and that vision can be a really helpful tool to not get distracted by the “oh my goodness, I’m not doing a judicial externship this semester, everyone else is doing a judicial externship, am I going to fail in life and never succeed?” etc., and it just won’t be the case, you’re going to be fine.

Tatiana Zapata 51:40

We have just one final question. So this one is about mentorship. How would you say you identify mentors? And how do you develop these relationships?

Portia Allen-Kyle 51:52

That’s so—it’s an interesting question, and it’s a good one. Because when you think about mentorship, there is something that—there’s an implied formality sometimes. And I think what I’ve learned throughout the course of my career is that like, yes, mentorship can come from kind of those who have trailblazed the past and walked it before myself. It can also come strategically from peers or other places. It can come in seasons. And I think we often think long-term and really, in the context of sponsorship, that it is someone who is guiding you throughout all of your career. But there are ways to approach mentorship and relationship based on where you are in a space and a place. Every workplace I walk into, I’m looking for those who I can learn from, and I’m, you know, “Can we go to coffee?” “Can we”—sometimes it’s like—“do karaoke?” Do something fun, because the goal is relationship-building. And as your relationship building, what I have found is like, people will be happy to drop gems that are extremely important. And those conversations have been much more, and those relationships have been, much more fruitful than early on, especially in college, those “network network network” then sitting there, like, “Can I pick your brain? What do I need to do to XYZ? Tell me how to do this. Can you help me do this?” Like—I don’t know you, I would love to probably help you, but let’s get to know each other.

Portia Allen-Kyle 53:32

And I think that approach has been useful because eventually all of you will be in the other spot, you will be approached for being mentors, and you’ll kind of remember both what you needed in that moment and what you wanted to hear, and what just really wasn’t helpful. And so being unafraid to reach out. It may be a no, but extending that olive branch to folks that you think you can learn from is always a good first step and a good skill to have, this fear and comfort with cold calling cold reaching out. But also being nice. We’re in community as attorneys, it is a small profession. You know, Jessica and I went to Wellesley, you just never know where you will come across folks who are in spaces who know who you know, know people who you want to know. And being nice and being approachable, friendly, helpful, all the things. And those same approaches will bring mentors to you or transform those relationships where sooner than you know—one of my mentors now, someone was like, “This is my mentor. You just need to meet her because she’s cool.” We just started talking and years later, she has not gotten rid of me. And sometimes it’s just in that way, but it wasn’t with the idea of like “I need another mentor.” And so really from all over, it is possible, and just remember to pay it forward when you get there, there is like a high school student, a 1L who is in need of all of you right now.

Jasmine Elbekraoui 55:29

Thank you for listening to this episode which was a conversation between Portia Allen Kyle, our panel of law students, and audience attendees. Links to the material discussed are available in the show notes for this episode. You can find it by searching “Recharged.” That’s R E C H A R G E D on our website at stateimpactcenter.org. While you’re there, check out our upcoming events and sign up for Legally Speaking, our biweekly newsletter that provides updates on actions by state attorneys general and notable developments on clean energy, climate, and environmental matters. Recharged with the State Impact Center was created by Carlos Minaya and was produced and edited by Jasmine Elbekraoui and Carlos Minaya. This podcast is a product of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, a nonpartisan academic center at NYU School of Law.

Portia Allen-Kyle

Portia Allen-Kyle

Portia Allen-Kyle is a civil rights attorney, public policy expert and author of the book, Advice to Thrive By: How to Use Your Résumé and Cover Letter to Build Your Brand and Launch a Dynamic Public Interest Career. Portia has broad experience working on racial equity and social justice issues across government and nonprofit public interest organizations.

Samantha Blend

Samantha Blend

Samantha Blend is a 2L at Pace University’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law and is working on getting her environmental law certificate. She is also a Junior Associate on the Pace Environmental Law Review, as well as the Vice President of the Environmental Law Society, all while challenging the underrepresentation of Latinas in the legal field.

Tatiana Zapata

Tatiana Zapata

Legal Fellow

Tatiana Zapata is a graduate of St. John’s University School of Law. She was the Co-Founder and Vice President of the school’s Environmental Law Society, as well as a student member of the NYCBA Committee on Environmental Law. Tatiana is a first-generation law school graduate and Colombian immigrant dedicated to advocating on behalf of historically marginalized communities. She previously worked as a legal intern at the Center before joining staff full time.

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Fatima Elhafiz Ibrahiem

Fatima Elhafiz Ibrahiem

Fatima Ibrahiem is a 2L at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and was the 2021 recipient of the BARBRI One Lawyer Can Change the World Scholarship. She is interested in environmental law, and is a Board Member on Penn’s Environmental Law Project, is the Sadie Conference Co Chair in the Black Law Students Association, and is an Associate Editor on Penn’s Journal of Business Law.