Harvard Law Students Disappointed but Understanding of Public Service Fund Cuts

Dominique D. Winters, a third-year student at the Law School, spent last summer working at the Washington, D.C. public defender’s office, having foresaken more profitable firm jobs in order to improve what she says is a deeply flawed criminal justice system.

To support her work, Winters said she relied on the Law School’s Summer Public Interest Funding (SPIF), which financially supported her for 10 weeks.

But that funding may not be as widely available or generous to law students anymore.

On Monday, the Law School announced that it will reduce the amount of funding SPIF provides from 10 weeks of financial backing to eight for students wishing to pursue public interest law during the summer.

In addition, the Law School will suspend its Public Service Initiative (PSI), a program that waives the third-year’s tuition if a student commits to five years of public interest work after graduating.

Countering those cuts, Law School Dean Martha Minow pledged to increase total financial aid spending, and said HLS will extend its general loan forgiveness program to more of its graduates.

Law School students interviewed yesterday expressed discontent that HLS chose to make cuts to programs that directly affect students’ abilities to enter public interest careers. But they also said they appreciated the Law School’s decision to keep large parts of the program intact.

“The cuts are largely reasonable, but I’m disappointed they decided to go to eight weeks of funding,” said Reuben A. Rodriguez, a second-year student who spent 11 weeks last summer in a public interest position.

“Eight weeks seem short,” he added.

In an e-mail to the student body Monday, Minow wrote that though HLS will allow students already enrolled in PSI to continue in the program, it is “not likely to extend it to future incoming classes.”

Students yesterday said they were less concerned over the suspension of the PSI.

Benjamin M. Sadun, a first-year student, said he was pleased that the Law School administration had decided to honor its commitments to those students who are already enrolled in the program.

Lauren N. Moore, another first-year, said the suspension had little impact on students in her year and therefore was not of great concern to her.

Winters—the student who spent her summer in Washington, D.C.—said that students who want to do public interest work in metropolitan areas like Washington and New York might be strapped for funds under the new system if they pursue work in areas with high costs of living.

In an interview Monday, Alexa Shabecoff, the Law School’s assistant dean for public service, said she has encouraged students to seek alternate legal markets. She noted that she had started her own legal career in St. Louis and was able to live comfortably there on a public interest salary.

“We can’t preserve 10 weeks of funding for some students by making funding unavailable for others,” wrote the Law School’s spokesman Robert L. J. London in an e-mailed statement to The Crimson.

London added that HLS will work with students to craft employment around eight weeks of funding and that SPIF allows students to receive income from outside sources wihtout decreasing their SPIF grant.

But Winters, who is in the final stage of interviews for a position at a public defender’s office, expressed concern yesterday that the new system might negatively impact the employment prospects of students dependent on funding. Students who seek public interest positions after graduation often work longer stints over the summer in the hopes of making an impression on their employer, but that might not be possible with limited funds, Winters said.

“But this probably won’t adversely affect students with a genuine interest in public interest law,” she said. “I would do this regardless of whether I had funding.”

—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at egroll@fas.harvard.edu.

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