Harvard Law School Replaces Suspended Public Service Initiative

New $1 million fund to provide seed money for students

Harvard Law School announced yesterday that it would create a $1 million fund to provide “seed money” for students entering careers in public service, replacing the third-year tuition waiver program suspended early last year.

The Public Service Venture Fund will award students with one-year grants ranging from a few thousand dollars to as much as $80,000 to supplement salaries in the public sector or to start non-profit organizations. Alexa Shabecoff, the Law School’s assistant dean for public service, said that the amounts awarded may vary depending on student interest and need.

The new program replaces the Public Service Initiative piloted in 2008, a groundbreaking program that exempted students who committed to public service work for five years after graduation from paying their third-year tuition.

Students entering the Law School this fall will be the first class eligible to receive money from the new program upon graduating.

The new grant system ensures better budgeting predictability but will be slightly more expensive than the tuition waiver program suspended early last year, Shabecoff said. The cost of the former program fluctuated depending on student interest, as there were no limits on enrollment. And given the difficult economic climate, the Law School needed to control its budget more vigilantly.

The new program will also offer more flexibility to students looking to enter the public service sector. Though funding is only intended to last one year, Shabecoff said, students will be eligible for continued support if necessary and will not be required to remain in the public sector for a specified period of time.

But Law School professor David B. Wilkins emphasized that this program was not meant as an endless source of funding for student projects.

“We’re not a real venture fund. And even a real venture fund does not give any sustained support,” said Wilkins, who was consulted during the creation of the fund.

According to Wilkins, shifts in both student interest and in the legal profession toward entrepreneurship prompted administrators to focus on funding social ventures when developing this latest program.

Traditional career paths after law school are evolving dramatically, Wilkins said—a phenomenon that mirrors changes in the ways people are now tackling pressing social problems.

“I’ve talked to students all the time who are searching for a new way of approaching legal practice that can provide important and sustained contributions to the public,” he said. “Our students see a huge gap in our legal system.”

But those who wish to start social enterprises can face huge obstacles, with funding difficult to come by and institutional support for public ventures often lacking.

While private sector firms can rely on consultants and venture capitalists to raise money for start-ups, social enterprises largely lack a similar infrastructure, said Alan A. Khazei ’83, a Law School graduate who is advising the fund.

“The hardest money to raise is the first grant,” Khazei said.

Because the Law School has never offered seed grants before, Shabecoff said she plans to gather expertise from foundations that offer similar services as well as convene a committee of faculty and public and private sector professionals.

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