At HLS, a Tough Path to Public Interest

When Adelaide H. Pagano arrived at Harvard Law School in 2011, she knew she wanted to work in the public sector.

She had previously served as a paralegal at a law firm specializing in labor issues and had volunteered for a non-profit law firm. After her first year at law school, she worked as an advocate for low-wage workers and became passionate about issues such as prisoners’ rights and labor unions.

Despite the security and financial benefits of taking a job in the private sector, Pagano has decided to pursue her interest in the public sector. But many law students who decide to take that route have to work especially hard to find a public interest job.

Public service law opportunities—particularly for newly minted attorneys—are limited, a discouraging reality for which the Law School has tried to prepare its students. Under pressure to secure employment and pay off loans, some students accept positions at top law firms instead of pursuing careers in government or the non-profit world.

First year salaries at private sector law firms tend to run at $160,000, while some non-profits in the public sector tend to pay between $40,000 and $50,000, according to Assistant Dean for Public Service Alexa Shabecoff. This range, however, does not reflect federal government salaries, Shabecoff said.

Though the Law School has established new programs and fellowships for students forgoing the private sector, institutional support has yet to balance the divergent incentives of public and private law.

“It’s a little bit jarring to turn down that much money. You don’t think that that’s going to matter, but it does, a little bit,” Pagano said. She added later, “I think [the public sector is] really where my heart is, at least for now.”

TWO PATHS

When Pagano returned to campus this fall, she had to decide whether or not to participate in Harvard’s Early Interview Program, the largest law school recruiting program in the country.

The Law School’s EIP—during which 11,000 interviews are held in five days—is solely for private sector law firms. Though family members pointed out to Pagano that it did not make sense for her to participate given her interests, Pagano said she ultimately gave into the “herd mentality” and bid for EIP interviews. “Pretty much all of my friends were participating in it, and I think I ultimately felt like I didn’t want to close any doors,” she said.

After first-round interviews and second-round callbacks, Pagano was offered a summer associate position at a firm in Boston. Pagano said she loved the people at the firm, and was surprised to find herself considering the financial benefits of taking a job in the private sector.

Pagano ultimately chose to turn down that summer associate position. She has yet to secure a summer job, and said she is aware that summer positions in the public sector rarely result in an offer for full-time employment after graduation. With this tough reality weighing on her mind, Pagano said she understands why the Office of Career Services tends to encourage undecided students to interview through EIP.

“I also think that their job is to get people jobs, and so they want to get as many people to do EIP as possible,” she said. “It boosts their numbers. It makes them look good. It sort of helps everybody.”

Pagano is optimistic and said she hopes to have summer plans in place by the beginning of November.

“The saga continues,” she said.

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