Don't be Daunted

Recent stories appearing in the Crimson and elsewhere have focused—understandably—on the challenges facing law students seeking public service jobs in a difficult economy. But in emphasizing the challenges, these stories have largely missed an important fact: There are jobs, and talented, committed students can get them.

This is a critical point. In this difficult economic climate, there is a greater need than ever for dedicated students to become advocates for those suffering from the global recession. Students who are interested in public service and who are able to attend law schools where the resources make it entirely possible to do public interest work should be encouraged to follow the public interest path, rather than deterred. If they are discouraged from becoming public interest lawyers, who will advocate on behalf of disadvantaged communities?

Those of us who work in the community of public interest lawyers welcome media interest in the nationwide shortage of legal services for the underserved. We also understand the temptation to write stories that say that part of the problem is that on-campus recruiting by big private firms is so much more robust than on-campus recruiting by public interest employers, but to suggest—as the Crimson has done—that the way for Harvard Law School to address that imbalance is to “set up [on-campus] interview programs for public sector organizations akin to its efforts to facilitate student interviews for private companies” is to miss the mark. The vast majority of such organizations cannot spare the funds to send recruiters to law school campuses around the country. Nor do their hiring cycles lend themselves to the kind of unified recruiting ‘season’ adopted by large law firms.

The task for law schools is to maximize the support available for students who will not be deterred by the fact that it is indeed likely to be somewhat harder—and to take somewhat longer—to land a public service position than to obtain an offer from a private law firm.

Harvard Law School offers unparalleled resources for students looking for public service jobs—beginning with the clinical program (the largest in the nation) that begins preparing them for public service legal careers. On top of that foundation, the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at HLS offers targeted career counseling, a global network of contacts and job-search assistance. HLS also offers guaranteed summer public interest funding for all students, and, even more critically, one of the best loan repayment programs in the country, the Low Income Protection Program. Growing numbers of students are taking advantage of LIPP; from 2008 to 2012 the total number of participants increased by nearly 60 percent to 520 in the 2011-2012 academic year. Despite this increase in LIPP participants, HLS has not cut back on LIPP benefits in any way, an important distinction at a time when many other schools have reduced the generosity and flexibility of their programs.

Another way in which Harvard Law School has supported students in recent years is by increasing the number of fully funded fellowships available for work at nonprofits and government agencies. These competitive fellowships help those with the potential for outstanding careers in public service to get a foot in the door at organizations that do not otherwise have the budget to hire at the entry level. The fellowships allow our graduates to gain the valuable experience that many public sector employers seek, while enabling organizations to maintain services to clients and causes at a time when needs have expanded but budgets have contracted. The fellows have all been able to land great jobs at the end of their fellowship year.

The track record of Harvard Law students parlaying these fellowships into jobs has been so strong that the Law School is now expanding this kind of support through its new Public Service Venture Fund.

Because of these kinds of resources, the numbers of HLS students going into public service have gone up rather than down during the recession, even as the number of entry-level jobs in the public sector have contracted (and not expanded as the Crimson claims). The most recent data show increasingly robust numbers of graduating students are headed for public interest and government jobs. What’s more, these numbers don’t even include the graduating students who take clerkships with judges after law school and then go on to public service jobs afterwards.

Prospective law students need to be careful to select a school that will provide them with the ability to train for public interest work, help them land jobs that offer a good fit, and provide them with financial support to allow them to take relatively lower paying work. They should not be daunted by stories that dwell only on the challenges of today’s job market. Such stories do a disservice not just to students, but also to the communities and causes that need talented public interest lawyers now more than ever.

Alexa Shabecoff is the Assistant Dean for Public Service in Harvard Law School’s Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising.

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