Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game

It is obvious why law school graduates feel forced into the private sector

The wise words of the sage Ice T are applicable to many situations, but are particularly relevant to Harvard Law School. Between 2003 and 2006, only 9.8 to 12.1 percent of HLS’ graduating classes went to work for a nonprofit organization or the government. Despite significant student interest in public sector jobs, students at HLS often feel pressurized to seek jobs in the private sector due to the Law School’s interview programs. We lament that corporate law firms have an undue draw of HLS students given that this is not the result of diminutive student interest in pursuing careers in other sectors.

Several factors contribute overall to the flight of HLS students to the private sector. First year salaries at private sector law firms can be as high as $160,000, more than twice as much as the $65,000 earned by attorneys with 11-15 years of experience working in the public sector. This huge difference in financial gain is especially pertinent given the rising costs of education, with students borrowing $100,000 on average to attend private law schools. Employment within the public sector is also uncertain in the wake of the recession, with both non-profit and government sectors having implemented widespread freezes and layoffs. Firms from the private sector also recruit very aggressively, with 11,000 interviews exclusively for private sector jobs held in five days during Harvard Law School’s Early Interview Program. Rather than allowing students to be siphoned off all too easily by an aggressive campus recruiting program undertaken by law firms, HLS should take it upon itself to work harder to help students find public sector jobs.

Harvard Law School has already made an effort to encourage students to pursue a career that is aligned with their interests in the public sector by founding the Holmes Public Service Fellowships and the Redstone Fellowships, in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow has also personally undertaken the creation of both a new program of study called “Law and Social Change” and the Public Service Venture Fund. HLS also announced that it would waive tuition for third-year students who pledge to spend five years working either for nonprofit organizations or the government in 2008.

These efforts to address the financial burden of high tuition costs are admirable, but this simply is not enough. HLS needs to use its connections to help set up interview programs for public sector organizations akin to its efforts to facilitate student interviews for private companies. The public sector has a lot of potential for recently graduated law students. Law school students who graduated in 2010 earned $84,111 on average during their first year, a 10 percent decrease from 2009. At a time when good private sector jobs are becoming steadily more and more competitive, the newly expanding public sector could provide relief for recent graduates.

It is unfortunate that students feel the need to seek jobs in the private sector due to informal institutional barriers or pressure at any school. Nonetheless, we look forward to the Law School continuing to make it easier for HLS students to pursue the career they are truly passionate about. In particular, by strengthening the role of non-profit organizations in on-campus recruiting, HLS will surely continue to foster a growing interest in public sector jobs.

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