Sorting through the details of a foreclosure case, Joseph P. Kennedy III sat in a small room of the Rental Housing Resource Center near City Hall in Downtown Boston. Kennedy, fellow Harvard Law School student Nicholas J. Hartigan, and a third-party mediator were working through a standard pre-trial mediation on behalf of a client being sued for eviction.
“You know, you really look an awful lot like that guy,” the mediator mused as the conversation came to a lull, Hartigan recalls. He put his head down and tried to suppress a laugh. Kennedy looked at the table, letting the statement fall unanswered.
The comment was entirely innocent, Hartigan says, but Kennedy did resemble the man in the photograph. It was his grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy ’48, the former U.S. Attorney General.
Kennedy and Hartigan were members of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, one of the Law School’s student-run nonprofit legal services organizations. Not yet accredited attorneys but much more than casual volunteers, they dedicated much of their law school years to representing low-income, often immigrant, clients in the Boston area.
For Kennedy, the heir to a political dynasty stretching back generations, his work at the Bureau was more than just a box to check in the field of public service or a duty to his family’s reputation, friends say.
“There’s no obligation for a kid at Harvard Law School to spend a bunch of time in Dorchester,” Hartigan says. “It’s just stuff he made a conscious effort to do, really for the sole purpose that it’s what he wanted to do.”
Less than three years after graduating from the Law School, the 31-year-old Kennedy announced he would enter the race for the seat being vacated by longtime Congressman Barney Frank ’61-’62 in Massachusetts Fourth Congressional District.
In January, he left the Middlesex Country prosecutor’s office and quickly assumed his place at the front of the field. Early polling has shown Kennedy with as much as a two-to-one lead over his chief Republican rival Sean Bielat.
As polls and fundraising scorecards have shown, Kennedy will have every advantage his family’s name and connections can bring him.
But according to those who knew him at the Law School, Kennedy’s career there—which may fit nicely into his family’s tradition of public service—was uniquely his own.
A BUSY MAN
Kennedy was one of about 25 students accepted to join the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau at the end of his first year, and it soon became his defining experience at the Law School.
The Bureau—affectionately called “HLAB”—is the oldest and most reputable student-run clinic at the Law School which aims to give legal representation to marginalized groups that could otherwise not afford it.
Students like Kennedy enter the Bureau with little to no legal experience and are almost immediately put to work representing clients of their own. Basically, Hartigan explains, the first weeks at the Bureau are a crash course. Ultimately students testify in court, raise cases, meet with clients, and even represent their clients in trial.
“It was one of the first opportunities I actually had to practice the law,” Kennedy says. “To see how the law actually affects people on an individual level, many of whom were the people who the law was designed to protect.”