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More Law School Graduates Choose Public Interest Law

Fewer Students Opting for High-Paying Salaries at Private Firms; Some Say Partner-Track Jobs Still the Norm

By Caitlin E. Anderson

A recent study from the Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA) at the Harvard Law School (HLS) indicates that a greater number of HLS graduates are pursuing careers in public interest law.

According to the OPIA's poll of the class of 1991, the number of graduates involved in public interest law has increased 40 percent in the last five years.

Of the 528 members of the class of 1991, only 65 reported going into public interest upon graduation, but the five-year reunion guide indicated that 91 are currently employed in the public interest sector, a total of 17 percent of the class. First-year law student Edward M. Grauman said he felt the study was inconclusive.

"The general perception here is that most Harvard Law School students are here to go into high-paying, corporate law--and that's pretty much accurate. Seventeen percent isn't all that much."

Alexa Shabecoff, assistant director of the OPIA, said the post-graduation shift from private firms to public interest law is often based on financial considerations.

Students with an interest in public law often spend a few years in high-paying firms to pay off tuition debts, before pursuing public interest law, according to Shabecoff.

First-year law student Benjamin S. Lehrer said he plans to enter a law firm and leave after paying his debts.

"I find the concept of working in a law firm personally abhorrent. I've told my friends to kill me if they find me working in a firm in fifteen years," he said.

Many students are turned off by firms after working for them a few years, Shabecoff said.

"They get fed up with the long hours and lack of control over your life. They often find that they are working too hard about things they don't care enough about and the money isn't worth it," she said.

Recruiting and job availability also differ between the public and private legal spheres.

Private firms recruit more aggressively than public interest employers who often cannot afford to visit campuses, according to Shabecoff. Public interest employers are also often unable to hire in advance, she added.

"It is a little known fact that it is generally easier for HLS graduates to get a comfortable, high-paying, partner-track job in a law firm than it is to get a public interest job," she said.

However, Shabecoff said she believes that the increased number of 1991 graduates in public service work is part of a larger trend.

"We think that anecdotally there are a lot more students switching over to public interest work in the more recent classes. We don't have the figures, but it's just what we think intuitively," she said.

Shabecoff also said she believes the stereotype of the apathetic HLS student is largely untrue.

"I don't mean to sound like a Pollyanna, but I've found a lot of wonderful, committed students," she said.

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