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At HLS, a Tough Path to Public Interest

By Juliet R. Bailin, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

FOUR TIMES THE WORK, ONE FOURTH THE PAY

Sitting down in her bright office in the Law School’s new Wasserstein building, Shabecoff gestured toward the plushy blue chairs by the window—a symbol of her efforts to make difficult one-on-one counseling sessions with students more comfortable.

The conversations she has with socially-minded students about the future of their careers are often sobering.

“One of the ironies in life that I joke about with students is you work four times as hard to get a quarter of the money in public interest,” Shabecoff said of getting a job in the public sector.

She added, though, that students who persevere do find jobs.  "I want them to feel empowered to do the work anyway," she said.

In recent years, Harvard Law School has made special efforts to encourage students like Pagano to pursue public interest law: in 2009 HLS founded the Holmes Public Service Fellowships, and in 2010 it established the Redstone Fellowships.

Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow has said that she is committed to supporting students who pursue public service. Before becoming dean, she oversaw curricular reforms that led to the creation of a new program of study called “Law and Social Change.” In 2010 she rolled out the Public Service Venture Fund.

Despite these efforts on the institution’s part, public interest law does not have a recruiting process equivalent to EIP in scale. Instead, Harvard hosts a week of on-campus interviewing for second- and third-year students with some 30 public interest organizations. “I beg our students not to rely on that as a job search means,” Shabecoff said.

Though Shabecoff said she would love to see a similar program for public interest careers, she acknowledged that public interest organizations would not participate.

“They don’t have an incentive really to come recruit on campus because people want to do this work anyway despite the extra work...and the relative lower pay,” she said, adding that public firms also have limited budgets.

Julia K. Gegenheimer, who graduated from the Law School in 2010 and now works as a trial attorney for the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice, said she remembers the contrast between private and public sector recruiting. Unlike many of her peers, Gegenheimer said she had to do a lot of legwork, researching organizations and fellowships to fund summer opportunities.

Pagano said she was proactive in setting up informational interviews over the summer. This semester, while most of her friends have their summer positions locked down from EIP, she has had to continue interviewing for jobs.

“Last week, I went to two different offices, and I’m dressed up in my suit, and I’ve got to go to class, and then I go straight from class downtown to this interview and then I go straight back so that I can go to a group meeting,” she said. “It’s a little nutty. And it would be great to not have to do that.”

THE PRIVATE SECTOR ROUTE

Like Pagano, fellow law students Tyanthony B. Davis and Daniel Balmori had positive experiences working in the public sector. But Davis and Balmori have decided to accept positions in corporate law firms instead, discovering that despite the recent economic downturn, private sector jobs are easy to find.

Davis, a second-year law student who worked for Teach for America before coming to Cambridge, said he was set on doing transactional law in Los Angeles. After 22 interviews in five days—and before the second round of callbacks even began—he had accepted an offer from a firm and his search was complete.

Though Davis said “it was scary” to commit early, he never worried that he would not find a job. “There are plenty of jobs to go around,” he said of private sector recruiting.

Despite the impact of the financial crisis on private sector law, Assistant Dean for Career Services Mark A. Weber said that firms continue to hire Harvard students.

Though the number of summer associate positions available at the top 100 law firms in the U.S. fell nearly 50 percent between 2008 and 2012, Harvard’s hiring rate only decreased by 4.3 percent.

Balmori, another second-year at the Law School, spent the summer after his first year working at the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. But Balmori said he knew that come August, he would be applying to work at corporate law firms. He felt that working at the Department of Justice was his “last chance...to do something a little bit different.”

“I know that right now the best place for me to hone my craft is at a private firm,” he said.

Weber said that because of the challenging financial climate and the high cost of law school, students need to keep post-graduate salaries in mind.

“You’ve got to be practical,” he said. “That’s the biggest takeaway. People have to think long and hard about who they are, what’s important to them, and most importantly if there are jobs.”

While the effects of the financial crisis were immediate on the private sector, Shabecoff said that public interest law was affected more gradually, and that the public sector is taking longer to recover.

Gegenheimer said she has also observed this trend. When she first applied for a position at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division, there were 10 positions available. The next year there were none, and this year there are three.

Despite the obstacles she has faced, Pagano said that she is not bitter and noted that many of her friends headed to private firms care about social issues as much as she does.

“I think it’s good to try not to be super dogmatic and ideological about stuff,” Pagano said. “It doesn’t make you a good or bad person, so I don’t see the point in trying to draw battle lines.”

RETAINING PASSION

In an effort to keep spirits high among students heading to the social sector—a number that has been increasing in recent years—Harvard has developed an “infrastructure to retain passion,” Shabecoff said.

“A lot of people come here with a lot of idealism and a strong commitment to public service, and we’ve gotten better at helping them retain that,” she said, noting that her office seeks to provide students both financial and moral support through community-building events and personal connections. “I’m a hugger,” she said.

Adelaide said the Office of Public Interest Advising told her that while her eventual job might not be exactly what she wants to do or where she wants to do it, she will secure public interest work.

"It's good to know you have people behind you with experience who really want to help you [and] see you succeed," she said.

The resources the Law School has devoted to helping students in this field is not in spite of the difficulties, but because of them.

Harvard offers Summer Public Interest Funding, which is guaranteed summer funding for a broad range of summer jobs that offer little to no compensation. The Law School also has a Low Income Protection Plan in which graduates can pay a portion of their loans while LIPP covers the remainder depending on their income.

Gegenheimer received two separate fellowships for international public service work. The first was the Insight Collaborative Fellowship, which allowed her to spend a year between college and law school in Cyprus, Cambodia, and the Hague. She later spent a summer at a Sudanese refugee camp in Chad with funding from Harvard's Chayes International Public Service Fellowship.

“I think it’s a shame to let external pressures push you away from that goal, especially at a place like HLS where there’s so much support for students who want to do public interest work,” Gegenheimer said.

—Staff writer Juliet Bailin can be reached at jbailin@college.harvard.edu.

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