Letter to the Editor: HLS in the Public Interest

We write on behalf of 56 other current students and alumni of Harvard Law School in response to the Crimson’s October 29, 2012 article entitled, “At HLS, a Tough Path to Public Interest,” and its November 6, 2012 editorial, “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game.” Because we fear that the pieces painted an incomplete picture of the support and resources available to public-interest-minded students at HLS, we seek to highlight the school’s enormous commitment to public interest work.

Both pieces give the inaccurate impression that the school provides little support to students seeking public interest work, and that harsh job realities make it almost impossible (and thus perhaps not worthwhile) to pursue public interest work at HLS. This could not be further from the truth.

In our experiences, the school has done a great deal to make public interest jobs an attractive and realistic option for students, despite a recession that has affected all sectors of the legal job market. One of the law school’s most impressive assets is its strong public interest community, headed by the HLS Office of Public Interest Advising. OPIA provides students with an array of advising and networking opportunities, which have successfully opened avenues to employment for us and for many others. It thus makes little sense to set up a massive on-campus recruiting program for the public sector, as the Crimson suggested, given the constrained budgets, divergent hiring timelines, and alternate hiring processes of many public interest employers.

Moreover, the law school enables its students to pursue public interest opportunities, irrespective of salary, through several generous financial programs. The Crimson briefly noted HLS’s Low Income Protection Plan, Public Service Venture Fund, and post-graduate fellowships. The HLS Heyman Fellowship Program also offers additional grants and loan repayment assistance to alumni in government service. Such programs are directly aimed at balancing some of the “divergent incentives of public and private law.” They are also among the best in the nation. LIPP makes it financially possible for many students in the public sector to shoulder often-heavy debt burdens on limited salaries; post-graduate fellowships provide grants and salary support to graduates in nonprofit or government positions.

In part because of professional assistance from OPIA and financial assistance from HLS, last year 88 students were employed in public interest positions nine months after graduation.  And this figure does not include those who will or did land jobs in the public sector after completing judicial clerkships.

Of course, all this is not to ignore the realities of a challenging legal job market. Nor is it to say that the school could not do even more to promote and enable public interest work. It is simply to note that it is very possible for HLS students to pursue, obtain, and remain in rewarding public interest jobs. We hope that no student who reads the Crimson article is deterred from pursuing public interest law or from doing so at Harvard. Indeed, our experiences at the law school have convinced us that few other law schools are as supportive of or as effective at positioning graduates to succeed in the public sector. In this economy more than ever, the most vulnerable members of society need strong, committed advocates. We are confident that students at HLS will continue to take up the challenge, and that the school will be there for them when they do.