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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.”
At the Bureau, Kennedy quickly assumed a leadership position, being elected to the clinic’s board as the outreach director. When Hartigan and fellow Bureau member David E. Haller ’03 decided to start a special foreclosure task force in 2008, they looked to Kennedy to help facilitate the launch of the unprecedented initiative which would add even more work to the already over-burdened Bureau staff.
“The first person that I went to when we were trying to do this was Joe. I knew that Joe was the type of person who would work his butt off,” Hartigan says. “It was the kind of thing where if we had him on our side we had a lot better shot.”
With Kennedy’s help, Hartigan and Haller aimed to visit every foreclosed property in Boston, bringing on more clients than the Bureau had dealt with before.
The initiative, No One Leaves, found most of its cases in Dorchester and South Boston where owners of triple-decker homes often rent out upstairs apartments. As the financial and housing crises swept across the country, more and more of these homeowners slipped into foreclosure, and renters were left in the cold—at which point Hartigan, Kennedy, and other staffers would arrive.
Even without the extra work of task forces like No One Leaves, HLAB is intense. If accepted, students must commit to two years of service. Officially, members will work about 20 hours a week, says Boston lawyer Elizabeth Nessen, Kennedy’s former advisor at the Bureau. But according to former bureau members, 20 hours is the bare minimum, and most students would often push 30- or 40-hour weeks.
“I spent every day with Joe...from the minute the sun rose to after it set. The bureau is a really insane time commitment,” says one of Kennedy’s Law School classmates, who requested to remain anonymous as her job prohibits her from speaking with the media.
As one of the few fluent Spanish speakers at HLAB, Kennedy was always on call. Hartigan and others would often summon him from class to translate, and Kennedy, dropping everything, would get in his pick-up truck and drive wherever he was needed.
The overflow of work at the Bureau made keeping up with classes and other activities a battle.
“I think the word balance is just a level of control that we probably didn’t have,” Hartigan explains with a laugh. “It’s a lot of triage.”
But HLAB was not the only claim on Kennedy’s time. He also served as the technical editor for The Harvard Human Rights Journal, responsible for checking references and citations for each article before it was printed. In the spring of 2007, Kennedy co-cooridanated the journal’s 20th anniversary conference.
Off-campus, Kennedy helped found an after-school education and outreach program in Jamaica Plain with his future fiancée and fellow HLS student Lauren A. Birchfield. And during the lead up to the 2008 presidential election, he traveled the country as a translator for his uncle Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, who was campaigning on behalf of then-Senator Barack Obama.
In the classroom, Kennedy was a solid student, former classmates said, though worn a little thin by his extra-curricular activities. During his three years at the Law School, he twice took courses taught by Law School professor and current U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, and worked closely with Professor Lucie E. White on human rights and poverty issues.
A FAMILY LEGACY
Kennedy’s enrollment in Harvard Law School in 2006 was in more than one way a return home. When his parents, Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II and Sheila Brewster Rauch, divorced in 1991, Kennedy came to live exclusively in Cambridge; until that point he had split his time between Cambridge and Kennedy property in Hyannis, Mass.
With his twin brother Matthew R. Kennedy, Kennedy attended Buckingham, Browne, and Nichols, a private preparatory school in Cambridge, and then Stanford. After graduating, Kennedy spent two years in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer—a watershed experience he has often pointed to as a candidate.
Kennedy returned home from abroad in 2006, honored, he says, to have been admitted to Harvard Law School, a campus steeped in ancestral legacy.
Yet, for all his striking resemblances to iconic family members—the shock of red hair, slightly untamed, the sharp facial features, freckled with an Irish complexion, the wide convincing gait—Kennedy’s time at Harvard was shaped by his own interests more so than a familial legacy.
A number of Kennedy’s closest friends from law school said it took them months to realize just who the laid-back Kennedy really was.
“As far as I knew, he was just a guy who played college lacrosse, and we were having a lot of fun working together,” Hartigan says.
“He’s about as normal as it gets,” says Kennedy’s classmate who requested anonymity. “He’s a very dressed-down type when he’s in his element.”
Kennedy was just as unassuming with his clients, Bureau colleagues say, never going out of his way to mention his last name or allude to his family.
“That was just his way,” Nessen says.
“What’s funny about it is, Joe could very well be trumpeting who he is and where he comes from—and he’s got every right—but he just never, never talks about it,” Kennedy’s classmate says. “It’s not because he’s secretive, but it’s because he’s built his whole life on standing on his own two feet.”
“UNCHARACTERISTIC OF HIM”
For a Kennedy, politics is the perpetual elephant in the room, but the young Congressional candidate says he had no intention of running for public office when he arrived at Harvard Law School.
Those who worked with him at the Legal Aid Bureau or the Human Rights Journal agree that Kennedy did not have overt political ambitions, even if the work he was doing provided a recognizable political foundation.
“He has this commitment to public service, but he wasn’t the person in my group that I thought was going to run for office,” Nessen says. “It’s actually uncharacteristic of him.”
But by the time he graduated from the Law School, Kennedy’s stance had changed. Though he had always been committed to public service, public office seemed an increasingly likely option for the young graduate.
“I wasn’t thinking about running for public office when I got here,” Kennedy says. “I think the experience of learning what the law can do to set the structures for society and then what you can do to change that...definitely led to my decision to eventually run.”
Even if they would not have expected it, friends say they are not surprised Kennedy is running. His focus on public service and social justice at the Law School, they say, laid the groundwork for either of two careers: law or poltics.
“It certainly wasn’t something we talked about, but it’s not at all different from the type of community work we did when I knew him,” Hartigan says. “Everything I’ve done with him has been dealing with people and doing things to be active in the community, and I think in the better sense of what they do, that is what politicians do.”
“From a pure, personality perspective, this is somebody who in pretty much every respect is built for [pubic office] in ways more than he even knows,” his classmate says.
—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at email@example.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: April 29
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Harvard Law School students who participate in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau do not represent their clients in court. In fact, they do represent clients in trials.
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