Harvard Law's 'Path of Least Resistance'

Despite Harvard Law School’s public service programming, some say a combination of market forces and financial incentives makes seeking corporate law jobs after graduation the default path.
By Claire E. Parker

In 2016, Harvard Law School grappled with the meaning and role of its past. The school’s history—how to define it, which parts of it to honor, and its role at a 21st century institution—surged to the center of campus discourse this past year as students, professors, and administrators debated whether the school should abandon its seal, which was the crest of a formerly slaveholding family.

In 2017, the school’s future, specifically its next 100 years, is shaping up to be the next potential sparring ground between some students and administrators at the school.

With the school’s 200-year anniversary approaching this spring, administrators have launched a rebranding efforts to commemorate the bicentennial that includes fundraising for the Law School’s current capital campaign and redesigning its official seal.

But some students have taken a different approach to marking the bicentennial. Some are raising questions about the overarching mission of the Law School and whether career trends among graduates that overwhelmingly favor corporate law fulfill that mission.

In October, second-year Law students Pete Davis and Nate Szyman launched an initiative called “The Third Century Project.” It challenges the dominance of corporate law firms in shaping Law School students post-graduate plans and aims to create a “Harvard Law School centered on legal vocation-building in the public interest.”

The first stage of the students’ project, called HLS 200, asks students and faculty to identify inspiring alumni, current legal challenges, and goals for the future. The Law School student government has committed to supporting the initiative as their official bicentennial activity, student government president Nino Monea said.

Next semester, Davis said, organizers will publicly present their project findings with the hope of asking people to consider whether the Law School is abiding by one of the missions stated on its website: “To educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and the well-being of society.”

While administrators welcome student programming as part of the school’s bicentennial celebrations, they challenged the motivation behind the project, arguing that the school already encourages public service.

“The Law School equips students to pursue the widest array of opportunities of any law school in the world; subsidizes public service opportunities more than any other law school; and prepares students for careers that will likely combine both public service and private-sector employment,” Law School spokesperson Robb London wrote in an eight-page memo to The Crimson.

In recent years, the school has augmented public interest-related programs and seen an increase in the number of students pursuing public service careers. But some say a combination of market forces and financial incentives makes seeking corporate law jobs after graduation the default path.


Despite the school’s efforts to remove barriers for public service jobs, a significant majority of Law students still opt to work in the private sector instead.

However, in recent years access to public interest work for Law School students has improved.

In 2015, 14.5 percent of Law School graduates pursued jobs in public interest or government after graduation—a proportion that has doubled since 2007. Graduates who go into this work often find jobs in public defenders’ offices, government agencies, or non-profits.

Student interest in public service careers is “generally trending up,” according to Alexa Shabecoff, the assistant dean for public service in the Law School’s Office of Public Interest Advising.

Her office, the first of its kind nationwide according to Shabecoff, counsels students and provides information about career options in public service. The Law School’s Student Financial Services office also runs a loan repayment assistance program and provides funding to students who take public interest-related positions over the summer. And the school’s clinical programs advise students on pro-bono and clinical work.

Still, several students described corporate law as “the path of least resistance” at the Law School.

“There really is an unspoken understanding that the default option is to go into a corporate firm,” Monea said. “I think part of the [HLS 200] project is to normalize public careers as a perfectly normal thing that Harvard Law graduates do. It shouldn’t be viewed as a brave and noble sacrifice.”

Harvard is ranked eighth on Business Insider’s list of “The 25 Best Law Schools for Landing a High-Paying Job at a Firm.” In a 2012 National Law Journal study ranking law schools nationwide based on placement rates of graduates in government or public interest jobs, Harvard did not make the top 20.

Davis said part of his motivation for the HLS 200 project was his observation that many of his peers who entered the Law School intending to go into public service ultimately decide by their third year to take a job in the private sector instead. Shabecoff called this trend “a long-standing phenomenon at many law schools.”

While Law School administrators emphasize that graduates’ first jobs are not indicative of their full career trajectories, a variety of forces drive many students to take jobs in private firms immediately after graduation.

First, it is comparatively easier for students to get private sector jobs. The school’s Early Interview Program provides a near-guarantee of securing a lucrative position in a corporate firm before students have even completed half of law school.

“They really make it a very easy process to enter into corporate law,” third-year Law student Kezmen C. Clifton said.

More than 400 employers from private firms descend on campus each August for an intense five-day recruiting program. They conduct almost 11,000 interviews in that time, then fly students to their offices for final interviews. By the time classes start in the fall, many second-year students already have offers for summer associate positions for the following year—positions that typically lead to jobs after graduation.

“The jobs in the private sector pay a great deal of money, and we’ve got this amazing orchestrated structured program where employers are coming here just to hire our students, so it can be seductive,” Assistant Dean for Career Services Mark Weber said.

Meanwhile, Shabecoff said, public sector employers are often constrained by their budgets and unable to predict their hiring abilities as far in advance. They hire less consistently, on significantly later timelines. Fellowships, rather than summer associate positions, often serve as the pathway into public service.

Monea said he supports the HLS 200 project partly because he thinks the Law School should take measures to equalize these hiring processes, including moving the corporate timeline farther into the academic year.

“There are imbalances in the market forces,” Monea said. “I just want to make sure no one feels they have to do [corporate law] because of the way the market is structured.”

Weber acknowledged that the early corporate recruiting—part of a nationwide timeline set by the industry—is “less than perfect.” But he said the Law School is reluctant to push it back for fear that their peer institutions would gain an advantage.

The school has instituted a rule, however, that employers who recruit on campus must allow students up until April 1 to respond to an offer, enabling students to apply for jobs in the public sector or private firms with later timelines before making a final decision.

But in addition to mismatched application timelines, there are more jobs opportunities for Law School graduates at private firms.

“There are also simply fewer public service jobs than there are positions in law firms,” Shabecoff wrote in an email. “As a result, those jobs are more competitive.”

Market forces in a “time of unprecedented upheaval in the supply and demand for lawyers” are often out of the school’s control, London wrote.

“Educational institutions cannot make up for the inability of the public sector to provide sufficient job opportunities, but HLS makes every effort to subsidize opportunities for service where there are no paying jobs available in the job market,” he wrote.


By Simon S. Sun

Money is another significant factor in students’ career decisions. About 80 percent of Harvard Law students graduate with loans, and the average debt for the most recent graduating class is $153,000, according to Kenneth Lafler, the Law School’s assistant dean for student financial services.

Managing significant debt on a public sector salary can be “crushing,” third-year Law student and president of the Women’s Law Association Natalie D. Vernon said. Vernon entered the Law School intending to work for a private firm, but became more interested in the public sector. She said choosing that path will likely entail financial challenges.

“Students who want to pursue public service immediately upon graduation certainly face financial obstacles that may make it more difficult for some to pursue this path,” Shabecoff wrote. “Obviously, the pay differential is often huge.”

“Big law” firms have begun to offer starting salaries of $180,000, the American Bar Association reported last summer. By contrast, a 2012 study by the National Association for Law Placement found that median starting salaries for public interest and public sector employees range between $43,000 and $50,500.

Clifton said she decided to work at a private firm in Chicago after she graduates in the spring because of its specialty in employment law and the type of training the firm offers. But for some of her friends, starting salaries factored significantly into their decisions.

“[To] start at $180,000 coming out… I think that’s very attractive, especially when you have hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans,” she said.

To prevent debt from serving as a barrier to entering public service, the Law School created the Low Income Protection Plan in 1978. LIPP, which was the first law school loan repayment assistance program in the country, helps graduates who work in the public sector or in certain qualifying private firms repay their loans. The number of graduates enrolled in the program—111 from the class of 2015— has more than doubled since 2008, and the amount LIPP provides has tripled in that time, according to Lafler.

Lafler said his office presents information about the program to all incoming students and offers one-on-one counseling sessions. He believes his role is to make students aware of the financial realities they will face in different career scenarios.

“It doesn’t equalize the drastic income difference between public sector work and private sector work. We always are very clear to make sure people understand that you’re going to be living a middle class life on a LIPP salary,” Lafler said. “We want to make sure that people have realistic expectations so they don’t get themselves into a position they feel is untenable.”

Vernon sees the HLS 200 project as a means of pushing students, and the school, to ensure students make career choices based on interests rather than financial considerations.

“I would love to see the school reimagine and re-envision themselves to make sure that the school speaks to every student’s passion, not just to their wallet,” Vernon said.


While Law School students and career advisers share a desire to minimize the impact of external forces on graduates’ career decisions, the HLS 200 project has illuminated a disagreement between many of its student supporters and administrators over the role of the Law School in career advising.

Davis thinks employment trends favoring private law indicate that the school is facing a “crisis of responsibility” and failing to fulfill its mission. In his view, the school should proactively steer students toward public service careers and away from the private sector.

“HLS 200 is a cultural project. It’s trying to make a cultural change,” he said. “I don’t think Harvard Law should be satisfied until the majority of our students are working for organizations after Harvard Law School that primarily serve to advance the legal needs of the vast majority of Americans.”

But faculty and administrators argue that many students are simply interested in areas of law better suited to corporate firms. The job of the school, they say, is to help students evaluate employment options and prepare them for successful careers across sectors.

“Our goal is not to steer people into the public sector or the private sector, but to help them figure out what they want to do,” Weber, the career services adviser, said. “We don’t make assumptions, and we respect and support the choices of all of our students. Period.”

Administrators emphasized that people’s tendency to characterize the public and private sectors as polar opposites can be misleading, and there may not be a divide at all.

“That’s a false dichotomy, and fails to take cognizance of critical collaborations between private and public sector lawyers on litigation, advocacy, and reform agendas,” London wrote.

Career advisers across the Law School said graduates often transition between sectors, and those in private firms often do pro-bono work or projects that serve the public interest.

Law professor I. Glenn Cohen was an early contributor to the HLS 200 project, but he envisions the objective of the initiative differently than Davis.

“For me it is not corporate versus public interest at all, instead it is about vocation,” Cohen wrote in an email. “The goal is to make our students, secular or religious, feel as though they have found a calling that gives meaning to their life. That is highly desirable whether they go to public or private service.”

In the spring, Davis and Szyman will launch the second portion of the HLS 200 project, which will include an activism campaign around the feedback they collect.

—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at claire.parker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.

Student GroupsStudent LifeCentral AdministrationHarvard Law SchoolUniversityCapital CampaignUniversity News