Law Professors Debate School's Support for Public Interest

Harvard Law School
Harvard Law School.

UPDATED: February 11, 2018 at 12:35 a.m.

As Harvard Law School celebrates its 200th year Professors and student activists gathered at Harvard Law School Wednesday night to debate the school's reported disconnect with public interest.

The event, titled “Harvard Law and the Public Interest,” revolved largely around a report titled "Our Bicentennial Crisis" by Law student Pete D. Davis ’12. Panelists Randall L. Kennedy, Carol S. Steiker ’82, Duncan Kennedy ’64, and Todd D. Rakoff ’67—all Law School professors—agreed that public interest law is essential for fighting inequality and that the Law School has the power to promote that interest.

“We’re talking about the everyday things of making sure that people get proper treatment for their special needs trial or getting the consumer complaint that they have settled in a fair way. I think those things are very important,” Rakoff said to Davis. “I completely agree with you that the underserving of that kind of everyday legal problem in our society has very corrosive social and political effects.”

Steiker admitted that since the Law School relies largely on alumni donations, it might need to change its financial model in order to encourage students to pursue public interest law, which typically pays less than private law firms.

In response, Davis offered several proposals for how Law School administrators can improve the prevailing culture at the Law School. He also said he supported increasing economic diversity at the school.

“To do that will require opening up the black box of admissions,” Davis said. “I think we should talk about what do we value in admissions and what type of classes do we want to craft.”

But Davis also noted that Law students have an equal responsibility to take action.

“I believe that change happens by everyone participating in a community and this is not something that should just be the administration — you can start things right now,” Davis said. “I think students should — if they believe in this — they should put in the work to start building the culture and prefiguring the culture that they want here.”

Some of the professors argued the Law School already works to promote careers in the public interest. Steiker emphasized that the school offers a “terrific public interest advising office” and “post-graduate fellowships.” Steiker added, though, that the school could and should do more.

For Davis, his report last fall and the event Wednesday were parts of his months-long effort to shift the Law School from what he identifies as a corporate focus to a public interest focus.

“Two years ago, when I was advocating for this as a 1L, people wouldn’t even admit that this was a problem. They would deny that there was a distinction between public interest careers, corporate interest careers,” said Davis.

Davis, who has been working to promote public interest at the Law School for two years, was excited about hosting this event.

“I think that there is a dormant energy at the Law School for more parity between public interest career building and corporate interest career building,” he said. “And I think those conversations have been happening at the Law School in whispers all around and I think this was one of the first events to bring it out into the open and I think people responded well.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarifications:

UPDATED: February 9, 2018

A previous version of this article indicated Law School professor Carol S. Steiker '82 argued the Law School already does enough to promote careers in the public interest. To clarify, Steiker said that, though the school has a "terrific public interest advising office," the Law School could and should do more.

UPDATED: February 11, 2018

A previous version of this article indicated Pete D. Davis '12 proposed increasing public interest involvement at the Law School by "increasing economic diversity." To clarify, Davis only said increasing economic diversity at the Law School would be a good thing in and of itself; he did not explicitly say that increasing economic diversity comprises a means to increase public interest involvement.

—Staff writer Sanjana L. Narayanan can be reached at

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.