By Simon S. Sun

At Harvard Law School, A Push Toward Public Service

As the Law School enters its third century, questions about its purpose and duty to the world have caught the attention of its students, faculty, and alumni.
By Aidan F. Ryan

Forty years ago this year, Joel Seligman wrote “The High Citadel,” a book that explored problems he identified lurking within the “high citadel of American legal education”—Harvard Law School.

Seligman, a 1974 graduate of the Law School, delved into issues related to the school’s admissions policies, competition among students, teaching methods, and the perceived notion that Harvard Law was more oriented towards the private sector than public interest.

“‘The High Citadel’ was written in the hope that law schools can awaken to a broader sense of their public responsibilities,” Seligman wrote in the preface. “Institutions with the reputation of Harvard Law School should act as the conscience of the legal profession, using their independence and prestige as a means to cleanse the practice of law of excessive self-interest and stressing to their students the ethical responsibilities of the individual attorney.”

Pete Davis, a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018, is the author of "Our Bicentennial Crisis: A Call to Action for Harvard Law School's Public Interest Mission."
Pete Davis, a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018, is the author of "Our Bicentennial Crisis: A Call to Action for Harvard Law School's Public Interest Mission." By Jacqueline S. Chea

Fast forward to the present day, and a similar call to action has emerged.

Pete D. Davis ’12, who will graduate from the Law School this month, authored a report on public interest offerings at the school that has since gained widespread attention. The report, timed to coincide with the Law School’s 200th birthday, argues that while public service opportunities have increased and more graduates are opting for careers in the public sector, the school still has an obligation to further incentivize its graduates to pursue careers in public service.

Students and alumni have also voiced concerns about the Loan Income Protection Plan, the school’s loan repayment plan that assists graduates who pursue low-paying legal jobs. A group of Harvard Law students formed a coalition in the fall with the goal of improving the program and ensuring that students who wish to enter public service jobs can do so without crushing debt.

As the Law School enters its third century—and amid a political climate characterized by increasing public distrust in government—questions about its purpose and duty to the world have caught the attention of its students, faculty, and alumni. Echoes of Seligman's words can be heard in the recent wave of student activism around public service, which looks unlikely to die down anytime soon.


Historically, Harvard Law graduates have overwhelmingly gravitated towards the private sector.

Ralph Nader, a 1958 Law School graduate and five-time presidential candidate, wrote the introduction to Seligman’s “The High Citadel.”

“It is not easy to take the very bright young minds of a nation, envelop them in conceptual cocoons and condition their expectations of practice to the demands of the corporate law firm,” Nader wrote. “But this is what Harvard Law School did for over a half century to all but a resistant few of the 40,000 graduates.”

Repeat presidential candidate Ralph Nader discusses “Our Bicentennial Crisis,” a recent publication by Law student Pete Davis. Nader was critical of the school’s practices during his talk in Langdell Hall in November.
Repeat presidential candidate Ralph Nader discusses “Our Bicentennial Crisis,” a recent publication by Law student Pete Davis. Nader was critical of the school’s practices during his talk in Langdell Hall in November. By Caleb D. Schwartz

Nader was not alone in his push for greater public interest participation. A Crimson article published in 1989 documented student backlash to the elimination of the Law School's office for public interest law placement.

The article reported that Robert C. Clark, the dean at the time, had decided to nix the office due to budget cuts. Students were still able to receive advising on public interest career options, though there were no full-time advisers specifically focused on the public sector.

The decision was met by protests. Nearly 300 students attended a rally for public service law, and 1055 of around 1600 enrolled students signed a petition directed at Clark.

The article also reported that at the time only 6 percent of Law School graduates pursued public interest careers.

Financial barriers have long served as a deterrent to public service careers. The Harvard Law Record recently re-published an article from 1977—the year before “The High Citadel” came out—about a faculty proposal to defer tuition payments until after graduation.

Stephen G. Breyer, a former Law School professor and current justice of the United States Supreme Court, expressed concern in the piece that sizable tuition debt could deter students from pursuing public interest jobs.

“Committee member Prof. Stephen G. Breyer believes that some students may shy away from low-paying public interest careers because of their heavy financial obligations,” the article states. “Breyer believes that the Law School doesn’t provide sufficient incentives for students with financial obligations to enter public-interest jobs.”

Seventy percent of surveyed students in 1986 wanted to practice public interest law, according to a 1992 Crimson article, but Law School alum Richard D. Kahlenberg '85 said only a handful of students ultimately went down this path.

“Students enter law school because they want to be like Atticus Finch...[but] at graduation most go to corporate law firms," Kahlenberg said at the time.


Though the issue has never exactly lain dormant, in 2018, public interest at the Law School is once again dominating campus conversation. Law students have made clear that while opportunities for public service have come a long way, there is still room for improvement.

The 1992 Crimson article reported that 6 percent of Law School graduates that year pursued public interest, compared to the 16.84 percent of non-clerkship-bound graduates who did so in 2017. Public interest in these statistics includes careers in public interest, government, and education.

Davis first published “Our Bicentennial Crisis” in November. The book-length report charges that Harvard Law School—as the “longest continuously running law school in the United States”—must play a role in addressing public distrust in the American legal system.

The report describes itself as a “call to action for Harvard Law School’s public interest mission,” and it specifically challenges the school to meet a threshold of 51 percent of graduates going into public service.

In an interview this month, Davis said his campaign rests on a belief that the Law School has a duty to promote public interest.

“HLS has a mission statement; it’s ‘to educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and the well-being of society,’” he said. “I believe in institutional integrity of the mission statement and I think we should always be pushing any one part of the Harvard community to better live up to our missions.”

Davis’s report quickly caught the attention of Law students, faculty, and alumni.

The Crimson interviews Pete D. Davis '12, the author of 'Our Bicentennial Crisis'

In February, Davis moderated a discussion on public interest between Law School professors Randall L. Kennedy, Carol S. Steiker ’82, Duncan Kennedy ’64, and Todd D. Rakoff ’67. Two months later, a group of Law School alumni signed an open letter addressed to Law School Dean John F. Manning ‘82, asking him if he intended to “present a detailed response to this rare student report.”

“The dean generally does not comment on correspondence with alumni,” Law School spokesperson Michelle Deakin wrote in a statement.

Nader, one of the alumni who signed the alumni letter last month, said in an interview last month he believes the Law School advances “corporate power.”

“They’re training legal plumbers instead of people who look out for the overall ability of the law to serve the people and the people to utilize the law in all dimensions,” he added.

In an email, Manning wrote that the Law School is “deeply committed to public interest” and that they “dedicate vast and growing resources to support that commitment.”

Manning also pointed to statistics indicating that students in the JD Class of 2018 spent 637 hours on average performing pro bono work during their time at Harvard—more than 12 times the requirement of 50 hours. In this class alone, students logged 376,532 hours of pro bono service, according to Manning.

Manning also wrote that the school is “on pace to fund for our graduates more than two dozen public interest fellowships.” The Law School guarantees summer public interest funding for every student working for a non-profit or the government, he wrote. Around 400 students rely on the program each summer.

Adam T. Stofsky, a 2004 Law School graduate, said that 20 percent of students going into public interest is considerably higher than the proportion he remembered back in the early 2000s.

“It certainly felt like the number was closer to 97 percent, 98 percent,” Stofsky said. “If you told me that 99 percent of Harvard law school students went to either law firms or a sort of tracked government job, I would not be surprised.”

He added that while “far more people should choose to pursue public interest careers,” the significant increase since his time as a Law student shows “a lot of improvement.”

“I think it [HLS] does a lot more than a lot of other law schools,” Stofsky said.

Jason Adkins, a 1991 Law School graduate who signed the recent alumni letter, said the path from Harvard Law to public service is not as well-supported—or well-trod—as it could be.

“There’s just not enough of the resources and not enough of the focus of the culture of the school and curriculum is geared in that direction, and more needs to be,” he said.

Manning wrote that his duty is to make sure students receive every opportunity to pursue their desired careers.

“My job as dean is to help our students find the tools, resources, and imagination to identify, pursue, and excel at careers that will provide them the greatest professional fulfillment and allow them to contribute in the ways most suited to their talents and aspirations,” he wrote.


Law students say the burden of high tuition debt remains an obstacle to pursuing careers in the public sector.

Law School tuition for the 2017-2018 academic year was set at $61,650, with the school budgeting $92,200 to include fees and allowance.

The Law School’s LIPP program aims to combat this problem by paying back some loans of graduates who enter low-paying legal careers—many of which are in the public sector.

Students publicly questioned some of LIPP’s policies this year, though. A group of more than 175 students and alumni wrote an open letter in the fall asking Manning to improve the program, charging that the Law School had “fallen behind” similar programs at peer institutions.

The Coalition to Improve LIPP, a group of Law School students committed to improving the LIPP program, grew out of this action. Coalition members drafted their own open letter to Manning this spring that called for changes to the LIPP program, including “improving the participant contribution scale,” increasing transition time for students moving between jobs, improving family leave and dependent care policies, doing away with the cap for undergraduate borrowing, and removing the cap for retirement asset protections.

Since then, the coalition has submitted recommendations to the Financial Aid Committee, which will pass their recommendations to the dean for consideration.

Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash ’15, president of the coalition and a first-year Law student, said that improving the LIPP program could help more students who wish to go into public service, but are wary of their sizable debts, to do so.

The coalition conducted a survey of the student body from November to January to gauge students’ career plans. Three hundred forty-one students filled out the survey, and Sandalow-Ash wrote in an email that the survey displayed response bias in favor of those who wanted to go into public interest work.

“We did this survey of the student body, and we found that about 30 percent of the student body said that if debt were not an issue, they would be pursuing public interest work but as things stand they are going into the private sector,” Sandalow-Ash said.

Sandalow-Ash attributed an uptick in student focus on public interest partly to the “political moment.”

“I think that this is particularly a political moment when people feel a need to use their law degrees to go out into the world and try to solve some of our most pressing problems of rising poverty and inequality and racial injustice and a whole range of different issues,” she said.

Kenneth H. Lafler, assistant dean for student financial services at the Law School, wrote that LIPP “is among the most flexible and generous loan repayment assistance programs in existence.”

“One of LIPP’s many advantages is that it allows graduates to choose when to enter and leave the program,” he added. “Unlike similar programs at most other law schools, LIPP recognizes that many graduates change career paths within 10 years of graduating for reasons that may be personal or professional.”

Stofsky said that without LIPP he would not have been able to have the career he has enjoyed.

“In my experience, the program has been very effective at supporting me. Could it be better, yeah. Could the income limits be higher? Absolutely,” he said. “But I do think they really saw through a lot of the issues that have impacted me as I’ve matured in my career.”

Manning wrote in his email that the amount of LIPP assistance has grown at a compound annual rate of 15.8 percent over the past 10 years, increasing from $2.6 million in fiscal year 2008 to $9.8 million in fiscal year 2017.

He added that LIPP “has been the fastest growing part of [the Law School’s] budget” and graduates receiving LIPP benefits have grown from 332 to 681 in the 10-year span.

Still, tuition costs have also risen significantly. For the 2005-2006 year, tuition at the Law School was $35,100. By the 2017-2018 academic year, tuition had almost doubled.

The bicentennial provides an ideal time to consider the Law School’s mission and the support the school provides, Adkins said.

“I think bottom line is this is a good time to reflect on that as a law school, including the students and the alumni to make some conscious thoughts about where we're going in the next hundred years,” he said. “It's the perfect time to consider those questions.”

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

Harvard Law SchoolPublic ServiceCommencement 2018