Incoming Idealists, Outgoing Realists: Navigating the Private and Public Sectors at Harvard Law School

While some students and alumni said the Law School has little influence over career choices, others argued that there is an institutional push toward the private sector.
By Emmy M. Cho

A preponderance of Harvard Law School graduates pursue legal work in the private sector after Harvard.
A preponderance of Harvard Law School graduates pursue legal work in the private sector after Harvard. By Justin Y. Ye

Tyler M. Alabanza-Behard, a low-income student at Harvard Law School, will spend his summer in the private sector at a big law firm and litigation boutique.

“Looking at the debt burden I have, the things I want to achieve for my family, and my kids in the future, the private sector feels like the only option to achieve all of those things because the public sector jobs don’t pay very well,” Alabanza-Behard said.

Before entering law school, Alabanza-Behard worked as a high-school teacher through the Teach for America program. While still passionate about the public sector, Alabanza-Behard said he will likely pursue private law for the next decade or so out of financial necessity.

“Public interest work, education policy, educational equity, is very dear to my heart,” Alabanza-Behard said. “At the same time, I am really motivated to look after my family and build intergenerational wealth, so I just don’t know whether returning to the public sector after graduating is compatible with my financial goals.”

Early in their Harvard Law School careers, students are presented with the task of choosing between the private and public sectors post-graduation. Ten months after graduation, 337 members of the Class of 2020 were working in law firms, compared to the 63 and 23 working in public interest and government, respectively, per employment data compiled by Harvard.

While some students and alumni said in interviews that the Law School has little influence over career choices, others argued that there is an institutional push toward the private sector. Low-income students said financial incentives play a formative role in pursuing a career in the private sector.

Harvard Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an emailed statement that the Law School is “deeply committed to public interest and public service,” referencing the creation of the Law School’s Office of Public Interest Advising, the Low-Income Protection Plan that increases access to public-interest jobs through loan repayment assistance, and the “largest and most diverse clinical program of any law school in the U.S.”

“Through all of these initiatives, Harvard Law School is committed to preserving freedom of job choice within the legal profession for its graduates,” Neal wrote. “Ultimately, our goal is to enable them to pursue their highest aspirations whether that’s in the public, nonprofit, or private sector.”

Several graduates of the Law School pointed to the vast number of law students who enter the corporate sphere as evidence of an issue not unique to Harvard Law School but systemic throughout higher education. They called on students and administrators alike to reassess the power structures governing higher education, contemplate the incentives that force debt-ridden students into certain career paths, and interrogate what the purpose of a Harvard Law School education should be.

Harvard Law School’s ‘Default Option’

Zoe Russell, a third-year law student at Harvard, said the path to big law — high-paying jobs based out of large legal firms — is “very straight, obvious, evident, and easy.”

Ten months after graduation, 337 members of the Class of 2020 were working in law firms, compared to the 63 and 23 working in public interest and government, respectively, per Harvard employment data.
Ten months after graduation, 337 members of the Class of 2020 were working in law firms, compared to the 63 and 23 working in public interest and government, respectively, per Harvard employment data. By Truong L. Nguyen

Russell, who is an aspiring community lawyer, said searching for jobs that reflect her interests was more difficult for her than her peers who are pursuing legal careers in the private sector.

“There’s no guarantee that you’re going to find someone who is going to be able to help you do the thing that you would like to do, which I don’t think is the same in firm life, because the process of getting a job at a firm is almost the same no matter what you want to do,” Russell said.

Neal wrote that in recent years, the Law School's Office of Public Interest Advising has “assisted graduating students in landing a range of post-graduate fellowships” that enable individuals to work in “organizations employing a community lawyering model.” He added that the office provides the David A. Grossman Fund, which offers a fellowship to a graduating Law School student or law clerk who is pursuing community or movement lawyering.

Russell said that though the Law School has resources for navigating the “fellowship process,” there is not a “direct connection or direct link” to what she wants to do in the future.

Peter D. “Pete” Davis ’12, a graduate of the Law School and author of “Our Bicentennial Crisis: A Call to Action for Harvard Law School’s Public Interest Mission,” said that during his time at Harvard, public interest law was treated as a “special alternative,” while the “default option” for students was corporate interest law.

The Law School’s encouragement of students to attend the Early Interview Program, a two-week opportunity for students to secure corporate interest internships and jobs, Davis said, was a key example of this treatment.

“They wrote us an email if we didn’t sign up for the Early Interview Program,” Davis said. “Do you think they were sending emails to corporate interest students telling them, ‘We saw that you didn’t sign up for the public interest interview program?’”

Michael E. Shammas, a graduate of the Law School, said the Law School’s decision to hold the Early Interview Program — which is for private sector firms — months before the public interest interview program was one illustration of how students could be influenced to choose private law.

“The way Harvard interviews people probably encourages many more to unthinkingly, right, maybe go into a private oriented career that they would not otherwise want to go into,” Shammas said.

"The way the system works overall” has a tendency to “funnel” students into corporate law, per Shammas.

Evelyn T. Kachaje, a former international student who is a legal officer at the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, said that during her time at the Law School, she felt as though numerous forces were encouraging her to work in the private sector before pursuing her passion for human rights law.

“I went into law school being like, ‘I’m international, I want to work in human rights, I want to work for the United Nations, I want to do all of these things,’ and throughout law school, it was consistently reinforced that, ‘Okay, you can do that, but first do the firm thing. It’ll give you great training, it’ll give you great experience, and then you can go off and do whatever what you want to do.’”

Not all students feel the Law School pressures them to pursue careers in the private sector.

Velo-Vincent P. van Houden, a third-year student at the Law School, said he believes the Law School’s encouragement of private and public sector jobs is “balanced,” though he recognizes many events on campus are sponsored by prominent law firms.

“It’s not funneling people, but they come and present what they do, and you’re like, ‘Oh this is really cool,’” van Houden said. “But I think, overall, there’s not really anything that sways you one way or the other.”

Ralph Nader, a graduate of the Law School and former American presidential candidate, said many students are susceptible to the “golden handcuffs” phenomenon, where individuals try out the corporate sector only to remain in the industry.

“They come in idealistic, and they leave with corporate law firm offers,” Nader said. “They decide, ‘I don’t want to go down to New Orleans in some public defender job that pays $45,000 a year. I’ll just work for a while in corporate law firms, pay off my debt, and see what it’s like.’”

Financial Pressures

Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash ’15, a graduate of the Law School and former president of Coalition to Improve the Low-Income Protection Plan, said most students have to rely on the program when entering the public service sector to mitigate significant student debt.

“Basically, if you want to do anything that uses your law degree to advance social justice through workers’ rights, immigrant justice, tenants rights, gender justice, whatever it is, then you have this really substantial student debt burden that’s very difficult to pay off,” Sandalow-Ash said.

Neal wrote that LIPP — which assists students with repaying a “significant portion of their loans” — has been the “fastest-growing program” at the Law School over the past decade, with an annual growth rate of approximately 12 percent.

“HLS LIPP was the first law school program to help make lower paying public interest jobs more feasible through loan repayment assistance, and it remains one of the most comprehensive programs of its kind,” Neal wrote.

Russell, who is a low-income first-generation law school student, said she finds it “really strange” to see many of her friends from similar backgrounds entering the corporate sphere.

“It feels like their whole mindset has changed in ways that mine has not,” Russell said. “At every step, I’m still fighting for my future, and theirs is set in stone.”

Van Houden, who is a low-income student, said he chose to work at a private firm after considering both the public and private sectors because he believed that it would grant him valuable professional experience while alleviating his debt in a much shorter period of time.

“I think the training I get at a law firm will really help me in my career and also pay off the loans more quickly,” Houlden said. “By accumulating some personal wealth through these higher paying jobs, I, long-term, can do more.”

Kachaje, who is also currently on the LIPP program, said that despite being grateful to LIPP for added financial security, she was concerned the program may deter recipients from building assets.

“LIPP takes into account how much assets you have to calculate how much money you should be receiving,” Kachaje said. “If you’re thinking of saving for any kind of future, it means you are encouraged to save, but only up until the cap because once you start saving any more than that cap, LIPP will start taking money away from you.”

As an international student who does not have generational wealth, Kachaje said homeownership and other asset-building methods are ways for low-income and first-generation students to “start building generational wealth.”

“You can’t do that while you’re on LIPP, and if you think about it, that’s 10 years outside of you graduating where, yes, you can save a little bit, but you can’t save too much — otherwise, that starts to get punished.”

Neal wrote that while the Law School cannot forgive debt, the Harvard Student Loan Office “offered loan payment relief on Harvard Student Loans to graduates experiencing hardships” as a result of the pandemic.

Harvard Law School, Neal added, is one of two law schools in the country that provide 100 percent need-based aid for students, with grant aid to students increasing at an annual rate of approximately 6 percent.

Post-Graduation Insights

William H. “Bill” Barlow II was working at a private law firm when he realized that his quality of life was “significantly worse” than when first considering a career in law.

At the time, a friend came to visit Barlow in New York, where his law firm was located. The friend was a district manager at a restaurant chain, his wife worked as a nurse, and they had a “beautiful daughter.” The visit caused Barlow to reflect on his own fulfillment, he said.

“Something seems fundamentally broken about the fact that I was so deeply unhappy and in such a desperately difficult work situation, whereas my friend wasn’t making as much money as me, but was obviously much happier, more fulfilled,” Barlow said.

Barlow, who exited his firm and began his own practice this past year, said there is a significant difference between his past and present law experiences.

“Now I’m just growing my own practice independently and am sort of a free man and my own boss. I have a partner now that I work with, a fellow Harvard Law grad,” he said. “Goodness, it is night and day, what it’s like to work for yourself and to be your own person.”

Kristopher H. “Kris” Yue, a graduate of the Law School who worked for three years at a private law firm, said he was able to pursue his interest in international law during his time working in the corporate sector.

“I really got the stuff that I wanted to do in law firms,” Yue said. “Now I know that’s not the experience that my other classmates have. Some of them quite dislike, from what I know, the stuff that they do. They’re not very interested in it.”

Having transitioned to the public sector in 2019, Yue works at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. He said he shifted careers because he originally went to law school with the intention of working in public interest.

Lillian S. “Lily” Axelrod, a graduate of the Law School who currently works as an immigration lawyer at a private law firm, said she had a “really positive experience” navigating future career opportunities at the Law School.

“I came in knowing I wanted to be an immigration lawyer, so I was never agonizing about whether I should do the big law firm recruiting,” Axelrod said. “I never felt the pressure to do one thing or another.”

Axelrod, who is currently on LIPP, added that the program was especially helpful because of the breadth of students entering the public sector who benefited from its services.

“I’m really grateful for the program, especially after the last round of improvements with respect to childcare, which helped me a lot as I’ve been moving forward in my career,” Axelrod.

Beyond Harvard Law School

Law School alumnus Bruce E. Fein said the issue of lawyers flocking to the private sector is a systemic one, which extends beyond Harvard. To Fein, law schools are abrogating their duty to train future lawyers to be “ministers of justice” who pursue justice rather than winning cases.

“I think that the Law School — and I wouldn’t say it’s unique to Harvard — is deficient in failing to emphasize that the goal, the purpose, of our legal system is justice,” Fein said. “It’s not winning a case for a client.”

The Law School, Fein said, has become more of a “trade school” where individuals are educated to compellingly argue cases in their client’s favor.

“We need to have the Harvards and the Yales to be graduating the students who are much more attuned and think in terms of justice as being the end, not winning the case or winning the war,” Fein said. “It’s what I call the difference between always asking ‘why’ before asking ‘how.’”

Nader said many of his peers were more concerned with “the law as it is written” as opposed to “the law as it is supplied.”

“There’s a big difference,” Nader said. “Look at our constitution — it has a lot of fairness written throughout, but we know how it was used.”

Barlow said he believes institutions of higher education should reform to move away from an emphasis on the private sector.

“It’s a little myopic to think that this is a Harvard Law problem, as opposed to an institutional problem with higher education,” Barlow said. “All institutions of higher education are facing very similar challenges, and it’s not surprising to me that Harvard Law hasn’t solved it, because no institutions have solved it.”

Sandalow-Ash said that despite choosing the public sector herself, she feels students should not have to shoulder significant financial burdens in order to pursue careers in line with social justice.

“These are the choices we make because we think this work is really socially valuable, meaningful, and important to building a better world,” she said. “But we shouldn’t live our lives being just totally worn down by debt because we’ve chosen to become public defenders or legal aid attorneys or to advocate for the rights of people who are not uber wealthy.”

Sandalow-Ash said she believes it is important to examine what the purpose of a Harvard Law School education should be.

“Is it just to train corporate lawyers, or is there some sort of broader idea that we should be able to use our law degrees towards building a more just society?” Sandalow-Ash said. “Part of that is making it financially feasible for us to do so.”

—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at

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