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In a 1967 speech, Harvard Law School Dean Erwin N. Griswold reflected on the state of legal education.
“For some years now, I have been concerned about the effect of our legal education on the idealism of our students,” he said. “They bring to the school a large measure of idealism. Do they leave with less?”
The answer: a resounding yes. While the majority of students today — especially since the 2016 presidential election — enter law school with the idealistic desire to represent underserved clients, very few actually do so after graduation. Only about 10.1 percent of HLS graduates in the past three years have taken public interest jobs. According to the After the JD project, one of the only national studies on legal careers, three years out of law school, nearly 70 percent of lawyers worked at law firms, whereas around 21 percent worked in the public sector or public interest.
Several Crimson pieces have noted this phenomenon, called “public interest drift,” but past analyses miss the larger web of influences that usher law students — and undergraduates — toward big law. This article attempts to capture that bigger picture, assessing the dynamics that reinforce this pipeline to corporate law.
To be clear, I am not criticizing any individual lawyer’s decision to work at a law firm, nor do I believe that HLS perniciously indoctrinates students into the corporate world. Rather, I advocate that, instead of criticizing students’ career decisions as “selling out,” we should treat them as casualties of the corporate stranglehold over American legal education.
Public interest drift can start way back in college. Law school is a stable path that appeals to risk-averse undergraduates uncertain about their careers.
“It is the default option if somebody wants to take the most secure path to a middle class life with a secure income and status,” UCLA law professor Richard L. Abel ’62 said.
Law schools capitalize on students’ risk aversion. For example, undergraduates start applying to law school as early as their junior year of college through HLS’s Junior Deferral Program.
Recent JDP admit Jaya J. Nayar ’24 described her fellow applicants as unsure about attending law school: They “want to take two years to specifically think in the back of their mind with every action they do, ‘Do I really think law school is the right path for me?’”
Uncertain and risk-averse undergraduates become uncertain and risk-averse law students, easily tempted by the glitz and glamor of law firm life. Nayar, who expressed a strong conviction against going into corporate law, acknowledged a 30 percent chance that she will end up in big law.
Corporate gigs usually come up first in the recruiting cycle, and those can be hard to turn down. The process is carefully crafted to entice students. Firms aggressively advertise opportunities through programs like HLS’s Early Interview Program, which makes it easy for students to send in applications, interview, and receive offers at large law firms — all without leaving campus.
“Now you just hit a button, and your resume goes out to dozens or even a hundred different law firms,” HLS professor David B. Wilkins ’77, a researcher on the After the JD project, said.
Big law “just feels like the path of least resistance in some ways,” Noelle M. Musolino, a 3L at HLS, said.
In contrast, prestigious public interest jobs are scarce, and they recruit less emphatically. Wilkins noted that top public interest jobs — at the Department of Justice Honors Program or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, for example — are significantly more difficult to obtain than jobs at big law firms.
Take, for example, Ellen B. Rockmore, a former Sullivan & Cromwell associate. She described herself as “one of those young people who want to do something in the public interest.”
But, “it just felt hard to break into that world. It felt so much easier to break into the law firm world,” she said.
Big law firms spend big money to impress their summer associates, wooing them at expensive restaurants, Broadway shows, and baseball games.
Firms also exert influence on social life at HLS. Harvard Law Central, the organization that plans many of the student events, is sponsored by law firms, as are many lunches and lecture rooms.
Consistent corporate control over the school environment likely has deep psychological effects. Even if students aren’t directly convinced to go into big law, firms’ constant coaxing may sway them into sending in an application.
Studies find that the most idealistic entrants to law school are the quickest to lose their optimism. This may be because the law school curriculum is “designed to destabilize your pre-existing understandings of what you think and believe,” Wilkins said.
Students come to understand that “what the law says is not the same as what your intuitions are about what’s fair and just,” he said.
Thus, as HLS professor Duncan L. Kennedy ’64 famously suggested, first-year law students may experience a “double surrender: to a passivizing classroom experience and to a passive attitude toward the content of the legal system.”
As a result, some students turn away from public interest. Liza M. Velazquez ’92, a partner at Paul, Weiss, said she entered law school with ambitions to wed law with journalism or human rights but law school was training her to become a United States-based lawyer, rather than a transnational policy advocate.
Gigantic law firm payouts also entice students. And in the past few decades, the gap between entry-level associate salaries and entry-level public sector salaries has radically increased.
This large disparity in starting salaries provides a convenient narrative to explain public interest drift: Students come to law school wanting to change the world, but accumulate debt and gravitate to big law to pay off their loans.
However, the After the JD project found that those working in federal government, public interest, or business were equally likely as large law firm lawyers to have paid off their debt seven years after graduation. Indeed, there seemed to be no relation between a law school graduate’s debt and their practice choice; to the contrary, median graduate debt levels for AJD respondents remained relatively consistent across all sectors of law.
Nevertheless, the increasing salary gap is not irrelevant; it likely creates pull factors independent of debt repayment concerns. First, a high price tag confers a certain level of prestige for law firm jobs. Second, as the salary gap widens, it becomes harder for students to justify saying no to a corporate job.
Many lawyers explain their path into corporate law as a kind of post-law school training ground. Seth A. Tucker ’84, a partner at Covington & Burling, said that he contemplated public service but was advised to spend time at a firm before going into government.
“The thought was that you get better training at a firm than some government jobs where you’re just thrown in, expected to find your way,” he said.
Once hooked by law firms, though, lawyers rarely switch to the public sector. The AJD project found that a whopping 70 percent of lawyers who began in big law were still there 10 years later. And of lawyers who left law firms, most migrated to in-house counsel or business, remaining in the private sector.
When asked whether he ever considered a public sector job, Tucker replied, “Because I was enjoying what I was doing, the pool of jobs that I would have considered leaving for became vanishingly small.”
In the end, a complex collage of factors push initially ambivalent students toward large law firms. University of Denver law professor John Bliss put it best when he described students’ decision calculus when applying to large law firms as “tentative, rushed, uninformed, and risk-averse.”
It is disappointing that law firms are the default option. Public interest lawyers, who provide essential services to underrepresented groups, are critical components of the justice system, especially in this moment when the very pillars of American democracy seem to be at risk.
So, to all students interested in using law to change the world: Don’t let yourself get swept up in the corporate current. Be intentional. Recognize the structural forces you will need to constantly resist. Otherwise, you’ll probably wake up in 20 years at a large law firm, whether or not that’s what you really wanted.
Julien Berman ’26, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Adams House. His column, “Harvard’s Professional Pipelines,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.
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