Harvard Law School launches new Public Service Venture Fund

Martha Minow

Credit: Justin Ide/Harvard University News Office

Harvard Law School today announced the creation of the Public Service Venture Fund, which will start by awarding $1 million in grants every year to help graduating students pursue careers in public service.

The first program of its kind at a law school, the fund will offer “seed money” for start-up non-profit ventures and salary support to graduating J.D. students who hope to pursue post-graduate work at nonprofits or government agencies in the United States and abroad.

“This new fund is inspired by our students’ passion for justice,” said Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow. “It’s an investment that will pay dividends not only for our students but also for the countless number of people whose lives they will touch during their public service careers.”

The creation of the Public Service Venture Fund is the latest step taken by the Law School to offer new forms of assistance for students who are interested in public service careers. In November, Dean Minow announced an increase in the availability of financial aid overall and a broadening of eligibility for the school’s loan relief program. She also established 12 new Holmes Fellowships for students interested in post-graduate public service work. All told, financial support for students interested in public service has increased by $2.75M this year.

To obtain support from the new fund, applicants will submit proposals explaining how the post-graduate grants will help them get started in public service. Minow said the fund will bolster the creative thinking of publicly spirited law graduates at a time when the legal profession itself is becoming more entrepreneurial.

“The new venture fund is exactly in sync with that,” said Professor David Wilkins, the faculty director of the Program on the Legal Profession and the Center on Lawyers and the Professional Services Industry at Harvard Law School. “It’s also in sync with the values emphasized in our curriculum, and with our pro bono ethos and our strong emphasis on clinical education, all of which encourage students to think creatively about designing interesting projects and approaches to helping people.”

The new venture fund follows a three-year pilot program covering the third year of HLS tuition for graduates who commit the first five years of their careers to public service. It will offer targeted and flexible support for students who are embarking on public service careers, said Alexa Shabecoff, Harvard Law School’s assistant dean for public service.

“When jobs are especially hard to come by, the fund may provide fellowships in order to create jobs,” Shabecoff said. “It will also supplement salaries for graduates hoping to work for nonprofits that can only afford to pay for part-time positions. In this ever-shifting legal job market, we will offer our students the ability to land the job of their dreams or create it.”

A number of HLS alumni have started nonprofits straight out of law school or soon thereafter, such as Alan Khazei ’87 and Michael Brown ’88, who started City Year, and Jennifer Gordon ’92 who started the Workplace Project and won a MacArthur ‘genius’ award for her work. “The new Venture Fund honors some of our most successful and inspiring alumni even as it plants the seeds for the next generation of public service leaders and social entrepreneurs,” Minow said.

The fund is planned to start with distributions of $1 million annually and to increase as the Law School works to raise additional resources, Minow said.

The fund will be governed by a board established by the Dean. The board will include senior administrators, faculty members, and alumni from both the private and public sectors. Advisors helping as the school launches the fund include: Susan Butler Plum, director of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation; Alan Khazei ’87, founder and chief executive officer of Be The Change, Inc. and founder and former chief executive officer of City Year; Rebecca Onie ’03, founder and chief executive officer of Project HEALTH, and winner of a 2009 MacArthur ‘genius’ grant; Paul Rosenberg ’79, a partner at The Bridgespan Group in Boston; Ken Zimmerman ’88, a partner at Lowenstein Sandler PC and chair of Lowenstein Sandler Center for the Public Interest; and Alan Jenkins ’89, executive director and co-founder of the The Opportunity Agenda, and former Director of Human Rights at the Ford Foundation, where he managed over $50 million in grants annually in the United States and overseas.

Susan Butler Plum: “This project is simply admirable and inspiring. Harvard Law School sets the national standard for public interest advising and support, and this new approach will enable more graduating students to do more kinds of critically important public service work than ever before.”

Alan Khazei: “In starting City Year, we wanted to make it an ordinary occurrence that all young people would complete at least one year of public service. That program was truly born at Harvard – it’s something we thought about as undergraduates, and then we committed to making a reality after we graduated from Harvard Law School. Through this new venture fund, Harvard Law is moving forward with an idea that I think is absolutely necessary to this nation’s future success – we all need to invest as much as possible in the future of public service. I sincerely applaud Dean Minow and Harvard Law School for making this happen.”

Rebecca Onie: “The Law School’s new Public Service Venture Fund creates powerful incentives and opportunities for HLS students to become public service innovators at a time when our society needs them the most. As an alumna in the field of social entrepreneurship, I see everyday the need for a rich pipeline of new leaders who can identify our society’s most pressing challenges and develop creative, effective solutions for those problems. This Fund breaks new ground in enabling HLS graduates to be great thinkers and contributors not only in traditional legal practice, but also in pursuing multi-disciplinary, unconventional pathways to achieve social justice.”

Ken Zimmerman: “Harvard Law School is once again taking a critically important step to further the next generation of public service leaders. The challenges of public interest service, especially in these demanding times, require the highest level of skill, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Through this fund, the school is making it possible for its students to take on our society’s most significant challenges and reinforcing the school’s long-standing recognition of the importance of public service and public interest work.”

Alan Jenkins: “With this new venture fund, Harvard Law School is putting its money where its mouth is, giving talented new graduates the support they need to be imaginative and inspired new leaders.  Having co-founded a public interest organization myself, I know how difficult it can be to put good ideas into practice.  We need this fund at this critical time in our nation’s history – to help a rising generation of leaders pursue creative solutions to our society’s most dire problems.”