Since 1914, when a group of Harvard Law students formed an organization to provide legal aid to the poor, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau has served as a bridge to the legal profession for nearly 2,000 students. The first year, from rented office space in Central Square, students took on 191 cases and won $4,268.13 for their clients.
Today it is only a short walk from class to the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau offices. But when Tina Platto ’06 enters their doors, she feels she’s traveled a long way toward her goal of becoming a legal services lawyer. Each of the bureau’s 41 members takes an average of eight cases per year and commits 20 hours a week for two years. Students spend “pretty much all of their free time” preparing their cases and running the organization, said Platto, who is the bureau’s president. But she believes it all pays off. Her work with clients has put the issues discussed in class in context and helped her get some of the training she’ll need for a career in legal services.
In 2004, students worked on 348 cases for clients involved in landlord-tenant disputes, domestic relations problems and public benefits claims. Supervised by an experienced and licensed attorney and clinical instructors, they won 80 percent of the cases that went to litigation or administrative hearings.
This year, the bureau–the oldest student-run legal services program in the country–was designated a clinical program by the law school in recognition of its high standards for pedagogy and practice.
One of its most famous alumni, Justice William Brennan Jr. ’31, once said that the bureau “shows the fascinating world of the practitioner … as it actually is.” For Platto and other members working there today, that is exactly what they want to see.