Sowing the seeds of public service at HLS

Illustration - Man walking on grass

Credit: Scott Menchin

Alexander Abdo ’06 remembers the moment he realized how serious Dean Elena Kagan ’86 is about promoting public service. It was last semester, when he invited Kagan to host a basketball game between HLS and Yale Law School faculty, a fund-raising event to finance summer public service jobs for students.

“Dean Kagan agreed to be the master of ceremonies,” said Abdo, who this summer will work for the ACLU in New York City. “It was great because it was our first year and we had no reputation to work off of. She was so supportive.”

For Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public interest advising, a similar realization came in the fall of 2003, when she sent the new dean a schedule of upcoming public service-related events. To Shabecoff’s surprise, Kagan appeared at the very first one. “She showed up, she asked to speak and it was phenomenal,” said Shabecoff. Since then, Kagan has spoken at many other events and emphasized public service in her annual State of the School address, and in a recent letter to alumni. “She has totally raised the profile,” Shabecoff said.

HLS’s enhanced commitment to public service is a result of the school’s strategic plan and began about four years ago with an expanded loan-repayment program for alumni in low-paying public service jobs, a summer job-funding guarantee and a pro bono requirement for all HLS students (see story). Other recent initiatives include more postgraduate and summer fellowships, expansion of the clinical program and the Human Rights Program (see story), and more staff and resources for the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising.

Students and others say that the dean’s enthusiasm–she calls promoting public service “one of my top priorities”–is giving a fresh boost to a school that at times has been perceived as too corporate oriented.

“The dean is in charge of setting the path and the tone at the school. And she’s not only saying public service is important, she’s done it,” said Afia Asamoah ’05, who will graduate with a joint J.D./M.P.P. and then clerk for a judge next year. Public service “is more visible and celebrated in a way that it wasn’t before,” she said. “You can’t minimize the importance of that symbolic message.”

Kagan, who served as associate counsel and then adviser on domestic policy to President Clinton, defines public service broadly and without a partisan bent. It includes everything from pro bono or philanthropic work by a lawyer in private practice to a full-time career in public service. But she wants every student at HLS to get involved.

“My goal is to have 100 percent of the students graduating from this law school committed to doing public service work in their careers, and to have 100 percent actually fulfill that,” she said. She has the same ambition for the legal profession: “I think every lawyer should do this kind of work. It’s my 100-percent goal.”

Corporate Pressure

HLS has long been a leader in promoting public service among students and alumni. It was the first law school with a program to assist graduates with loan repayment, and the first with an office dedicated to helping students find jobs in the public sector. It was also the first–and is still among just a few–to guarantee summer salaries for students who choose to do public service work, giving them the opportunity to try jobs they otherwise might not be able to afford. (The number of students taking advantage of the summer funding has soared: Five years ago, 192 students were funded; last year, it was 352.)

In 2003, about 11 percent of the graduating class took public service jobs immediately after law school or planned to do so after a clerkship. Still, with the flood of law firms eager to hire HLS grads and the financial burden of student loans, some students describe feeling pressure to take private jobs they may not want. Kagan’s leadership is changing that, students and others say. The dean’s promotion of public service, says Professor Carol Steiker ’86, is itself a service.

“Harvard has a somewhat unfair reputation in the world of higher education as not being a place to come to for public service,” said Steiker, special adviser for public service to the dean, a post created last year. “We want to claim the position we should have in the public mind, because so many people have come through here and done wonderful things for public service.”

The pro bono requirement for students, instituted through a faculty vote and part of the school’s strategic plan, has Kagan’s strong support. “I think it’s a good program because it gets people into the habit of doing this kind of work and it ingrains a certain attitude about the importance of this work,” Kagan said. “I think that’s an important thing for a law school to do.”

Students say this leadership is critical, not only in exposing all students to public service but in supporting those who are certain they don’t want to go into private practice. “I almost felt like I was fighting off firm recruiting,” said Leah Plunkett ’06, who last summer worked for the ACLU in Michigan in a job funded through the summer-job program. “I was getting more mail and e-mail than I knew what to do with, and I wasn’t interested in it at all!” Plunkett doesn’t begrudge the many private firm opportunities offered to HLS students, but she worries about those who are funneled into jobs they may not want. “So the more countervailing messages the school can give, the better,” she said.

Kagan agrees. “I do think there are tremendous pressures that push people into large firms, probably more than actually want to be there,” she said. “I worked in a large law firm, and I think it’s terrific for people who want to be there. What’s sad is when people don’t want to but end up doing it.”

Some buckle under financial pressure, which is why the loan-repayment program is critical, Kagan says. Others feel pressure to take law firm jobs that their peers view as prestigious, while yet others succumb to the ease of letting firms court them. “In point of fact, it’s much harder to get a very good public service job than to get a law firm job,” said Shabecoff. “I’m dealing with students who are sitting on offers from the fanciest firms in the country, who are killing themselves to get a public service job.”

“Getting a job in public service is hard,” Kagan agreed. “You have to knock on a lot of doors and make a lot of phone calls. Some students get lazy. It’s our job to say, ‘Don’t get lazy!'”

With more resources for OPIA, including additional full-time advisers, the numbers of students and alumni it assists are soaring. Ten years ago, OPIA staff held 733 appointments with students and alumni looking for guidance in finding public service jobs. By last year, that number had leapt to 1,100, which included advising appointments for 65 percent of the 1L class.

Getting Top Students

When it comes to attracting law school applicants, the benefits of attention to public service work can’t be underestimated, Shabecoff says. Many top applicants are focused on public service and are seeking a school with both practical support and a vibrant public service community. HLS’s Low Income Protection Plan is one of the most generous in the country, says Natasha Onken, assistant director for LIPP and summer funding, and there is no question that it draws students who have carefully examined similar programs at other schools. “Students are very savvy about this,” Shabecoff said. “They look beyond the surface, and a lot of students who do that feel this is the place to come, because of LIPP.”

Plunkett seriously considered rejecting HLS because she wasn’t sure about its commitment to public service. “I was very concerned about coming to Harvard,” she said. But after looking at LIPP and the services offered by OPIA, she changed her mind.

The school improved LIPP further last year by raising the qualifying asset and income limits. Graduates can enter LIPP at any time, so someone who leaves private practice for public service can receive assistance with loan repayment. And both undergraduate debt and debt incurred in joint-degree programs at Harvard are eligible for coverage. Even non-law-related public service can now be covered by the plan, a very important change, says Shabecoff. “It used to be you had to use the unique skills of a lawyer, so that ruled out becoming an elementary school teacher,” she said. “Now you can come in knowing that if you don’t want to practice law, you’re not stuck.”

Kagan, who praises the staffs at OPIA and LIPP, said there will be even more emphasis on public service in the future: “We’re going to keep our foot on the accelerator, and try to improve every one of these programs and provide all the clinical opportunities we should, and keep talking about the importance of this, and why public service is an integral aspect of a lawyer’s life.”

Asked why she sees public service as so important, Kagan said, “Because we live in a world bigger than ourselves, and we should take an interest in that bigger world–in other people, how they’re faring. I think that’s part of being a good person and part of being a good lawyer.

“If you tap every student at this law school on the shoulder and ask whether part of his or her professional life should be dedicated to public service work, most would say yes. That makes me proud, because that’s what they should say. In one way or another, all of us here at Harvard Law School have been fortunate, and we should find a way to give back.”