A Private Battle for Public Service

by Susan Dominus

Public interest work, no longer relegated to the "career basement," is getting new respect at Harvard Law School, thanks largely to the tenacity of Stacy DeBroff . . .

On October 1, just a few days before some 600 law firms will swoop down on Harvard Law School in search of summer associates, all is calm in the spacious corner office of June Thompson, the director of career services. From behind a paper-free desk, Thompson chats freely for about15 minutes without any interruptions from the outside. The students furiously filling out computerized interview-schueduling forms in the lounge outside her office don't knock on the closed door. The phone doesn't ring.

Just 25 feet away, down a narrow hallway, tucked away in the back of Pound Hall, there's a smaller office that also provides placement services, but for students seeking work in public interest, three of whom sit by a table in the hallway waiting for a counseling appointment. Inside the office, a staffer sits on the floor next to the photocopying machine, collating fellowship application forms, occasionally jumping up to answer the phone. Every empty chair, shelf, or file cabinet surface is occupied by binders, piles of papers, or books. Shelves in the student lounge outside the office hold still more books and binders, as well as a cautionary red sign:

These resources are for use in the lounge area
only. The are very expensive to replace and
the Public Interest Office operates on a very
limited budget. Thanks!

Nothing about that earnest, cheerful plea has the ring of the lofty -- and richly endowed -- Harvard Law School. Instead, it sounds a lot like Stacy DeBroff, 35, the director of the Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA), a six-year-old office that offers students pursuing public interest jobs a haven of support and advice. It's DeBroff's full-throated laugh that frequently bursts out from behind her closed office door, spilling into the hallway. And it's DeBroff whom the three students are waiting to see, their eyes trained on the door so that, as one student explains, no one takes their place in line.

The services offered by OPIA -- staffed by DeBroff, assistant director [now director] Alexa Shabecoff, a fellowship advisor, an office manager, and two other attorney advisors -- are in unusually high demand come October. While most Harvard law students will have lined up high-paying, big-firm jobs by the end of fall in their third year, public interest students, a minority at a school like Harvard, face a job market that offers low pay and depends on unpredictable job openings or competitive fellowships. Many students who make the decision to turn down a sure thing in the private sector depend on DeBroff and her fellow advisors to offer them counsel and coach them throughout that waiting game.

More than one person describes DeBroff as a "cheerleader" for public interest, a description that aptly reflects DeBroff's boisterously upbeat personality. Even after a full day of back-to-back counseling sessions, DeBroff still moves (and talks) at high speed, practically joggin out the door to her car, arms loaded down with folders. Known for the sudden, almost startling laugh that marks her presence in any room, she is the kind of person you would count to enliven a flagging party. But in private meetings, say students, DeBroff has the ability to channel that energy into an intense, intimate rapport. The term "career counselor" does not seem to encompass DeBroff's vision of her calling; instead she seems to see herself in the role of a lifeguard, intently focused on rescuing public-interest-minded students from the undertow pulling them out to firms. "Students spend so much time at law school thinking about academics, they don't do sophisticated thinking about what really matters to them," says DeBroff. "People lose their bearings, their vision, their sense of self. What I do is try to figure out how I can persuade them to hold on to their values."

Although DeBroff fosters a relaxed atmosphere in her office -- a basket of chocolates is usually on the table, a paper plate that her son finger-painted hangs on the wall -- the conversations that happen in that space are far from low-key. "I once saw someone go into that office with questions about the punctuation on his resume, and within fifteen minutes, Stacy had convinced him to change his life," says Harvard Law School graduate Shannon Liss, now a law clerk for the federal court in the Southern District of Texas.

The numbers, too, attest to DeBroff's powerful influence on students: Since she arrived at Harvard in 1990, the number of students accepting public interest summer jobs has more than doubled, rising on average from around 100 to around 235 per year. Three and four years prior to DeBroff's arrival, an average of around 25 students per year accepted public interest jobs upon graduations; between 1992 and 1995, an average of about 45 students per year entered the public sector upon graduation.

Moreover, DeBroff's innovations, say three other law school public interest placement counselors, have helped raise the profile of public interest law not just at Harvard but nationwide. By founding the first public interest interest placement office at any school that is not a division of a larger career placement office, DeBroff has given public-interest-minded students a room of their own. Now nearly a dozen schools, including New York University School of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, and Columbia University School of Law, have followed her lead, many modeling their own programs directly or in part after hers. Graduates at other schools may not personally know DeBroff, but thousands have directly benefited from her office's publications and job guides or the ideas she's passed on to their counselors. "Stacy is the pioneer," says Kimberly Emery, assistant dean for public service and director of the public service center at the University of Virginia School of Law. "She's elevated public interest to a new level of respectability at law schools. And she did it starting from scratch."

"If You Build It . . ."
DeBroff's own career as a public interest lawyer was interrupted in 1988 when her husband enrolled in Harvard Business School. DeBroff, who had been working as a lobbyist at the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington, D.C., office, decided she should experience firsthand the highly touted training of a big firm. She recalls one interview when she passed her resume -- magna cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center in 1988, Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University -- to a hiring partner at a major Boston Firm know for its pro bono commitment. He promptly folded her resume into a paper airplane, she claims, and launched it on a nose dive into the carpeting. "'Stacy DeBroff, I've seen your type before,'" recounts DeBroff, who declines to identify the firm. "'You're public interest at heart, and you're going to abscond in a year.'"

DeBroff ultimately accepted a job that year as a litigator at another Boston firm, Palmer & Dodge, where she defied the paper-airplane-flying partner's prediction: She didn't last even a year. After four months, she resigned. "It was really a rather remarkable occurrence," recalls Craig Stewart, who has been chairman of litigation at Palmer & Dodge since 1986. "She was doing very well."

DeBroff, then 28, says she couldn't abide the tedium of associate legal work. "I was facing an incredible combination of anxiety and boredom," she recalls. "I had this epiphany at nine o'clock at night, when I was working on some zoning cases. And I was standing in front of this refrigerator full of prepackaged dinners for associates who were working late, when I thought, 'What am I doing here?' I had this dream of working on Capitol Hill, and now I had this great paycheck, but I was so far removed form the ideals of what I wanted to spend my life doing." DeBroff theorizes that an early childhood tragedy -- the loss of her parents in a plane crash when she was 12 years old -- has made her the kind of person who actually does determine to live each day, as the maxim dictates, as if it were her last. And the Palmer & Dodge epiphany is a case in point. Sure that the firm job was wrong for her, she went back to her desk and began working on her resume.

DeBroff soon lined up a job in the Middlesex County, Massachusetts, district attorney's office. Then she learned from a friend about an open position -- the job of public interest advisor -- at Harvard Law School. DeBroff jumped at the opportunity. Few would have. The law school's new dean, Robert Clark, had originally eliminated the position in a cost-cutting move the summer before, and only reinstated it after four months of arm-twisting, publicity-generating student protests, rallies, and massive letter-writing campaign. The position Clark finally agreed to create (just four days after some 950 letters arrived on his doorstep) was a temporary one that would be reevaluated after six months.

At that time DeBroff didn't have any counseling experience, but she had the right public interest credentials -- in addition to working for the ACLU, while in law school she had coordinated the D.C. bar's pro bono program, helping the city's law firms develop their pro bono practices. She also had an enthusiasm that appealed to the students the dean had appointed to a committee to hire the new advisor. "What really impressed me was the level of energy she was bringing, because I knew we were talking about an uphill climb," recalls Julia Gordon, one of the student protesters appointed to the hiring committee, now deputy director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Public Interest Law.

Though she was hired to work for June Thompson, the director of Harvard Law School's career placement office, not long after DeBroff started in February 1990 she began trying to build momentum for an idea that a public interest advisory committee made up of faculty and students was also advocating: an independent public interest office -- one that would neither report to not share a budget with Thompson's office. To raise the profile of public interest on campus, DeBroff argued, the office needed to be separate from career placement; otherwise, public interest students would continue to feel marginalized in a career office whose resources were overwhelmingly targeted for private firm placements. DeBroff lobbied the holdouts on the public interest advisory committee -- which was in the process of preparing staffing and policy recommendations for the dean -- and also made it clear she would leave if the office remained under Thompson's wing.

To this day, residual tensions over the insurrection remain between DeBroff and Thompson, who declines to comment on her relationship with DeBroff. But that summer, acting on the recommendation of the public interest advisory committee, Dean Clark agreed to fund the first independent public interest law school placement office in the country.

Students quickly flooded in, perhaps because the previous semester's high-profile activism had heightened their interest. "Public Interest Office Swamped," read one headline of a September 1990 issue of the Harvard Law Record, which reported that students faced a three-week wait for an appointment, and that DeBroff had been seeing students nonstop from eight in the morning until eight at night. "It was like a deli counter outside my office," recalls DeBroff. "Take a number." One morning, DeBroff arrived at work to find that someone had hung a sign that bore the mantra of the baseball film Field of Dreams: "If You Build It, They Will Come."

Clear-Cutting a Path for Students
Seeing students was only part of the undertaking. That fall, DeBroff's office also published The Public Interest Job Search Guide, a book that offers 1,600 public interest job listings organized by specialization and state, and includes job search advice and personal narratives written by Harvard alumni about their public interest career.s The book, which has become a key resource at some 130 law schools across the country, clear-cut a path for students who would otherwise have had to stumble their way through a maze of word-of-mouth connections and clues -- indeed, it marked the first time that public interest law opportunities were mapped out in any orgnaized exhaustive fashion. The resources has no doubt helped "hundreds, if not thousands, of students find jobs," says Robert Precht, director of the office of public service at the University of Michigan Law School. Dean Clark flags the publication as DeBroff's most impressive accomplishment to date. "I'm proud of that guide," says Clark. "It makes Harvard look like and be a leader."

In the years following the guide's publication, DeBroff published a small library's worth of titles, continuing to fill in the gaps for students interested in public interest law: In the fall of 1991 her office released Alumni in Action, a collection of narratives from Harvard graduates who were working in fulfilling careers in public interest; the following year, she issued a guide to entrepreneurial projects in public interest; and in 1994 DeBroff published an international handbook, a guide to public interst jobs overseas and jobs in the U.S. with an international focus. More recently, the office has produced The Environmental Trail Guide, as well as guides to cheap living in the major cities where students might take low-paying summer of post-graduate jobs.

Since taking over at OPIA, DeBroff has also turned to students as a resource for massive information-gathering projects intended to cut down on some of the uncertainty of the public interest job market. All students at Harvard who hold a summer job are asked to fill out a survey about their experience, their pay, their employer, and their working conditions, the results of which are organized in binders by state. Last year, DeBroff spearheaded a summer job survey share with 12 other schools, many of whom based their own surveys on DeBroff's original. Since then, the public interest branch of the National Association for Law Placement has taken on the project to expand the survey project nationwide.

Not only is the OPIA office a crucial resource center, but it now also serves as the locus of the public interest community at Harvard Law School. OPIA organizes public interest panels and resume workshops, and coordinates the school's Wasserstein Visiting Fellows Program, in which prominent public interest attorneys are paid a stipend to counsel students. At the beginning of this school year, all students interested in public interest were invited to a dinner party hosted by Shabecoff and DeBroff and DeBroff's home; come spring, students still looking for work as graduation nears will attend DeBroff's annual "Late Market Dinner" (what one public interest alum -- himself a late-market hire -- jokingly calls the "Loser Dinner"), where successful alums return to tell their true tales of happily ended, if lengthy, job hunts.

When Kenneth Bresler, a federal prosecutor in Boston, came to Harvard in 1995 as a visiting Wasserstein public interest fellow, he was surprised to find how much had changed since his own experience at Harvard Law School in the early 1980s. When Bresler was a student, he recalls, the services for public interest students consisted of "file cabinets" with outdated materials, a free long-distance phone you could use to set up interviews, and a public interest director who I never saw in three years there." Says Bresler: "I was sitting there not knowing who else around me was also interested in public interest. DeBroff and her whirlwind of ideas caused a real turnaround."

In fact, the office has now established enough of a presence that, according to DeBroff, some 700 Harvard students stream through its doors annually in search of advice from DeBroff and OPIA assistant director [now co-director] Shabecoff, a former legal aid attorney. In an arrangement that's unusual (but not unheard of) for Harvard, DeBroff now works part-time, turning over many of the office's management duties to Shabecoff, a more wry but equally high-energy counterpart.

In terms of resources, DeBroff seems to maximize what she has, and she describes the dean's funding of her office as "generous." Indeed, Clark has successfully turned his prodigious fund-raising talents to public interest causes during his tenure -- and this year will allocate roughly $190,000 to OPIA's budget. But comments from dozens of public interest-minded students at Harvard and administrators at other law schools suggest that the school still holds a reputation for being inhospitable to public interest students. "Dean Clark isn't know for his support of public interest," says Esther Lardent, president of Washington D.C.'s Pro Bono Institute. "You just don't hear that same sense of institutional energy given to the cause." Lardent compares Harvard to other schools whose administrations she considers more vocally supportive of public interest, like New York University School of Law or Yale University Law School. With so many other factors propelling students toward corporate law, she asserts, it's crucial that students hear a loud, supportive voice at the top rallying for public interest law.

Daniel Greenberg, the director of Harvard's clinical programs from 1987 to 1994 and now executive director and attorney-in-chief of New York's Legal Aid Society, is more politic in his characterization of DeBroff's work environment. "Despite a large number of resources, Harvard as an institution is not instinctively hospitable to public interest concerns," says Greenberg. "Therefore, what Stacy has managed to accomplish is all the more remarkable, given that it's occurred in the context of that institution."

Still, there's no denying that Dean Clark has raised $12 million for public interest causes, including the school's loan forgiveness program and the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center, the school's largest teaching clinic. So why does Clark think he maintains that reputation? "Some of the reaction comes from the fact that I don't talk the talk that students in public interest want to speak," says the dean. Clark says he doesn't believe students should be made to feel they have to choose between "selling your soul or going to do good for the world . . . public interest students think that that means I won't try to help them."

"One of My All-Time Favorite Hires"
Clark, a longtime corporate law professor at Harvard, may or may not be a public interest advisor's dream. But DeBroff has built a strong relationship with him, and he in turn describes her as "one of my all-time favorite hires." That relationship is in part due to DeBroff's savvy: While maintaining close alliances with public interest students, she has distanced herself from any of the formal student protests over the years, says former student activist Shannon Liss. And Daniel Greenberg credits DeBroff with "being wise in making the definition of public interest very broad." He calls DeBroff's recently published guide to conservative public interest law jobs -- which explores emerging opportunities with conservative nonprofits -- "a brilliant move."

To Clark, DeBroff's popularity among students makes her especially valuable. "Inside the school," says Clark, "it's clear that students like that office. They might not like some of the other things we do about public interest, but the certainly support that office."

A walk with DeBroff through Harvard Law School's campus at graduation last May is a testament to her popularity. DeBroff makes her way through the crowded courtyard like a bride at her reception, scanning the sea of students, stopping to hug graduates she's worked with. The student taking her graduation ticket -- not a public interest candidate -- greets her by her name; one graduate grabs DeBroff by the hand and introduces her to her grateful parents as "the reason I didn't drop out of Harvard Law School."

If they don't all credit DeBroff for their degree, many students do credit her directly for their first jobs out of law school. Andrew Greenblatt, 28, who graduated from Harvard in 1993, says DeBroff gave him the preparation and confidence he needed to land his dream job as executive director of the New York office of Common Cause, a not-for-profit, nonpartisan government reform agency. Greenblatt recalls weeks of preparation with DeBroff, who directed him to do a NEXIS search on the organization, put him in touch with a professor at Harvard law School who was an ex-chair of the national organization, and ran through a series of mock interviews with him. "I would have found a job in public interest with or without Stacy," says Greenblatt, who was 25 at the time. "But I would not have found a job where I'm making as much of an impact as I am now. How do you measure that kind of importance?"

Because DeBroff herself had a brief stint at a firm, says one second-year student still deciding which path to take, "you don't feel that she's thinking, "You traitor, how could you go to a firm?" You don't have any guilt when you're talking to Stacy." It's not like she turns off when you start talking about firms." DeBroff says she doesn't see herself as proselytizer for public interest. "My job is not to convert fence-sitters or to somehow be the creator of a public service flame," she says. "The missionary stance does not work, and it's alienating."

Nonetheless, the advice that DeBroff gives during those counseling sessions is rarely given in equivocal terms. Recounts one third-year student who was trying to decide this October between accepting a big-firm offer or launching a public interest job search: "She basically told me, "A large paycheck won't make you happy in the long run. . .There has to be more to it than that." I don't hear that so often."

"I won't say a firm job is going to be totally fine," says DeBroff. "They're in my office because they're worried it's not going to be totally fine. I'll say, "I hope it'll be okay, but if it's not, what's the counterplan? What are the alternatives?" If you don't know the first thing about what that counterplan might be when you graduate, it's going to be even harder to focus on it when you're working fifty hours a week and starting to raise a family."

The Ripple Effect
Until DeBroff started her office, even the schools that were the most sophisticated about public interest employed only one public interest advisor, perhaps someone part-time, says Kimberly Emery of the University of Virginia School of Law. Now, she explains, almost all law schools at least have an advisor, and many of the top schools have independent offices. Lisa Mead, assistant dean of career services at the University of Southern California and chair of the public service committee for the National Association of Law Placement, rattles off a list of independent school offices: University of Virginia, Georgetown, Columbia University School of Law, NYU, Michigan, and Fordham School of Law. DeBroff adds Loyola University Chicago School of Law to the list. "If your office isn't separate, you're always going to be the poor stepchild of career services," says Virginia's Emery, who just last year was given the approval to move her own office out of career services.

Emery says she has modeled her office directly on Harvard's, from the resources she compiles for her library to the use of work study students for low-cost additional staffing. Robert Precht, director of the office of public service at University of Michigan Law School, also says he's spent hours consulting with DeBroff on the phone, borrowing ideas like the Late Market Dinner to boost morale. And Ellen Chapnick, assistant dean and director of the Center for Public Interest Law at Columbia, recalls receiving crucial advice from DeBroff soon after Chapnick arrived on campus.

Chapnick doesn't track the number of students who enter public interest law upon graduation, given that many do so after clerkships or a few years of training at a corporate firm. But she does note that since her office was established in January 1993, the number of Columbia students who have won Skadden Fellowships for public interest law has increased from none or one to at least two every year. The number of students who show up for public interest functions has risen dramatically each year as well, she adds.

As for DeBroff's own office, her part-time status has not stopped her from taking on several new projects, among them public interest on-line roundtables on Law Journal Extra! -- the National Law Journal's web site -- and a book called The Great Firm Escape, which will be a collection of narratives from attorneys who successfully made the transition from big firms to public interest.

While she insists that "every morning, I can't wait to get to work," she does foresee a day when she'll leave Harvard to form some kind of "entrepreneurial think tank," possibly offering consulting to public interest entrepreneurs. It seems logical that DeBroff would prefer to consult for a number of different agencies than run her own nonprofit organization, as some of her friends theorized she would. As DeBroff has proven at Harvard, the more people you counsel, the more wheels you set spinning in motion.

"Stacy is personally responsible for such a countable, concrete set of individuals who went into public interest law because of her, and who have had in their careers real-life, objective, positive contributions to the public interest," says Lori Wallach, executive director of Washington, D.C.'s Global Tradewatch, a division of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, who landed her first job out of law school with DeBroff's help.

"Each one of us has had this ripple effect," Wallach adds. "But Stacy put the pebble in the pond."

Originally published in The American Lawyer, January/February 1997.

Last modified: December 14, 2011

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