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A Firm Cause

illustrationAsk most Harvard Law School students, and they are likely to tell you that social causes and law firms don't mix. Instead, they say their job search typically presents a stark choice: fighting for justice at a nonprofit or government agency, or earning top dollar in a private-sector firm that lets you donate a few hours to its pro bono program. The way HLS structures its job placement services suggests the same: The Office of Career Services works primarily with large law firms--the choice of an overwhelming percentage of students each year--while the Office of Public Interest Advising handles primarily public interest and government work. Straddling the gap between the two are plaintiff-side and other small law firms, offering a chance to be both private lawyers and activists.

When JustAdvocates debuted, the alternatives finally found their own advocate. The Web site is the flagship of Punctilio Inc., a student-owned and -operated corporation that got its start two years ago in Professor Jon Hanson's Corporations class. Founded by Clare Connors '02 and Danny Grooms '02, Punctilio aims to help put plaintiff-side and other law firm alternatives on the map. The Web site's name reflects Connors and Grooms' idea that lawyers should be more than simply advocates for a position. Instead, they should be just advocates, fighting for their own conceptions of justice.

Sometimes referred to as "private public-interest" law firms, such firms typically handle niche practices like Native American, unemployment, sexual harassment or First Amendment law; others, such as class-action powerhouses Milberg Weiss and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, are the natural adversaries of the big-name defense firms--and offer competitive pay scales to boot. Because the fortunes of most plaintiffs firms can vary widely from year to year--one or two big verdicts can almost literally mean feast or famine--these firms rarely have the resources to maintain the large summer programs typified by those on the OCS roster. Nonetheless, such firms are eager for more HLS students, and in good years, many are willing to pay for them. In fact, Milberg took the unusual step of participating in the on-campus interviewing process this year. Largely due to Punctilio's efforts--including actively encouraging Milberg attorneys to participate in on-campus panels about plaintiff-side law--last year was the first that Milberg had a summer program that included HLS students.

Although the JustAdvocates site provides an alternative to on-campus interviewing, its new leadership said the company isn't trying to compete. "It would be great if more of these kinds of firms could participate in OCI," said Camille Walsh '04, who now serves as co-president of Punctilio along with Charu Chandrasekhar '04. "But most of these firms are not able to afford it. Having one or two of the largest firms participating in OCI doesn't change our mission much."

Indeed, Hanson cautions against viewing JustAdvocates.com as merely a plaintiff-side version of the law school's on-campus interviewing process. "Our ambition is not just to be a resource for large plaintiffs firms, but all practices where people pursue whatever their sense of justice might be," he said. Hanson is Punctilio's chairman of the board and remains actively involved in its operations.

The JustAdvocates Web site provides contact information for over 500 law firms, many of which consist of fewer than 10 lawyers. The site allows students to browse firms by practice area, as well as to upload their resumes. It is funded by on-site advertising, which generates the bulk of Punctilio's profits.

Along with its Web site, Punctilio also sponsors on-campus panels that bring in top names from the private public-interest legal market. This spring, the organization hopes to sponsor not only a career panel but one about reparations litigation for African-Americans as well--part of a broader focus that Hanson, Walsh and Chandrasekhar plan for the organization. "We envision the possibility of there being a Just Advocates Society, consisting of students from law schools all over the country who are interested in thinking about not only what alternative career options are, but also what it is about the legal education process that has made these options seem so obscure," Hanson said.

He argues that plaintiff-side firms have traditionally been absent from HLS recruiting not only because of their lesser financial resources, but also because of the social stigma frequently attached to such firms. "There remains an anti-plaintiffs lawyer mentality that is widespread, and that is reflected in the culture here," he said. "They didn't think they had a shot at recruiting Harvard Law students."

But as these firms have grown, at least some HLS students have managed to find their way to them. "I know that there are a lot of plaintiffs firms doing great work, but Harvard, like most schools, I think, does not have any office or any person who can really help find those places," said Corey Stoughton '02, who spent her 2L summer at Relman & Associates, a civil-rights litigation firm in Washington, D.C. "I've found JustAdvocates.com to be really valuable in filling that niche for HLS students and alums."

Thanks to large settlements such as in the massive tobacco cases of the past few years, Hanson says such firms have found the resources to grow. He added that their increasing involvement in complex and high-cost litigation has also made the need for more lawyers all the more urgent.

"Part of the reason these law firms need to be larger is that if these firms are going to participate in litigation battles against large corporate interests, they have to make a meaningful threat," Hanson said. And if these firms want to hire the best lawyers--Harvard lawyers--most of them are going to need JustAdvocates to help find them.

--Jonas Blank

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