Sowing the seeds of public service at HLS

'Part of being a good person, part of being a good lawyer'
-Dean Elena Kagan

illustrationAlexander 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."

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