Sowing the seeds of public service at HLS, continued

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."

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