Without new advisor, OPIA faces crunch

BY YONI ROSENZWEIG

The Office of Public Interest Advising is both desperate for a hire and not going to settle. Though authorized last spring, the search for a second full-time OPIA adviser still continues. And unless someone is hired after the coming rounds of interviews, students are likely to experience advising delays akin to last year’s record levels.

In an OPIA survey from last year, students made clear that the squeaky wheel needs the grease. Many complained that the wait time to meet a public interest adviser in the fall delayed their public interest career planning for up to five weeks.

Those delays “often mean students miss opportunities,” according to 3L David Arkush. Last year, some frustrated students left the OPIA process, opting instead for the quicker turnaround times at the better-staffed Office of Career Services.

To avoid a repeat of those circumstances, OPIA hopes to have its second full-time adviser in place soon. Adviser and coordinator Benna Kushlefsky predicted that, “if we don’t hire an Assistant Director by November, it will be insane here and the quality of service will suffer.”

Student demand for counseling typically floods OPIA by November, when 1Ls are permitted to contact advisers and upperclassmen are eager to solidify future plans. According to OPIA administrators, last year’s annual survey was the first time students expressed mass disappointment, mostly because of wait times.

According to OPIA Director Alexa Shabecoff, the staffing shortage is especially serious at HLS because, in addition to advising a large student body, OPIA publishes a seminal guide to legal public interest work and takes a leadership role nationally among public interest offices.

The increasing responsibilities for staff members, coupled with increases in demand, put a strain on the staff, according to OPIA staffer Jennie Williamson. Along with Shabecoff, Williamson is OPIA’s only other full-time employee.

After years of formal requests for another full time staff member, relief seemed on the horizon when Dean Robert Clark authorized the hiring of a full-time Assistant Director last April. When filled, the position will be OPIA’s first new full-time position since its inception in 1990.

Many students and staff members regarded the hiring of another full-time adviser as overdue, pointing out that some peer institutions have six public interest advisers, and most have at least three.

The Perfect Candidate

While OPIA currently has eight part-time advisors — more than most schools — Shabecoff said that such advisers can’t gain a general knowledge of the field or of campus resources as easily as a full-time counterpart.

“I can’t delegate administrative responsibilities to part time advisers,” Shabecoff said. Part time advisers typically advise for five hours per week and have specialized areas of knowledge. Instead of specialized advisers, Shabecoff claimed, “we need a generalist career counselor.”

While the office hoped for a hire by July, the search has dragged on. Qualified applicants, Shabecoff claims, must have an unusual mix of legal public interest experience, willingness to perform mundane administrative and technical tasks, a diverse background and an openness to the many fields of student interest.

Openness to the variety of student interests has especially been a problem. “Some people turn pale in interviews when I bring up the kinds of public interest placements that OPIA makes,” Shabecoff said, adding that she refuses to hire anyone who does not share her “big tent” view of public interest work.

Regarding diversity of background, Shabecoff said that, “having worked in legal services, I am reluctant to hire someone with the same background. We are very interested in someone with diverse or international experience.”

OPIA’s selection process is also strict. After being selected from among hundreds of applicants to interview for the position, a prospective hire must also meet with a student and a faculty committee. Until a “perfect candidate” emerges, some are put on hold, awaiting the results of other rounds.

Shabecoff said that an applicant might be accepted following the round of interviews taking place next week. But as the office continues its search, Shabecoff said that she hopes students will spend more time in the office and less time “staring at my closed door.”

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