HLS considers full-time OPIA advisor

BY MIKE WISER

The Administration is “seriously considering” a faculty recommendation of hiring an additional full-time staff member to the Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA), said Michael Armini, director of Commun-ications for the Law School. Whether the recommendation will ultimately be adopted is uncertain, and the proposal comes at a time when a sagging economy and changes to the first-year program have put strains on the budget.

A faculty resolution passed in January called on Dean Clark to “immediately” provide incr-eased staff support and an additional full-time counselor. The resolution, which passed 33 to 1, came a half-year after the dean rejected a similar request from OPIA.

Students and faculty who support the hiring of an additional advisor argue that the current staff is swamped by its duties and is unable to meet student demand for its services. A memo to the faculty authored by five students in favor of the resolution argued that students have sometimes had to wait five weeks for an appointment with Alexa Shabecoff, OPIA’s only full-time advisor and the director of OPIA. The students claimed that the weight of holding 700 to 900 individual appointments a year, compiling 24 publications and organizing scores of events is too much for Shabecoff.

While Shabecoff is the school’s only full-time public interest advisor, she also oversees an array of part-time advisors, undergraduate interns and a support staff of one. Some argue that, with an average of five to six part-time attorney advisors, Shabecoff is hardly alone. But she argues that there is a world of difference between the part-time advisors and a dedicated full-time employee.

While Shabecoff refers to the part-time advisors as “exceptionally smart, talented people,” she said that the part-time nature of their job creates problems.

“We had a couple of people who had to cancel their appointments in the midst of our busiest season, because their other jobs made them have to cancel,” Shabecoff said.

She also said that part-time advisors also don’t have time to learn about what is going on around the office or to fully develop their skills as career advisors.

All of this adds up to a strained OPIA staff and long waitlists for students seeking advice. Shabecoff said that students were polite about the wait to see an advisor, but were sometimes stressed that the delay could hurt their job prospects.

“People are very nice to our office,” she said. “Almost everybody is polite about it, if not mellow about it.”

Part of the push for a second OPIA staff member came from a group of 3Ls who wrote a memo to the faculty supporting the motion. Virginia Davis, one of the members of that group, said that the students were moved to action by the effect OPIA’s current staffing had on students.

“In my role as the president of the Student Public Interest Network [SPIN], I was hearing from many students about their frustration with the delay in getting an appointment at OPIA,” she said. “I was also hearing concerns from many prospective students about the resources at HLS compared to other schools. The SPIN board decided to look into the issue of OPIA resources and quickly determined that there is overwhelming student satisfaction with the services that are provided at OPIA and yet a desperate need for additional staff.”

Andrew Michaelson joined the group of student campaigners after experiencing the long wait to get an appointment at OPIA.

“I waited two months for my appointment with Alexa,” Michaelson said. “HLS students face waits of less than one week to meet with advisors at OCS. Students at NYU face waits of less than one week to meet with their public interest advisors.”

Michaelson also said that he worried about what would happen if Shabecoff left Harvard. “If Alexa were ever to leave OPIA, she would take with her an impressive and valuable list of contacts that she has developed with HLS alumni working in all corners of the legal market,” he said. “HLS needs a second career counselor at OPIA to preserve institutional memory.”

Michaelson, Davis and Professor Elizabeth Bartholet, who sponsored the faculty resolution, argued that an understaffed OPIA office hurts the reputation of the Law School.

“Other leading law schools, for which we once served as a leader in this realm, now put us to shame with their much more adequately staffed public interest offices,” Bartholet wrote in a January 4th memo to the faculty.

The campaign for a second full time OPIA staff member is not new. Supporters of the faculty resolution point to both a 1990 Public Interest Advisory Committee and a 1996 Ad Hoc Public Interest Committee, both of which recommended a larger staff at OPIA.

As recently as last year, Shabecoff submitted a formal request to the dean for an additional staff member. While her request was turned down over the summer, Shabecoff said that she subsequently met with Dean Robert Clark in November.

“He was very receptive at that point,” she said of the meeting.

In December the student supporters of an additional staff member also met with Clark. Davis described it as “a very positive and productive meeting.”

The school’s budgeting office and the dean will decide whether the resolution will be acted on.

Armini said that through the resolution the faculty “was able to provide a very clear message.” Still, he stressed that a decision on whether to add an additional staff member had not been made and that there are a number of proposals competing for funding. The economy and slumping stock market have also put pressure on the school to reign in spending.

“It is a year where there might be some belt tightening. Part of the reason is that the school has embarked on a lot of changes to the first-year program,” Armini said.

Even if an additional OPIA position is created, supporters argue that it is just one step in a larger process of improving the school’s commitment to public interest. As part of the resolution calling for an expansion of the OPIA office, the faculty also called on the dean to create a committee to design a plan to develop an office to implement the mandatory pro bono program that was included in last year’s Strategic Plan.

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