Harvard Law School’s new pro bono requirement is long overdue. Finally forcing students to make a commitment to community service and public lawyering is a laudable goal. By requiring students to donate 40 uncompensated hours of their law school careers to pro bono work, HLS is showing an interest in public service that has thus far been sorely lacking in its choice of career services options. However, the new pro bono requirement is not without a few flaws and loopholes, which should at least be considered before the new office goes online this February.
Most significantly, allowing clinical programs and other public interest-oriented student activities such as the Tenant Advocacy Project and Harvard Defenders to count toward the requirement could be more curse than blessing. Because of the new requirement, these groups are likely to see an influx of new members less interested in the serious legal undertakings they are involved in than in simply filling a quota. While having more bodies around can sometimes be a good thing, it may also be a disruption to these groups as students struggle to find the least difficult and most palatable work to whittle away their hour requirements. And for students already involved in these groups, giving them additional HLS-sanctioned credit for them may well cheapen the experience. Students are involved in a wide range of activities — student government, faith groups, journals and law reviews, intramural sports teams — out of a pure love of doing them. “Paying” students to be involved in public service organizations, in a sense, impugns their motives for getting involved and thereby impugns the motives of the “true believers” who would have done them anyway.
And as to the individuals already involved, an additional 40 hours of work is likely a drop in the bucket in already robust public service careers. Although giving students already committed to pro bono work a break is laudable, it is probably not necessary. If HLS wants to be seriously committed to pro bono, then surely it can ask for a little extra commitment from its most dedicated students.
There are also reasons to doubt the wisdom of displaying students’ pro bono hours on their transcripts. Under the new regime, students’ transcripts will reflect the number of pro bono hours spent above the 40-hour minimum. At a Law School where students and some faculty members already complain about how grades detract from the intellectual experience, creating another numerical measuring stick seems a step in the wrong direction. The likely result, it would seem, will be an unseemly “rat race” to accrue the most pro bono hours possible.
Admittedly, the beneficiaries of all this will be those who most need it — the people and organizations for whom the pro bono services are performed. But they also benefit most from dedicated, intelligent and happy people doing the work. There are other ways — in-person interviews, public interest scholarships, changes in admissions requirements generally — to improve both the quality and amount of pro bono services.
At least one aspect of the pro bono program was perfectly designed: The selection of former LIPP and Summer Public Interest Funding Director Lisa Dealy to run the new program. In Dealy, HLS has an effective, dedicated and competent director who expanded LIPP and helped find summer funding for virtually every student who needed it, even in the extremely difficult climate of last year. If anyone can ensure that the pro bono program runs properly, smoothly and with the most benefit for all involved, it is Dealy.
Whatever tweaks and changes are eventually made to the pro bono program, its implementation is absolutely a step in the right direction.